As a child, Rich enjoyed exploring creeks, wetlands, and ponds. Now a research ecologist with the Pacific Southwest Research Station, he finds himself doing pretty much the same thing: studying mangrove ecosystems and the plants, fish, and other creatures that live in them. His work takes him far afield to the islands of Micronesia and Palau, where he studies the many benefits these valuable natural systems provide.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in West Des Moines, Iowa, moved with my family to Sedona, Arizona during middle school, and then to Eden Prairie, Minnesota in high school.
Who or what inspired you growing up?
I loved watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or reruns of Jacque Cousteau documentaries. I would spend the entire day pretending to be with Jacque Cousteau exploring and finding strange and interesting creatures in the water, mud, or under rocks. I would come home covered in mud and usually with a collection of pond water, invertebrates, or frogs. In high school and college, the environmental movement was also gaining traction, and I realized I wanted to pursue a career that would help protect aquatic ecosystems.
What do you do in the Forest Service and when did you start working here?
I am technically a research ecologist, though I refer to myself as an aquatic ecologist because all my research focuses on ecosystems with water. I was hired in 2003 to study fish and invertebrates that live in forested mangrove swamps on remote Pacific Islands in Micronesia. Now I also study how mangroves and tropical streams are responding to stressors, such as impacts from non-native fish, sea level rise, deforestation, and changes in rainfall.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Getting to mangrove study sites can be a lot of fun as it involves swimming, climbing, swinging through jungle gyms of roots, or hiking through mud up to our hips. Once we are there, it’s a world full of giant trees with specialized roots, giant fruit bats, colorful birds, and sometimes giant monitor lizards. It’s like the Dagobah Swamp from the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back movie. I enjoy discovering unique plants and animals adapted to live on remote oceanic islands. For example, the fish that live near Pacific Islands recolonize the streams of their birth by scaling waterfalls that can be over 1,000 feet tall using specialized fins that allow them to cling to the rocks as they climb. I also really enjoy learning about different cultures.
How have your education, background, or personal experiences prepared you for the work that you do now?
My education in biology and biogeochemistry provided the training and tools to do my job, and working in different countries and cultures has shown me how to more effectively design experiments so the results will be meaningful to the end-users. I often must problem-solve with the tools and equipment on hand. This is fun sometimes, especially when the solution works!
Why do you think your field is important?
A lot of our research highlights the valuable ecosystem services mangroves provide, including habitat for fish, shrimp, and crabs, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation. At local and regional levels, mangroves are a vital source of food, fiber, and fuel for human populations, especially in remote areas isolated from global supply chains. Mangroves protect upland forests from hurricanes and tsunamis, while protecting seagrass and coral reefs from sediment and pollution runoff from upland areas. At the global level, mangroves remove and store more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any other forested ecosystem.
What are some of the greatest challenges confronting your field?
Mangroves provide food, fiber, and fuel when managed properly. However, in many areas of the world, they are converted into other land uses such as shrimp ponds or deforested for firewood or charcoal. Many of these activities provide short-term economic gains to a few and result in the loss of ecosystem services for many.
Working with communities to develop sustainable management strategies is challenging because of corruption, unclear land tenure, and an inability to enforce conservation or protection of restored areas, especially from illegal harvesting or from outsiders that are not part of the community.
Lastly, trying to increase the diversity of scientists and managers interested in wetland and watershed science has been a challenge. We need to provide better opportunities and incentives for students from underrepresented groups to conduct research in this field.
What are some of the most promising strategies being used by the Forest Service to address these challenges?
We are conducting research to identify which community-based management strategies are most effective at balancing human needs with the conservation of mangrove forests. This involves a bottom-up approach where communities are involved throughout the process.
How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?
The Forest Service is a leader in forest and watershed research, conducting meaningful research to increase our ability to manage for more resilient private and public lands so that they can continue to benefit the American people.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a Forest Service employee?
Make opportunities happen by getting out there. Volunteer on projects, connect with Forest Service people that are doing work you are interested in, and network through student or professional societies.