Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Richard Guldin

Office of Communication
April 12th, 2011 at 3:15PM

Meet Richard Guldin, director of Quantitative Sciences for Research and Development in Rosslyn, Va., and his younger brother Jim Guldin, supervisory ecologist and project leader at the Southern Research Station in Hot Springs, Ark. While the U.S. Forest Service is not a family business, it is not unheard of that more than one member of a family dedicates themselves to the agency. It’s a bit more unusual, however, that two brothers wound up on a somewhat parallel path that brought them to similar, yet disparate professions in the agency. Rich focuses on economics as it pertains to the creation and sustainability of forests while Jim focuses on silviculture, the art and science of sustainably growing trees to meet needs –human or ecological. 

How did your individual journeys lead you to the U.S. Forest Service? 

Jim:We both have forestry degrees from Penn State. I can’t speak for my brother, but I went to Penn State as  a forestry major because my big brother did. Rich is five years older me. After I got my Ph.D. at Wisconsin in 1982, I went to the University of Arkansas at Monticello and taught in the forestry program, and worked with the Southern Research Station scientists stationed there. In 1991, the Forest Service made me an offer as a research scientist in Hot Springs, Ark. I came into the agency after 10 years in academia.

Rich: After my undergraduate degree, I was ready to start my masters at Penn State. I had a fellowship, had a committee, everything. Then senior year my draft number came up, which meant I was going into the Army. I ended up with the Army Corps of Engineers, doing landscape level water resource planning, which put me in D.C. working with staffers and members of Congress. That early experience in the Army served me very well. I say I’m on my third tour in D.C.: one with the Corps of Engineers and two with the Forest Service. But let me take it back a little further. My mother’s father, Willie Peter Gerhart, was very much an outdoorsman. He was a small businessman but belonged to a deer hunting club in Pennsylvania that has 2,800 acres. From the 1920s, my mother, Miriam, remembers spending days walking in the woods with her father, and especially large family reunions over Labor Day weekends at that camp.  I remember many a Sunday afternoon walking in the woods with my grandfather, and of course the Labor Day weekends, and hunting and camping in the woods as a child.

Jim: One of my earliest memories is walking though the woods on that property on Labor Day weekend with one of my grandfather’s brothers, who was pointing out the chestnut sprouts and saying, “These are what’s left of a dying tree.” It left an impression.

Rich: George, the eldest son of our grandfather Gerhart, graduated from the Pennsylvania Forest Academy in 1928, one of the foremost state schools of its time providing forestry education. As the eldest male in the family, my mother looked up to him. He was 12 or 14 years older than my mother, but Uncle George was always held in high esteem. So when I thought of becoming a forester it was partly because of my uncle, but also because of my grandfather’s interest and my mother’s interest.

You have a personal family legacy deeply rooted in natural resources. But you also have a public legacy through your uncle.

Rich: Four months after he graduated, he went to Puerto Rico and worked there for nine years leading forest restoration and pioneering tree nursery work. What we have in Puerto Rico in terms of the Luquillo Experimental Forest and Caribbean National Forest has a lot to do with our uncle’s accomplishments. The parking lots at El Yunque Visitor’s Center are where our uncle’s tree nursery beds used to be.

In 1938, he came back from Puerto Rico and joined the National Forest System and worked in Mississippi and South Carolina. 

Another memory I have is about 1983 or ‘84, my son was going to a boarding high school near Lumberton, Mississippi. Driving up there,  I saw this beautiful stand of longleaf pine along US-11. When I mentioned all these longleaf pines along the highway to my uncle, he got a grin on his face and said, “I planted those.” 

That’s quite a legacy, especially as you look at the reforestation of the Caribbean.

Rich: The mahogany trees planted there are because our uncle took steamers around the islands, collecting seeds, and then grew the seedlings in the nursery. They took those seedlings out and planted them in the Caribbean National Forest. I can go there and hug a tree knowing my uncle brought the seed after mahogany had largely been removed from Puerto Rico. 

Uncle George was a great photographer, and he linked photos to his daily diary. He lived until he was 99 and after his death, we talked our cousin into loaning his diary and all his photos to the International Institute of Tropical Forestry so they could digitize those nine years worth of work. It was very detailed. The students doing the digitization put together a video of our uncle and showed some of the work he had done down there. I didn’t know they were doing this. I was down there for a review and they said they wanted me to see a video. I kept my composure for the first two to three minutes. Then they started to show photos of my mom as a teen and my cousins when they were young, and I lost it. I got all choked up. It is a wonderful treasure. 

Jim: Our mother is 90 years old and lives in Silver Spring, Md., and still enjoys sitting out on a bench and looking at the trees. She plants acorns in in flower pots  and has hemlock seedlings growing in her apartment. And we take those out and plant those just for her. She loves it.

What is your favorite part of working for the Forest Service?

Jim: It’s often said that being a project leader in Forest Service Research and Development is one of the best positions that the agency has to offer. We are working on problems that we enjoy. We have tremendous forest research scientists in the field, working in experimental forests and elsewhere. The thrill of hiring good scientists to work on projects of their interest, and seeing research immediately used on forests and private lands is great.

Rich: The thing I derive a great deal of satisfaction from is to create or sustain the places, like the experimental forests, where long-term work can continue. When I was assistant director at the Northern Research Station, I invested a lot of time and energy in New England and making sure the 50, 60, 70 years of work done on those experimental forests was being sustained and cared for in an effective way.

I’ve come through an era where the notion on how to safeguard long-term records has changed from a room lined floor to ceiling with one-quarter-inch hardware mesh because consumption by rodents was seen as a huge threat. Now we are making sure the information is digitalized, catalogued and indexed, available online for anyone who needs to access that information. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from that long-term perspective of doing what I can to help create and manage the information that people are using today in science, like my brother. I also enjoy building programs, such as the forest inventory program.  I want to make sure that when I retire, the data I created during my career will be available into the next century.

Jim:  Both jobs are very important. That is a key element of Rich’s legacy: a state forester clamoring for forest inventory information.  If I were in his shoes I would feel really rewarded by the scope of that legacy. 

Rich: The only thing we regret is that our sister Virginia Soskin, who is middle in age between us, got her degree in art instead of science. 

Jim:  Yes, she’s an artist. But she really gets joy from natural resources from that standpoint.

The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.