RICHARD POUYAT received his Ph.D in ecology from Rutgers University in 1992, and an M.S. in forest soils and B.S. in forest biology at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 1983 and 1980, respectively. Dr. Pouyat is the National Program Lead for Air and Soil Quality Research for Research & Development at the USDA Forest Service in Washington D.C. He is currently on a detail to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and was recently elected president of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). Dr. Pouyat is an original co-principal investigator of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a longterm Ecological Research site funded by the National Science Foundation.

Richard Pouyat
Richard Pouyat. Credit: Denice Lombard.

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

The simplest answer — the mission. The mission of the Forest Service is “To sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations,” with a motto of “Caring for the land and serving people.” And, since the majority of Americans, and now the world’s population, live in urban areas, this mission has come to include urban forest ecological systems and their management. I could not have come up with a better mission for the research I do!

As a scientist with training in soil science and ecology, why have you taken time from your research to work in Congress and the White House?

I have always felt that the best available science should be used in the making of public policy with the ultimate goal to benefit people. Through my early experience of working in land management in New York and becoming familiar with environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, I found that the best available science was not always making its way to managers or planners. This was particularly true for cities and surrounding suburbs, where ecosystem services and the use of green infrastructure were not being considered as part of the strategic designs and decisions, nor a tool that urban planners were even aware of in many cases.

In addition, as a scientist working in public policy, I feel strongly that policy makers need the best science information available to assist them in making policy decisions, which, of course, is a lot more challenging than it sounds! The most “aha” moment for me — and I suspect most scientists — is to realize that science is not the only factor in the making of public policy and that other values play a role, and I think rightfully so. What science does offer is perspective to help society understand the myriad of tradeoffs in the making of public policy.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

As a scientist, I love the discovery of how nature works even when humans have modified and altered it. The adaptation and resilience of many species to urban ecosystems and landscapes is astounding. When we look at urban soils, their biological diversity and function is very much comparable to the native soils they have replaced. On several occasions I have taken very accomplished and internationally famous ecologists to natural areas in one of the largest cities in the world — New York — and have blown them away with their natural beauty, integrity and biological diversity.

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

Getting my doctoral degree! I had to be totally engrossed in my research for four years and had to do so without knowing whether my results would answer the questions that I had. So, after all those years of planning and implementing my field research, and then analyzing my research results, I was unsure if all that work would yield earth shattering results, or simply show nothing! A fairly big risk, if you think about it. Ecological field research is exciting, but it comes with many uncertainties and often takes much longer to show results when compared to laboratory research where results are almost instantaneous.

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

Wildfire. After a century of fire suppression, reaching a landscape condition that is under, or close to, natural fire regimes for the various forest types found in the United States is a huge and expensive challenge. This is especially true where private property is at risk of wildfire at the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI).

Who is your favorite fictional scientist and why?

Although he was technically a “First Officer” of the Starship Enterprise, Mr. Spock was the most impressive “science guy” in the Universe! His lack of emotions (or, at least suppression of them) separated him from biases that sometimes get in the way of logical thinking, or in the case of a scientist, objective thinking. Mr. Spock also knew a lot about everything, similar to the stereotype of scientists in the genre of science fiction films of the 1950s.

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

That is an easy one! I would have become a Scholar/ Researcher/ Professor of American history. We relive our history almost every day, and there is so much for us to learn from our past. Our tendency to romanticize rather than learning from our past keeps us from progressing as a society.

Where is your favorite spot to experience nature and why?

Being an urban ecologist who has an affinity for both urban and rural landscapes, I will give both an urban and rural example. New York City has some of the most remarkable natural areas in the northeastern United States. There are amazing places, like Hunter Island in the Bronx, the Ravine in the North Woods of Central Park and the kettle ponds in Alley Pond Park, that will blow you away with their beauty and resilience in the context of a big city. As for my rural example, I would say the Grand Canyon. The beauty and vastness is incredibly humbling.

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

My biggest surprise, and one that continues to amaze me throughout our research of urban soils, is we have found these soils are often as, or in some cases more, productive than the native soils that they have replaced! Humans have introduced all types of essential plant nutrients, such as nitro-gen and calcium, into urban environments, and in the right proportions and in the absence of disturbance, result in very productive and biologically diverse soils.

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

I have often been amazed at city kids who enter a forest for the first time. These streetwise kids are typically terrified when they do! Their inability to see very far, fear of forest critters and unfamiliarity with the forest environment makes them extremely uncomfortable, and I am sure the reverse would be true — having a country kid walk down a city street. Keeping this discomfort in mind, many years ago while working for the Department of Parks and Recreation in New York City, we were in the midst of mapping vegetation for the park system. We had a wonderful administrative assistant who grew up in Harlem and hardly ever had the chance to experience nature at least outside of an urban park. So, one day we invited this office-bound colleague to accompany us to the “field” so she could see for herself what we were doing. We took her to a forest patch in Queens, which may have been Forest Park. After about 100 feet along the trail, a squirrel appeared in front of us. After seeing us, he continued running in front of us down the trail, presumably in fear of us humans; however, our presence was nothing compared to that of a red-tailed hawk that swooped over our heads and grabbed the squirrel and flew off with it. Needless to say, our citybound colleague, who for the first time witnessed “nature,” was not amused!

The views expressed here do not in any way reflect the views of the USDA Forest Service.