Dr. Paul Barten is a professor of forestry and hydrology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and former associate professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in forest hydrology and watershed management from the University of Minnesota. His contributions to the field include co-authoring “Land Use Effects on Streamflow and Water Quality” (CRC Press, 2007) with Avril de la Crétaz and developing and teaching a popular undergraduate course — Forests and People — at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Why did you choose to go into forest hydrology?
The profession of forestry and the sub-field of hydrology have always been a good fit for my interests, skills and sensibilities. My father set the stage for a career focused on forests and water by taking me trout fishing, hiking, camping and canoeing as a young boy. My great uncle (and surrogate grandfather), a forester, carefully planted the seed when he suggested the New York State Ranger School to me as a young teenager. I have Peter Black and Arthur Eschner, emeritus professors at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry, and Ken Brooks at the University of Minnesota, also an emeritus professor, to thank for their encouragement and mentoring in forest hydrology and watershed management and their example of dedicated service as professors.
Why did you decide to join the American Forests Science Advisory Board?
Research and scholarship have their own rewards, but working with a highly respected organization like American Forests opens a door to a new range of opportunities and experiences. This is especially important in an applied field like forestry and is an excellent source of project ideas, case studies for teaching and new perspectives and insights for writing. In addition, having served on other boards and committees in the U.S. and Canada, I value the opportunity to meet and interact with colleagues from other universities, agencies and conservation organizations.
What aspect of American Forests’ work do you hope to engage with?
Water is the most essential forest product for many people and communities and can serve as the impetus for conservation. I coined the widely used phrase ”from the forest to the faucet” 15 years ago to highlight this imperative. Protecting or restoring the “regulation of streamflow” by forests was one of the primary motives for the 19th century forest conservation movement in which American Forests (then the American Forestry Association) played such a large role. This aspect of forests is as important, if not more important, in the 21st century.
What is your favorite aspect or favorite part of your field?
At the basic science and research end of the spectrum, I continue to be fascinated by the patterns and processes of water movement through forest ecosystems. At the applied end of the spectrum, it is gratifying when forest hydrology and land use impacts research is used to guide natural resources policy and management. A focus on forests, water and people also reminds us to honor our obligations to future generations.
What do you think the biggest issue facing forest health is today?
Confusion and complacency about climate change.
What was the most difficult moment or encounter that you’ve experienced in pursuit of your work?
In 2005, I was asked to chair a committee to review and update the regulations associated with the Massachusetts Forest Cutting Practices Act (last revised in 1986). After two years of very contentious monthly meetings, we hammered out a much improved set of regulations with consensus support. Then, a new governor took office, a new commissioner was appointed and the entire effort — which by then involved a very diverse group of nearly 80 people — went straight into the recycling barrel. As the old saying goes, “I farmed in northern Minnesota for two years and all I got was rocks and experience.”
Do you have a favorite story from your years in the field?
About 20 years ago, I was working on a watershed study in southern New England. Having used up my budget for electronic sensors, I needed to recycle an older mechanical instrument to measure water level fluctuations in a forested wetland. These older precision instruments used a clock-driven drum fitted with special graph paper and a very sensitive float and counterweight mechanism to drive a pen filled with bright purple ink. If this ink were to leak in your field vest it would go through many layers of clothes and leave a purple blotch on your skin that will not wash off for a month or more. So, I left it in the locked plywood shelter. Some time later, a black bear came out of hibernation and — with a sense smell seven times more acute than a bloodhound’s — smashed the heavy plywood shelter, chewed up the plastic bottle of faintly sweet-smelling ink (I found it about 100 feet away) and ended up with a bright purple mouth and muzzle for the next several months. Note to self: put the ink in a Ziploc bag and bring it back to the lab.
Where was the most impactful place you were able to travel to in the name of science and why?
The boreal forest region of northwestern Saskatchewan; I was there at a time in my career when I was beginning to work on large-scale interdisciplinary projects, in this case the project covered up to 5 million acres. This complex landscape of aspen, white spruce and jack pine forests, massive wetlands and lakes, and meandering rivers challenged me to think about fundamental ecosystem processes. Working with the senior staff at Mistik Management Ltd., Cree community leaders, provincial and federal officials and Canadian colleagues from academia and environmental organizations broadened my view of the inherent complexity and practical limitations of sustainable forest management.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be and why?
I would probably still be a land surveyor in the Catskill Mountain region of New York and a woodworker in the winter. I love to be outside in all kinds of weather (except the worst of black fly and mosquito seasons). The historical aspects and the technical and physical challenges all come together when you re-trace a boundary line up a mountain, find the old stone-on-end corner referenced in the deed, notice the ancient chestnut oak with the faint scar of an axe blaze, take in the beautiful view and realize the last person on this spot was likely to have been the first surveyor (with a name like Wynkoop or Van kleeck) in the late 1700s.