Science Story

A Century of Innovation, Science and Service

Diane Banegas
Research & Development, U.S. Forest Service
August 11th, 2015 at 5:00PM

Forest Service Research and Development (R&D) is in its centennial year, marking 100 years of science, innovation and service. Research has been part of the Forest Service mission since its inception, with a research arm formally established in 1915. Building upon this foundation, Forest Service scientists have played a critical role in expanding human understanding of forests and improving Earth’s welfare through sound science.

Image of Gifford Pinchot Gifford Pinchot, the founder and first chief of the Forest Service, recognized the important role of science, writing in his autobiography Breaking New Ground: “The greatest contribution of Forest Research is the spirit it has brought into the handling of national resources. Under the pressure of executive work, the technical ideas of the forester at times grow dim. It is Forest Research which has kept the sacred flame burning and has helped to raise Forestry to the level of the leading scientific professions.”

The importance of research to the sustainable management of forests and other natural resources has never been more important. Forest Service science gives the agency the knowledge and tools it needs to mitigate serious threats to our nation’s forests and grasslands, including invasive plants, animals, and insects; disturbances to the land such as climate change, weather events that include hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and catastrophic wildland fire; and population expansion into natural areas.

Forest Service scientists also transfer their research results into the public domain where it enhances U.S. economic competitiveness and benefits the lives of all Americans. Some examples of Forest Service innovation include widely used wood products such as cardboard and plywood and newer items that combine wood’s favorable attributes with other materials, such as engineered wood decking. Forest Service research results also are advancing the field of wood-based nanotechnology used in car and aerospace parts, medical applications such as ligament implants, computer technology such as recyclable integrated computer chips and flexible monitor screens, and 3D printing.

“We have more than 500 researchers working in a range of biological, physical, and social science fields to promote sustainable management of diverse forests and rangelands,” said Carlos Rodriguez-Franco, acting Forest Service Deputy Chief of Research and Development. “We conduct research at scales ranging from gene sequencing to projects requiring satellite images. We deliver knowledge to people so they can make better policy decisions in government and better management decisions on the ground.”

Forest Service R&D has two legacy programs that continue to serve as its foundational underpinnings and set it apart from other federally funded research organizations. The Forest Inventory and Analysis Program is the nation’s continuous forest census, which projects how forests are likely to appear 10 to 50 years from now. The program reports on: status and trends in forest area and location; the species, size, and health of trees across the land; forest land ownership; and much more. The program originated with the McSweeney-McNary Forest Research Act of 1928, which initiated the first forest inventories starting in 1930.

The second legacy program is the network of 82 experimental forests and ranges dedicated to long-term research activities. Most of them are located on the national forests. It’s a far flung network, from the Caribbean, all the way up to Alaska, and over to Hawaii. The entire spread includes nearly 50 degrees of latitude and reflects a big range of temperature and rainfall conditions. These “living laboratories” have generated a giant database of information, with some sites boasting uninterrupted data collection for nearly 100 years.

Carlos Rodriguez-Franco, acting Deputy Chief for Forest Service Research and Development, conducts regeneration counting in Bend, Oregon. These datasets are a magnet for scientists who want to study fire effects, climate change, wildlife biology, invasive species, regeneration, and carbon storage. They are also an asset for long-term studies on watersheds or other landscape-scale projects; for example, an ecosystem’s response to a big disturbance.  The experimental forests and ranges have served as common ground to launch many strong partnerships with universities, other federal agencies, state agencies, tribal governments, private industry, and private land owners.

“Moving ahead, into our next century, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility of delivering scientific information to those who rely on our knowledge to manage land and entire ecosystems wisely and look to the Forest Service for innovative products and tools to advance their science or improve their lives,” said Rodriguez-Franco.