While John Pye grew up in suburban Philadelphia, his family co-owned a farm in northeastern Pennsylvania, where he planted white pine and larch, raised Christmas trees, and watched the forest grow and change. His early discovery that there’s no substitute for seeing trees grow and mature combined with multiple camping outings as a child left him with a deep love for the natural environment, and forests in particular.
What do you do in the USDA Forest Service and when did you start working here?
I manage the computer systems that help the Research and Development program (R&D) of the Forest Service answer questions like, “What science are you working on? What have you accomplished? What results can you share with us?” However, when I joined the agency in 1985, it was as an ecologist researching the bioeconomics of forest health. I worked first on southern pine beetle and air pollution, then later added fusiform rust and wildfires. Shortly after the World Wide Web was invented, I was asked to help the agency make better use of it for its science delivery, and that just snowballed from there.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Forest Service scientists are always discovering new things about the natural world around us and how we can help it continue to provide benefits both here in the United States and around the world. I love using technology to help them get their work discovered and used.
Describe a recent, current, or upcoming project that you’re currently working on.
In 2018 our team began testing some “big data” tools that help us track where our research results are shared and discussed. Tracing how and where our results move from scholarly publications through news stories, policy documents, Wikipedia entries, researcher support forums, and social media helps us improve how we get our science to those who can use it to improve the land and strengthen our connections to the world around us.
Describe a professional or personal achievement that you are particularly proud of.
In 2017 we were able to replace our simple Treesearch website with a new design that works well on mobile platforms, offers powerful new search capabilities, and lets users set up automated notifications when the site gets new content related to their interests. Researchers from across R&D add new peer reviewed articles to it every month, passing the 50,000 publication mark in early 2018. That’s a lot of free information!
How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?
The well-being of each of us is intertwined with the natural world around us. Various agencies and non-governmental organizations work to protect those resources, but the Forest Service gets to do so in the broadest ways, actually shaping public lands to nurture those multiple benefits that working forests provide, whether its quality water, habitat, or rejuvenating experiences.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a Forest Service employee?
There’s nothing like knowing the work you do serves the public good, from your local community to the other side of the world. The Forest Service has loads of opportunities to help carry that out as wildland firefighters, hydrologists, database administrators, wildlife biologists, law enforcement officers, and videographers, to name just a few.
Who or what inspired you growing up?
I grew up surrounded by the influences of Martin Luther King and protests for civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War. Many people showed a lot of courage to push for a better future. That included early leaders in the environmental movement such as Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, who helped create a new appreciation for our environment and different threats that put it at risk. When I was a child, American eagles and bison were nearly extinct and Freon was ruining the planet’s protections from UV. That’s no longer the case today because of these courageous champions for the environment.
What do you like to do for fun on your free time?
Backpacking trips have been a great way for me to get away from roads and development and enjoy some really nice places. I don’t get to do as many longer trips as I’d like, so it’s helpful to live minutes from a state park and in it the Mountains-to-Sea trail, which I help grow and maintain.
My wife and I also have a few German Shepherd Dogs that I train for “Schutzhund.” It’s like a canine triathlon that challenges the dog to succeed in obedience, tracking, and courage. The sport was invented to prove the broad utility of that dog and its relatives for tasks that would be important for many working dogs, such as those used to detect bombs or protect hostages. I’ve also taught my dogs to herd sheep and compete in obedience. For me these are all great excuses to spend quality time with my dog.