Growing up, David Flores never visited a national forest. His parents worked labor-intensive jobs that left little time for or interest in leaving his community and discover the beauty, the peacefulness, the history and culture that is unique to each national forest or grassland. Today he’s ardently involved in making up for lost time. As a social scientist for the Rocky Mountain Research Station, he is focused on human dimension issues such as urban planning, climate change, rural life and ecological change. He is deeply aware of how people are connected to the lands where they live, work and enjoy their natural surroundings. David Flores listens with careful intent and passionate commitment to the stories he hears and ensuring those stories help make a difference in caring for the land.
What led you to working for the U.S. Forest Service?
I entered the Forest Service in 2012 via the Presidential Management Fellowship program, a two-year federal government fellowship program for recent advanced-degree graduates. I was drawn to the Forest Service mission of conservation and service to the public. Joining the research branch of the Forest Service provided a unique opportunity to continue developing research projects that I had initiated as a graduate student.
As a social scientist, what kinds of projects do you work on?
My research focuses on the impact of climate change on vulnerable communities in both urban and rural areas. My urban-related research is based on a study of urban planners in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This research analyzes the networks of communication and the exchanges of knowledge between federal, state and city decision makers in relation to urban planning and green space. My rural-related research examines how ecological changes are impacting groups such as ranchers, tribes, natural resource managers, and other communities in northern Arizona that rely on the land for their way of life.
What is the most memorable project you’ve worked on and why?
The most memorable project that I worked on was last year when I traveled to Puerto Rico and worked on an urban ecology project at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry. I had the opportunity to work with researchers and community organizers on issues related to urban green space and environmental justice. I knew very little about the history, culture and the current state of Puerto Rico before arriving. However, after living in San Juan for six months and traveling throughout the island meeting its wonderful people, I knew that Puerto Rico would be a place for me to continue to do research for the rest of my life.
What is your educational background?
I was a first-generation college student and am the only person in my family to ever attend college. I attended Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista, California, and graduated with an associate’s degree in general education. I then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, and received a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Finally, I completed my masters and doctorate degrees in sociology at the University of Michigan.
Can you describe a favorite moment of discovery in the forest?
That would involve a recent hike through the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. I was raised in an urban environment, and as a child never camped in, hiked through, or even visited a forest. Before joining the Forest Service, I did not understand the value of forested land. However, on my hike through El Yunque, I discovered the beauty, peacefulness and purity of the forest without interruptions from man-made materials.
What do you think people need to know about forests and conservation?
I believe that it is essential for minority groups to know that they are equally entitled to access public national forests. When minorities are included and feel that they are equal participants in the conservation of national forests, then we will thrive in securing healthy and sustainable forests for future generations.
As a child, how often did you visit the forest?
Never. I grew up in a low-income Mexican community and both of my parents worked labor-intensive jobs. My parents did not have the resources, nor did they have the desire, to visit the forest during their time away from work. In other words, visiting the forest never seemed like an option.
What makes you get up in the morning and go to work?
The people who I interview for my research have a story to tell about their relationship to the land and national forests. I have an obligation to tell their stories and use their narratives to influence policy and research. People are passionate about their relationship to the land because it is part of their history, culture and identity. What makes me get up in the morning and go to work is knowing that people rely on me to use their stories to make a difference.
This month celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month. What does your Hispanic heritage mean to you?
My cultural background is Mexican-American. My parents are both from Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico, and I was born in San Diego, California. Spanish was the primary language spoken at home and English was spoken on a daily basis in school. I think that it is important for the Forest Service to recognize Hispanic Heritage Month because Hispanics share a major contribution to the history of this county and to the preservation of natural resources. I am currently stationed in New Mexico where I get to see and experience how Hispanics throughout the Southwest are historically and culturally tied to the land. Hence, the Forest Service as agency has much to gain for including Hispanics into the history and national narrative of our county’s national forests.