Leadership Corner

Keeping the sacred fire burning

August 4th, 2017 at 10:30AM

A photo of Carlos Rodriguez-Franco, Deputy Chief, Research and Development
Carlos Rodriguez-Franco, Deputy Chief, Research and Development

I first learned about the U.S. Forest Service in 1974 when I was studying for my bachelor’s degree in forestry in Mexico. At that time, we frequently read articles by Forest Service scientists as well as articles by Europeans and Canadians. My studies taught me that the National Forest System is a resource that does not exist in the rest of the world. The designers of the National Forest System left a unique legacy for future generations and I admire them for their vision.

I came to the U.S. to attend the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. After receiving my doctorate in quantitative silviculture in 1988, I obtained U.S. citizenship and sometime later I went to work for the Forest Service in 2007, where I now serve as Deputy Chief for Research and Development—an organization that is a world leader in forestry research.

Research has been part of the Forest Service’s mission since its beginning. Raphael Zon, the Forest Service’s first research director, wrote: “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.”

I agree with Raphael Zon.

U.S. forests and grasslands are facing some particularly hard challenges today: They include big fires that leave landscapes scorched and susceptible to wide-scale erosion over time when regeneration is delayed and invasion from nonnative species increases; drought conditions across the country are leading to unprecedented tree mortality, especially in California; and, the increasing problem of frequent and intense changes in environmental conditions. These are some of the stresses that are likely to change the structure and function of ecosystems across millions of acres over time with detrimental effects on forest resources and the many ecosystem services they provide, including clean water, and air, scenic habitats, wildlife and recreation among other benefits.

But R&D continues its long tradition of generating the best available science to help managers in the Forest Service and other organizations protect forests and grasslands. Our contributions include “Treesearch”—an online library of about 50,000 peer-reviewed publications by Forest Service researchers. Innovative R&D research is providing the foundation for practical problem-solving in other ways such as:

Water: Forest Service scientists pioneered the first national program to strengthen implementation and monitoring of best management practices used to protect water quality from the diverse range of ground disturbing and management activities that occur on national forest system lands. The agency-wide consistency provided by the monitoring program, which covers all acreage in NFS, is improving water quality and saving millions of dollars to the agency through simplified and streamlined monitoring approaches that contribute to the success of both local and national adaptive management strategies. 

Fire: As the world’s premiere firefighting agency, the Forest Service develops cutting edge firefighting resources. These resources include the Wildland Fire Decision Support System, which is the primary system used by fire managers and analysts to make strategic and tactical decisions on fire incidents. Easy-to-use and web-based, WFDSS accesses and integrates national weather data and forecasts, fire behavior predictions, economic assessments of values at risk, smoke management assessments, and landscape database. In addition, it is responsive to changing fire conditions.

Air: Severe fires produce heavy smoke—a risk for sufferers of asthma and other respiratory problems. To help understand real-time smoke dispersal, the Forest Service developed BlueSky, which is a smoke modeling framework that forecasts smoke concentrations and behavior based on factors such as fire, weather and terrain. In 2015, BlueSky was used across the country during one of the worst fire seasons on record. This effort helped mitigate the harmful effects of smoke for thousands of people across the U.S. BlueSky has also been used to support decision making about when to start and stop prescribed fires.

Invasives: After barren land in the Great Basin burns, it must be quickly targeted by restoration efforts to prevent cheat grass—a highly flammable invasive plant—from carpeting the ground and then fueling more fires. To support such restoration efforts, Forest Service researchers identified strains of native plants that thrive in current local and regional conditions so they can block cheat grass invasions. Thanks to these efforts, native plant species now account for the majority of seeds used in restoration efforts in the Great Basin.

Wildlife: The Forest Service is pioneering the development and application of a sensitive new technology—called environmental DNA, or eDNA—that can be used to detect the presence of threatened and endangered species in ecosystems, and individuals at the leading edges of invasive species takeovers. The eDNA tests can be conducted more effectively and at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. The Forest Service has developed a field-proven eDNA sampling protocol that requires only 15 minutes of effort by a single person to collect a sample.

This innovative technique is allowing us to know almost in real time the changes that are occurring in species composition and helping to develop management practices to recover them.

In closing, providing information and solutions that help sustain forests and grasslands and the services they provide for the American public will continue to be the “North Star” of Forest Service R&D. The research not only advances knowledge for the benefit of the scientific community, it benefits the owners and managers of rural and urban forests and helps link environmental health with community well-being.

I invite you to stay informed of the latest R&D research by subscribing to our monthly newsletter, which is posted on our website.