American Forests’ Science Advisory Board member Dr. Robert Mangold has a long history in the field of forest management, including 23 years with the USDA Forest Service, where he now serves as director of forest health protection. His accomplishments include managing a seed orchard that produced genetically modified stock and serving as editor of the journal Tree Planters’ Notes.

Robert Mangold
Robert Mangold

Why did you choose to go into forestry?

As a suburban kid, most of the trees I saw had fences around them. However, on a trip out west when I was 10, I got the nature “bug,” and in subsequent experiences in the great outdoors, a love of nature ensued. The forest-health part was even more random, but I’m happy it worked out this way.

What has been the most difficult experience in your line of work?

When the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) landed in Chicago, it devastated many trees in the city. Some tree-lined streets had most or all of their trees cut down to slow the spread and help successfully eradicate the pest. Meeting with homeowners whose streets were radically altered was a very moving experience. But the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Forest Service and state and local officials were eventually successful in eradicating ALB.

What is your favorite part of your field?

Although pest problems are a big issue in this country, I am pleased to be able to work with a large group of professionals (more than 200 across the country) to develop programs that have made a big difference on the ground for landowners of all kinds. Our Slow-the-Spread program for gypsy moth has prevented at least 60 million acres or more from imminent infestation so far. We’ve treated more than one million acres of land to augment their ability to fight off southern pine beetles. Other efforts have equally positive effects across the country.

What have you found to be the most surprising thing about forest health and management?

I guess I’d have to say how difficult it is to predict how invasive a new pest invader will be. We’re trying to use science to predict invasiveness, but it’s not working as well as we’d like. Hundreds of insect pests are intercepted in our ports of entry in the U.S. Many fewer get established, and fewer still create problems. If we could more accurately predict which ones to manage — with (APHIS) having the lead for new invaders — it would make our lives easier.

California redwoods
California redwoods. Credit: Brian Gratwicke/Flickr

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

I look back fondly at my days in the field — getting helicoptered into a remote location to inventory a stand for management purposes. We’d see great wildlife and have the woods to ourselves in the dead of winter. It was special. My other favorite would be the time I spent climbing 100-foot trees in California to do tree-breeding work in the 1970s. I look at some of the pictures from back then and sure hope my kids don’t try that.

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

I think we need to find the balance between leaving the forest to fix itself and active management where and when we can afford to. In the West, insects, pathogens and fire have a much larger footprint than we will ever have. In the East, invasive pests will have large impacts on the composition and structure of forests. But our programs will help save communities and improve the health of our forests.

Where was the most interesting place you were able to travel to in the name of science and why?

In 2006, I traveled to Yunan Province in western China. This area has a large Tibetan-Chinese composition. We were about 50 kilometers from Myanamar and India. I was there trying to set up a partnership with the Chinese State Forestry Administration. We were trying to find the origin of the pathogen that causes Sudden Oak Death and had good reason to believe it could be in that area. It was a multi-faceted trip that has led to fruitful cooperation with the Chinese government. And we’re still looking for the origin of that pathogen — in Yunan.

Who is your favorite fictional scientist?

I think that would have to be Dr. Doolittle.  He had a way with animals.

Where is your favorite spot to experience nature?

I love trees. It’s great to have this connection with trees because unless you are in the Gobi Desert, you’ll see a tree everyday. I have to say that the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest, especially Southwest Oregon where I did my doctorate, is my favorite. You’ve got Crater Lake and the North Umpqua River drainage. But it’s hard to play favorites. This country is blessed with beautiful forests — many in “natural” states — and there is about as much forest now as there was in 1900. So thankfully, trees are very adaptable and resilient — it makes our job a bit easier.

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

Probably a doctor of something …