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Mathew Dornbush works to advance biofuels, restore native ecosystems

AAAS member Mathew Dornbush focuses his research on invasive plant species in an attempt to understand the best way to restore biological diversity in degraded ecosystems. (Photo: Kimberly Vlies/UW-Green Bay)

At what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful campuses in the University of Wisconsin system, UW-Green Bay is the perfect place to find AAAS member Mathew Dornbush, associate professor of Natural and Applied Sciences, who specializes in plant restoration ecology. The campus is ringed by an arboretum that includes native prairies, woodlands and ponds, while the campus itself includes several greenhouses and native planting areas.

Dornbush is the epitome of a man who loves his job — every aspect of it. "I love writing grants, I love doing the research, I love the field work, I love writing papers," he says. What does he love the most? "I most enjoy mentoring students," says Dornbush, who is also chair of the Environmental Science and Policy graduate program.

One area of Dornbush's research focuses on invasive plant species in an attempt to understand the best way to restore biological diversity in degraded ecosystems. A current project involves studying Phragmites australis (frag-mite-eez), a giant (10-12 foot) reed that is taking over wetland ecosystems.

Dornbush and one of his graduate students are trying to determine how exotic and native Phragmites genotypes affect other plants — whether the mechanism is straight competition for resources, or whether the genotypes produce different feedback effects, resulting in the snuffing out of the native species. "Understanding the mechanism gives you different management options in controlling it," says Dornbush.

Dornbush first became interested in ecology as a child, hunting and fishing with his uncle. "I spent all my childhood outside," he says. "I think my mom was a saint for all the critters I brought home and kept in the basement."

While pursuing his undergraduate degree at Augustana College, courses in field botany and limnology piqued his interest in plants and the role of chemistry in ecology, so he decided to specialize his graduate work in ecosystem ecology. At Iowa State he received a Masters in botany and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology. "I had a great mentor there, James Raich" he says.

Dornbush's appreciation for nature also spurs him to work on climate change projects, specifically promoting the use of biofuels. He's currently working on a project with the Native American Oneida Nation where they have established field-scale biofuel grassland plantings.

Dornbush explains that Northeast Wisconsin is a marginal area within the Midwest for low crop production because of the short growing season and abundance of land prone to spring flooding. "With perennial biofuel grasslands, the growing season can be stretched to its full extent, plus the grasses love the extra moisture, so we can productively use the marginal land that would otherwise produce a low crop yield," he says.

One of the classes Dornbush teaches is Tropical Conservation & Ecology, where every year a group of 12-18 students travels to Costa Rica for two weeks. The students live and work in Carara National Park, helping to improve the park's infrastructure while they study the tropical ecosystems.

"They've helped build a biological station, put in potable water systems, built bridges, and improved roads. We also do outreach with the local schools in the economically disadvantaged rural villages surrounding the park where much of the poaching (particularly of scarlet macaws) occurs."

Dornbush says it's a cultural experience for the students, not just a science course. "I hope they realize that other countries and other cultures can have great solutions that we haven't thought of here. I hope they gain appreciation for the real global challenges of conserving biodiversity."

The consequences of not managing invasive species are expensive, according to Dornbush. For example, Phragmites is a fire-prone grass, and has established itself along the Bay of Green Bay, surrounding significant infrastructure and creating a potential hazard if not controlled.

It's also important to manage invasive species to maintain biodiversity for the future. "Land is finite," says Dornbush, "and the number of pristine natural areas that are left are rapidly declining. We can't just save what's left, we have to take the degraded areas and make them capable of again supporting high native biodiversity."

Climate change is a moral issue for Dornbush, because "those that are going to be least able to adapt to a changing climate are the poorest in the world," he says. He notes that the many benefits of his biofuel project include providing local jobs, creating energy independence, and additional ecological benefits. He explains: "Producing energy from native grassland creates habitat, reduces flooding, creates a sink for carbon to mitigate the fossil fuels we've been burning, and it builds soil structure and fertility so that in 50 years the land can be used to farm crops again. Biofuels create value-added features to the landscape."