Inspire the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders
Many Northern Research Station scientists can trace their interest in natural resources to experiences with nature. For some it occurs in childhood—spending time with family in the North Woods of Wisconsin or canoeing with the scout troop in the Northeast. For others it may result from interactions with hiking and camping enthusiasts in college. This month we feature four researchers who represent the next generation of Forest Service science and contribute new perspectives on science that will help enhance the health and sustainability of our nation’s forests today and into the future.
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Research Social Scientist
As a social scientist in the Northern Research Station’s “People and their Environments” research unit, Kristin Floress is interested in the places and ways that forests and people intersect. “All of our issues related to natural resources are predicated on human behavior,” Floress said. “Understanding what drives people to engage in conservation and restoration actions has the power to enhance resource management.”
While Floress grew up playing with friends in the ponds and woods of a suburban Chicago neighborhood, it was not until she was surrounded by hiking and camping enthusiasts in college that her interest in nature grew into a career. Her work in environmental interpretation and visitor services positions during her undergraduate years sparked an interest in how people make decisions about natural resource issues that she pursued in graduate school.
One of Floress’ early Forest Service research projects involved the West Virginia Restoration Venture, a multi-year partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to improve the health and resiliency of forest ecosystems where public and private lands meet. “The project demonstrated the importance of relationships in restoration,” Floress said. “Restoration can go further when relationships among individuals and groups allow people to respond quickly to opportunities. We need to take relationships with stakeholders seriously and invest in them.”
As an early career scientist, Floress appreciates the opportunity to do research that contributes to landscape restoration. “Since coming to the Forest Service, there have been very few days when I didn’t go home feeling like what I did today made a difference to resource management,” Floress said.
As Lead Research Technician on the Forest Service’s Silas Little Experimental Forest in the New Jersey Pinelands, Mike Gallagher’s duties range from developing custom sensor arrays for fire behavior monitoring and using satellite data and lasers to measure forest conditions before and after fires to helping visiting researchers develop studies and conducting tours for school children.
Gallagher’s career with the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station happened by chance. In 2008 he was asked by one of his professors to help re-measure pitch pine trees in a pine plantation near the Silas Little Experimental Forest in New Jersey. Two Northern Research Station scientists were also helping with the project. Impressed with his work, the Northern Research Station offered Gallagher a temporary position re-measuring some of the Station’s permanent plots. Ultimately, he successfully competed for a permanent job with the Station.
Gallagher’s dissertation research was conducted in the Pinelands and examined whether remotely sensed burn severity indices could be used to predict fuel consumption and tree mortality in the region, and if seasonality played a role in the patterns of burn severity in fires. His research was unique because few studies like this have been conducted in the eastern U.S. Results of the study will help fire managers in timing prescribed burns in the northeast to optimize desired outcomes of fuels reduction and improved wildlife habitat.
“I got involved in fire effects and risk mitigation research partially because of my role in U.S. Forest Service projects and from experience working on wildland fire crews,” said Gallagher. “One advantage of being a fire manager, that most researchers don’t have, is that they regularly interact with fire on the landscape, and watch as the forest changes post-fire,” Gallagher said. “Working off the back of brush trucks and hearing stories about how the forest had changed and how one fire compared to another made me want to find a way to capture the heart of those stories with numbers.”
Gallagher grew up spending time outdoors, including camping, canoeing, and backpacking with his scout troop. “Liking the outdoors and seeing how things worked, I naturally gravitated toward work in plant nurseries and landscaping where I got to manipulate and observe nature in a more controlled environment,” said Gallagher. “When I realized during a summer job in a forestry research lab that my interests fit well with the development and use of techniques for observing forests, I was hooked on forestry research,” he said.
Research Biological Scientist
For Kate Heckman, soil is a key to unlocking centuries of ecological history. A research biological scientist with the Northern Research Station’s Climate, Fire, and Carbon Cycle Sciences research unit and lead for the Station’s Radiocarbon Collaborative, Heckman uses radiocarbon dating to understand how ecosystems have changed over thousands of years and what that means to the health of forests and people today.
People are the root of Heckman’s interest in science and in environmental research. “I always wanted to do work that had an impact on people’s lives,” she said.
Radiocarbon dating is familiar to many people as the technique used by archeologists to date mummies, or by dedrochronologists to date tree rings. Radiocarbon dating has a much broader application, but how exactly does it work? Everything that is living or was once living contains carbon; in radiocarbon dating, scientists are able to compare carbon isotopes to determine how much radioactive carbon is in a particular object and then calculate how long ago it was living. Radiocarbon can also be used to study how carbon is stored in soils and other carbon pools and can give scientists insight into centuries of ecological change.
The variety of the research with which she is involved is one of Heckman’s favorite aspects of her job. Since 2011, the Radiocarbon Collaborative, a collaboration-based research initiative sponsored by the Northern Research Station, has supported more than 60 different research projects from more than 40 collaborating institutions in the United States and abroad. Heckman has been involved in research spanning a range of 22 unique ecological domains and focusing on scientific disciplines ranging from climate change and the carbon cycle to land management and wildlife conservation. One of her current projects involves partnering with the National Ecological Observatory Network to understand how climate change may affect soil carbon stability. “Helping scientists apply radiocarbon dating in their research gives me an opportunity to interact with a broad group of scientists,” Heckman said.
Christel Kern, a research forester with the Northern Research Station in Rhinelander, Wisconsin is fulfilling her dream of studying forests and sharing what she learns with others who can make a difference on the land. “When I was a child, my Dad’s family had a cabin in the iconic North Woods of Wisconsin. I loved to go up there to swim and pick berries, and go fishing and hunting with my family,” said Kern. “These experiences also nurtured my interests in sustaining these forests for current and future generations.”
Kern’s first project working with the Forest Service was during her undergraduate program in biology at the University of Wisconsin -- Stevens Point. The university encouraged students to look for volunteer opportunities to build their resumes. One day, Kern saw a posting on a job board for a project on ozone effects on trees. She applied and was awarded the internship at the Rhinelander lab of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. That was just the beginning of a journey with the Forest Service that took her from Wisconsin to Olympia, Washington, to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and her current position in Rhinelander.
Kern finds that research with clear implications for on-the-ground forest management especially rewarding. She is very involved in work on the Station’s Experimental Forests—lands set aside for conducting research that serves as a basis for management of forests and grasslands. Working with Native American tribes in Wisconsin on forest management issues is another of Kern’s passions. “When tribes manage their forests, they are thinking about sustaining the land for generations,” said Kern. “They are open to trying new things and strive to manage their forests in a respectful and ecologically beneficial way for the spiritual, financial and wildlife values the forests provide.”
Currently, a project Kern is particularly excited about involves a European technology transfer tool called a “marteloscope.” (Martelo comes from the French word “martelage” meaning “tree marking.”) A marteloscope involves establishing a 1 hectare (2.47 acre) plot where every tree is tagged and measured. This area is then used to train professionals in timber marking (selecting which trees to cut to achieve desired conditions). Kern and collaborators recently received a grant from the Wisconsin Chapter of the Society of American Foresters (SAF) to provide base funding for establishing one or more marteloscope plots on the Argonne Experimental Forest in Wisconsin.
“This technology transfer tool can be used not only by Northern Research Station scientists but by anyone who wants to teach or learn about forest management,” said Kern. “Combining our Forest Service resources with those of our collaborators from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, National Forest Systems, and various private consultants, has made this work possible.”