American Forests Science Advisory Board member Dr. James Kielbaso is professor emeritus in the Department of Forestry at Michigan State University. He has served on the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council, the International Society of Arboriculture’s Board of Directors and the Michigan Forestry and Park Association’s Board of Directors.

James Kielbaso
Credit: James Kielbaso

Why did you choose to go into forestry?    

For love of the outdoors and learning the importance of trees and forests to water, fish and wildlife. As a kid in Dayton, Ohio, I worked with a Junior Sportsman’s club to try to improve the area around an old gravel pit.

What is your favorite aspect or favorite part of your field?    

Having concentrated on Urban Forestry, I’ve learned to appreciate the many values that trees provide cities, large and small, toward improving the environment where we live.

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

When challenging conventional wisdom regarding maple decline some 40 years ago, we were able to convince others that the cause was a deficiency of manganese, not iron.  Also that urban forests are significantly more diverse than surrounding “woodlots” and that a single urban tree is equivalent to about 15 woods trees in ameliorating CO2 problems.

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

Probably the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council’s listening session held in Biloxi, Miss., witnessing the devastation of Katrina, and the aftermath of the Oakland hillsides fire which was in large part due to the planting of too many eucalyptus — which are almost explosive. Observing these events makes us realize how helpless we can be in such natural disasters.

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

When in Austria, I was introduced to unique hats from Romania made by forest loggers from shelf fungus conks. When showing them, usually everyone — even plant pathologists — would misidentify them as buckskin. Another favorite story was many years ago, preparing sassafras tea for a class. Shortly after providing a taste test, I discovered I had contracted poison ivy on my hands when digging the roots to make the tea; my whole career flashed by as I could imagine the news headlines from poisoning a whole class with poison ivy — scary, but luckily it didn’t happen quite that way.

James Kielbaso
Credit: James Kielbaso

What do you think the biggest issue facing forest health is today?      

The changing climate that we seem to be experiencing, which can greatly modify growth factors of plants and their many pests — invasives like EAB, as a recent example.

Where was the most interesting, most intriguing, most impactful or favorite place you were able to travel to in the name of science and why?    

Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River before — and after — completion of the dam.

Who is your favorite fictional scientist and why?     

I, too, as my colleague Dr. McCullough, am impressed by Dr. Shelton Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory,” who in so many ways epitomizes the stereotypical arrogant egghead lacking common sense.

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

I can’t imagine it, but I guess possibly a lawyer trying to untangle people’s legal problems — perhaps especially tree and environmental issues — or a travel agent or guide to places like the Galapagos Islands or Banff National Park.

Where is your favorite spot to experience nature and why?   

Almost any place dominated by trees, with water and providing a feeling of solitude.  Getting to such a place allows a feeling of oneness with nature, even in the middle of Washington, D.C., in Rock Creek Park, which can also provide this serenity.