Forests and woodlands may not be among the first things that come to mind when people think about what grows in Iowa. But according to Billy Beck, assistant professor and extension forestry specialist at Iowa State University, forests hold more value and potential than Iowans often realize.
“Forests are important for many reasons, including water quality improvement, wildlife, timber and aesthetics, and we need to be promoting them more,” Beck said.
Beck began his role in August 2019, after completing his Ph.D. at Iowa State in 2018. He previously held forestry-related jobs in Michigan, Illinois and Kansas, and is excited about the opportunity to grow and promote the value of Iowa’s forestry.
“I really want Iowans to realize that these woodlands are valuable to their property, and they’re a value to their farming enterprise,” he said.
Beck has been learning about the value of forestry since he was 10. One day, his father told him about forestry as a major – kind of out of the blue – but that occasion led to a path that would become his education and career. Like many students, he at first thought forestry careers were limited to a forester or park ranger. But he soon realized that forestry jobs are much more diverse, and include such places as state and federal government agencies, private industry, and nonprofits.
Although the bulk of his work is in extension, he also serves as an assistant professor and enjoys teaching students about the value of forestry.
One of his biggest passions is combining the hydrology and water quality benefits of trees, with the overall benefits of a healthy forest. For example, a recently-funded study of Beck’s is investigating the water quality and quantity impacts of beaver dams – a woody structures that are all-too-familiar to Iowa landowners.
Beaver activity (i.e., damming of streamflow) holds significant potential to impact water quality, specifically in-stream nutrient processing, through reduction of streamflow velocity and increase of water residence time within pools, trapping of sediment and organic material, raising of riparian groundwater tables, and restoration of channel-floodplain connectivity. Thus, dams may represent a “no-cost in-stream conservation practice” that provide compound benefits beyond water quality and quantity, such as enhanced aquatic and terrestrial wildlife habitat and increased riparian vegetation diversity.
According to Beck, few studies have focused exclusively on dam impacts to in-stream nutrient processing and watershed-scale nutrient loading. In addition, studies that investigate dam impacts to water quality and quantity in the agricultural Midwest, where watersheds frequently exhibit elevated nutrient loads, flashy hydrology, and stream channel incision, are exceptionally rare.
The study hopes to identify and quantify key nutrient (e.g., N, P) removal processes associated with beaver dams in central Iowa, and estimate the potential impact of dams on watershed-scale nutrient loading within the agricultural Midwest.
The study is funded through the Iowa Nutrient Research Center (INRC), and long-term, this project aims to provide the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) Science Team with data that clarify the influence of the stream channel and processes associated with in-stream nutrient loss on watershed-scale nutrient loads.
For Beck, this project and others, all highlight the role trees play in water quality, whether they’re along streams and rivers acting as riparian buffers, in a separate woodlands, or in urban locations.
Billy Beck, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Billy Beck is an Extension Forestry Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, where he is responsible for Forestry Extension and Education across all of Iowa’s 99 counties. His research investigates the impacts that trees, woodlands, and forests have on water quality and quantity in the Midwest.