DANIEL DEY is a Project Leader & Research Forester in the Northern Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service. He manages a research unit that conducts research on forest management issues and problems in the Central Hardwood Region throughout the Midwest, southern Great Lakes and western mid-Atlantic region. Dey’s personal research focuses on evaluating silvicultural practices to restore and sustainably manage forests, woodlands and savannas. He has done extensive work with collaborators to determine historic fire regimes in oak-/pine-dominated ecosystems throughout eastern North America. Dey integrated this knowledge in developing methods of using prescribed fire to restore native forest communities, favor fire-dependent species, reduce fuels and fire risk, restore natural ecosystem processes and create high quality wildlife habitat.

Daniel Dey
Daniel Dey. Credit: John Kabrick.

What led you to want to work for the Forest Service?

I have always loved being outside, working outside, playing outside and studying nature. I did the usual hunting and fishing as a youth, and teamed up with friends who traded insects from their collections instead of baseball cards. I took all the science classes I could in high school, but was most fortunate to have three years of courses in conservation. That was important in fueling my desire to have a career in natural resources. Typically, I was naïve about career opportunities in natural resources, but I knew that I wanted to manage lands for multiple-use and not just commodity production. That pretty much meant I would be applying for state or federal jobs. I was a member of the late-‘60s and early-‘70s youth movement in environmentalism. I led the first Earth Day observance for my high school in Wisconsin, a state known for its leadership in conservation. I attended Trees for Tomorrow camp sponsored by the Isaac Walton League, read John Muir and lived to be outdoors. When I signed up for my undergraduate major, I had no idea what a forester was or did, but my advisor told me that foresters had better chances of getting jobs than other natural resource disciplines. That’s how and when I became a forester. I feel totally blessed in my work career to have worked in forests across the U.S. and Canada and with great people who love nature with a passion.

What was your favorite aspect of your job?

I like working with managers and land owners to help provide the knowledge and the methods in natural resource management that address the problems they face and deliver on the goals they aspire to achieve on their land.

What was the most difficult moment or encounter that you experienced in pursuit of your work?

I would say that the most difficult encounter or moment that I have had to face is myself, and how I responded to policies, practices, priorities and funding decisions at work that I didn’t agree with. In my youth, I was quick to disagree with management decisions that impacted what I wanted to get done, and I would become outraged at the stupidity. I was impatient to do what needed to be done. It has taken me too long to bridle my impatience, learn to work with people and find ways around barriers to action. I’m a “get it done” kind of guy and don’t enjoy the eternal planning process that often limits what we can and need to get done.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing national forests today?

Being able to actively manage the national forests to sustain, maintain and improve forest productivity, health, biodiversity, integrity and resilience in a timely manner and on the scale of operation that is needed.

Who is your favorite fictional scientist and why?

It would have to be Dr. Emmett Brown in the Back to the Future movies. He was extremely curious, inventive, thinking outside the box, solving problems and creating a few new ones, eccentric, positive, humorous and he ended up with the love of his life and a beautiful family.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be? Why?

I would be a forester who manages lands for public agencies, private landowners or conservation organizations. I love learning about nature, working with natural communities and figuring out how to manage them to produce what people need in a way that is sustainable and improves future health, productivity and resilience of the natural community. It is an exciting challenge to me to integrate diverse landowner or public desires for their forests, orchestrating the diverse ecology of the host of species competing within the community, dealing with invasive species and planning for changes in disturbance regimes such as weather, fire and endemic insect and disease outbreaks.

Where is your favorite spot to experience nature and why?

My favorite nature place is wherever I am outdoors, and the more natural the setting the better. It is ironic that early in my forestry career you would find me out in the forest on most days, tramping through the forests, up and down the mountains, forging creeks and rivers. But, sadly, now I am sitting at my desk working on my computer most days. My current job life just makes me appreciate being outdoors no matter where I am. I have learned to appreciate nature where ever I’m at, even if it is watching a colony of ants crawling up between cracks in the concrete sidewalk on my lunch break.

What is the most surprising thing that you have learned or discovered?

When I was going through my forestry education in the 1970s-‘90s, I was taught about the destructive effects that fire has on forests. So much of the early history of the U.S. Forest Service and state forestry departments was to control woods burning and wildfires; in fact, they were often created to stop the theft of timber, open range grazing and destructive loss of timber by wildfires. Later, we began linking the problems with getting successful or sufficient oak regeneration to the absence of fire. And, from the 1980s to the present, we have become aware of the loss of oak/ pine savannas and woodlands that once were prominent on the landscapes in many regions of the East. How with their loss following regional logging booms of the late-19th to early-20th centuries and fire suppression, that our landscapes lost much diversity in age, structure, composition, natural communities and habitat; that they had become more vulnerable to catastrophic forest mortality with droughts and outbreaks of insects and diseases due to the homogeneity of their condition. Now, I have come full circle as I spend much time learning how to combine prescribed fire with harvesting and thinning of the overstory to promote competitive oak regeneration, and to promote restoration of high-quality ground vegetation communities for savannas and woodlands, while minimizing the adverse impacts that fire can have on timber. Working with forest managers that have wide ranging attitudes about the role of fire in management and restoration makes for great debates and exciting times.

Do you have a favorite story from your years in the field?

There was a time following the Great Flood of 1993 along the lower Missouri and Mississippi Rivers that I got involved in restoring bottomland forests, with an emphasis on ensuring oaks would be present in the future forests that were developing on damaged and abandoned agricultural floodplain fields. One aspect of the approach to afforestation that I was testing was to plant large (more than 5’ tall) container oak seedlings for the perceived advantages they would have in escaping deer browsing and growing season floods. I established my first study in the fall of 1999. And, things looked great that fall and early winter but then we began observing that cottontail rabbits were girdling the seedlings at the base of the tree. The damage by rabbits was extensive in the fields where trees were growing with plants that naturally invaded abandoned crop fields, and less in fields we planted with a short grass cover crop. Well, that next summer we found that most of the damaged seedlings did resprout, only now the sprouts were short enough that deer could easily browse the succulent foliage. I had anticipated that deer browsing could be a problem and, therefore, included these large seedlings in the study. What I never anticipated was the conspiracy between very different wildlife species to aid and abet each other in their fight for survival.