Working to sustain and improve our national forests

April 9, 2013

Through innovative scientific research, Theresa Benavidez Jain is ensuring America’s great outdoors – our national forests – will thrive in the future.

As a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service, Jain works directly with forest managers, landowners and the American public to develop and implement new management strategies that must be ecologically sound, socially acceptable and economically viable.

“Forest management is becoming much more complex, with trying to integrate multiple objectives involving sensitive wildlife habitats, fuels, climate change, restoration, sustainability and resilience across large landscapes,” said Jain. “My job is find new ways to think about managing our forests and to use my science and synthesize current and past science to meet these diverse objectives.”

This involves soliciting the views and values of the many different users of the national forests, whether they hunt, drive all-terrain vehicles, enjoy nature or need a quiet place to read and think.

One central area of Jain’s research involves studying the post-fire environment to see how wildlife habitat and plants were affected and what factors contributed to creating new conditions. She looks at how fires alter the flow of carbon and nutrients in ecosystems and affect the potential for weeds to establish or increase. This research contributes to improved conservation, the restoration of areas that have burned and the appropriate ecological use of fires.


Theresa Jain of the U.S. Forest Service (Brandon Glaza/U.S. Forest Service)

Jain said if vegetation is manipulated in particular ways, forests can have a better post-wildfire outcome “where all the trees are not killed, soils are unharmed and habitat for wildlife is enhanced.”

“Fires and fighting them consume 50 percent of the budget in the Forest Service right now. Terrie’s research is very topical and relevant for dealing with this issue,” said Jain’s mentor at the Forest Service, Russell T. Graham. “Terrie has taken a lead nationwide in the research to look at fire effects. It’s exemplary research.”

Jain also conducts assessments to find ways to minimize soil erosion and determine how natural and man-made activities impact the forest ecosystem. To address these and other issues, Jain implements studies using the Forest Service’s national network of experimental forests. These forests are living laboratories that enable scientists to conduct long-term research and make scientific discoveries.

“We have been practicing forestry since the early part of last century, so we have a good idea of what trees are valuable economically or which wildlife habitat can be resilient, but we also know that at times we may not want to manage our forest like we did in the past,” said Jain. “It is both art and a science.”

Jain admits that her work takes time to evolve and the questions associated with forest management are not easy to answer. However, she has begun to see implementation of her concepts and ideas in several forests in the northwestern United States.

“She is an intelligent scientist who cares immensely about the job, about making a difference and being a good steward of taxpayer dollars,” said Graham.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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