Dr Jim Reaves, Deputy Chief for Research and Development, US Forest Service


Forests are a tremendous asset to any nation; not only are they vital to the health of our environment but they are a significant contributor to our economies. US Forest Service, Deputy Chief for Research and Development, Dr Jim Reaves, describes how the service is ensuring the sustainability of US forests for the benefit of the nation today and in the decades to come


As a starting point, could you outline the US Forest Service’s mission and its chief objectives?

The Forest Service’s mission is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

We have six chief objectives:

• Accelerated Restoration: Accelerated restoration efforts demonstrate a shared vision where environmentalists, forest industry and local communities are working together to build healthier forests and contribute to local economies. Restoration will ensure that our forests are resilient to wildfire, while also providing healthy watersheds and bolstering rural economies

• Restoration Partnerships: The increased restoration work will benefit the environment and people, with more resilient ecosystems, improved watersheds and wildlife habitat, hazardous fuel reduction, and outputs of forest products. We hope accelerated restoration activities will bring all of our partners together, working as allies for forest conservation

• Fire: Fire management is central to meeting the Forest Service mission – conserving natural resources, restoring ecological health and protecting communities. Restoring ecosystems includes thinning, prescribed fire, and in certain locations when conditions are right, we will even use natural wildfire to reduce fuels and restore ecosystems that benefit from fire

• Water: Watersheds on national forests and grasslands are the source of 20 per cent of the nation’s water supply, a value estimated to exceed US $27 billion per year. 60 per cent of the nation’s forests (about 430 million acres) are privately held. Two thirds of the clean water supply in the US is found in stream water from precipitation that is filtered through forests. The Forest Service is working across agency boundaries in 7,000 communities around the US to help improve state and private forests for healthier watersheds and healthier water

• America’s Great Outdoors Initiative: The Forest Service response to the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative includes the following:

– Use the Watershed Condition Framework to identify priority watersheds and develop watershed action plans that focus investments to maintain and improve watersheds

– Demonstrate large landscape restoration approaches through application of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program

• Biofuels: Scaling up a biofuels industry will depend on a sustainable biomass supply, cost-effective conversion processes, development of decision support tools, and investments to fund project development. All of this will take more investments in research and development

Invasive species are amongst the largest contributors to environmental decline and species loss. Historically, what have been the biggest threats to native species in the US?

Our Invasive Species Research Program provides the scientific information and tools needed by regulators, managers, and the public to reduce, minimise or eliminate the introduction, establishment, spread, and impact of invasive species on forests and rangelands. For example, hemlock wholly adelgid (HWA) and emerald ash borer (EAB) have had major impacts on eastern tree species. HWA has wreaked havoc on the hemlocks throughout the East because hemlocks play a major role in keeping streams cool, which in turn maintains the native fish and other stream fauna in balance. EAB has decimated the ash trees throughout the North-eastern states. This could impact important uses of ash wood products such as major league baseball bats and Native American basket-making materials.

America has invested heavily in bioenergy and biomass to help secure its energy future. How does this impact upon the objectives of the Service?

Our nation’s forests are a strategic asset that can help achieve and enhance US energy security, economic opportunity, environmental quality and global competitiveness by providing raw material for the renewable bioenergy and biobased products sector. This sector is a growing source of green jobs in the US economy that contributes to energy security and greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

Woody biomass is a critical renewable resource and, through commercially available technology, can produce thermal and electrical energy, and with the right research it can provide liquid/gaseous bioenergy and bioproducts to offset the use of fossil fuels. What is critical for our nation is that removing biomass keeps our forests healthy and more fire resistant too.

Could you explain how you form successful partnerships with land owners, land managers and industry to protect water, air and soil?

There are three keys for forming successful partnership: (1) understanding the problems the owners and managers need to solve; (2) understanding what interests are at risk; and (3) understanding what information they lack to make decisions on solutions that mitigate those risks. For the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program, we have worked with key stakeholders to create both a National Users’ Group and Regional Users’ Groups in different parts of the country. At annual meetings of these groups, programme leaders listen and seek to understand all the dimensions of the problems, the varied interests at risk, and the information gaps that exist and how these gaps differ among stakeholders.

The increase in droughts caused by a warming world will negatively impact upon your research. What has your research into fire and fuel uncovered?

Research in this area contributes fundamental understanding of fire behaviour, fire ecology, wildland fuels, smoke and other fire emissions, as well as understanding of fire dynamics in ecosystems affected by climate change, insects, and disease. Fire research results are delivered to fire managers through an integrated support system, known as Wildland Fire Decision Support System, for use in real-time decision making on wildland fire incidents. The information and tools developed through this programme assist managers and policy makers in making cost-effective and environmentally-sound fire management decisions that sustain and enhance resource values and minimise negative impacts. New knowledge and technology improves on-the-ground operations by providing better risk assessments to support fire season planning and appropriate management response; evaluating the effects of fuel treatments restoration activities, and post-fire emergency treatments.

While needed measures may differ by situation, emerging results indicate that fuel reduction treatments can reduce fire severity and potentially reduce rate and area of spread. In many cases, thinning to reduce stand and crown density followed by slash reduction has been found to be an effective treatment.

To date, what have been the most influential wildlife studies conducted by the R&D unit? How have they helped shape conservation policy?

In the 1980s and 1990s, Forest Service wildlife research provided the information required to understand the habitat needs of red-cockaded woodpecker species and their responses to various habitat management practices. Research also provided new tools and technologies such as artificial cavities and translocation techniques that have been instrumental in the recovery of this species. Studies by US Forest Service researchers were used heavily in the development of the 2003 Revised Recovery Plan and have been the basis for management policy on public and private lands throughout the South. Now longleaf pine ecosystems are managed with tools like prescribed fire, thinning, and artificial nest boxes, and a range-wide strategy for translocations is being administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Not only are the birds surviving and increasing, but the ecosystem is flourishing too.

A priority area for your research lies in the use of nanotechnology. How can these tools benefit forestry at large?

Recently, ‘wood-based nanotechnology’ has been highlighted as a critical part of this initiative with the Forest Service playing a lead role. The enormous potential and benefits of wood-based nanotechnology focus on three primary areas: forest restoration to help control catastrophic wildfires; new jobs; and investments to diversify and strengthen America’s economy.

What do you consider to be the R&D Program’s greatest achievement in the last few years? What was the impact?

Our long-term engagement in forestry research, many times within Experimental Forests and Ranges, has meant that Forest Service research is now impacting environmental sciences nationally and worldwide.

It was mostly because of Forest Service Research that the Long-Term Ecological Research and National Environmental Observatory Network networks developed, and more recently the Urban Long-Term Research Areas. Forest Service units in these networks have revolutionised ecological research and contributed to the formation of the new discipline of socioecology. Without this research we would not understand the assembly and disassembly of the northern hardwood forest, a phenomenon happening in response to environmental change in the northeast.

New approaches and solutions to achieving healthy cities are being developed in Baltimore, Maryland, New York, and other cities where Forest Service research is empowering people and promoting jobs associated with green infrastructure management. The fundamental science contributions behind these accomplishments involve the development of a better understanding of the relationship between natural and anthropogenic disturbances and ecosystem function and resilience.

What are the main issues that the Program will tackle in the coming years? Have preparations already begun?

Every 10 years the Forest Service prepares an assessment of the nation’s renewable natural resources, looking at current conditions, recent trends, and making projections for the next 50 years. Key findings from the 2010 Resources Planning Act Assessment include: urbanisation, climate change, biodiversity and population growth.

What are the broader impacts of the Forest Service’s efforts?

I strongly believe that Forest Service research responds to the public’s desire to make smart investments that will pass on to future generations clean water, wildlife, natural resources from our nation’s forests and grasslands, provide critical information on the Nation’s urban forests and play a critical role in our country’s economic growth.