This year, American Forests National Big Tree Program launched the Big Tree Working Groups. The Measuring Guidelines Working Group and the Eligible Species Working Group encompass a diverse group of experts who are assisting the national program by addressing some of the tough questions inherent in crowning champion trees, from updating taxonomy and nomenclature to reviewing measuring guidelines and presenting new measuring techniques. In “Forest Frontiers,” we are pleased to introduce our readers to some of the forestry experts who have joined the newly formed working groups.

Measuring Guidelines Working Group member Dr. Philip J. Radtke is an associate professor of forest biometrics with the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), where he teaches forest mensuration, including complex sampling and measurement applications. He received his doctorate in forestry from the University of Minnesota in 1999.


Phil Radtke
Credit: Phil Radtke

Why did you choose to go into your field?

My first job after technical college was as a cook in a big hotel kitchen in Minneapolis. I always noticed what large quantities of food scraps we’d throw out every day. I started reading about sustainable systems, such as composting and waste-water filtration with constructed wetlands. Before long, I decided to return to school and major in natural resources and environmental studies to become part of solutions like resource management and conservation.

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

I love working with people who are looking for the same kinds of solutions to natural resources problems as I am. My job is done mainly indoors, but it also includes fieldwork that sometimes lets me spend time in wonderful natural outdoor places — mainly forests.

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

Knowledge about forests and natural systems is seldom complete. Even though people know a lot about how living things grow and function, our needs are constantly changing; therefore, we always need to learn new things about the world we live in. Every day, it seems I learn about some new, interesting and important questions people need answers for in order to improve our lives and how we balance our needs with the natural environment.

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

Communicating the relevance and validity of model results to non-technical audiences can be a really big challenge. Most of my work involves models, which are equations and computer algorithms that help explain how forests and trees will respond to environmental changes. We need models to help us with decision-making because often, no better answers are available. People have a healthy suspicion of models, but after years of working closely with them, I’ve come to appreciate how they can help us, even though they don’t always give perfect answers.

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

My favorite stories all involve getting lost, caught in storms or having mechanical troubles while far from any help or shelter. Anyone who spends time working in the woods has had to change a tire on a truck along a muddy road, use a winch to pull a vehicle out of a ditch or run a chainsaw to clear a fallen tree from a road or trail. I never tire of telling (or hearing) stories about those kinds of adventures.

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?

My work has taken me to a number of places where scientists study the interactions between forests and the atmosphere — places like carbon flux towers in northern Wisconsin, where researchers study the exchanges of carbon dioxide and water vapor in forest canopies, or the oak savannas of east-central Minnesota, where carbon dioxide enrichment studies are examining how plants respond to increased atmospheric CO2. I love climbing towers to places high in the canopy, where high-tech instruments are continuously measuring what’s happening with forest processes like photosynthesis or respiration.

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

Without a doubt, the biggest threats involve changes in forests caused by human activities, such as introducing pests, diseases and exotic species; replacing forests with suburban developments or country homes; climate change brought about by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; and a general lack of understanding of the cause-and-effect relationships between our decisions and their impacts on forests.

Who is your favorite fictional scientist and why?

Samantha Wildman is a fictional xenobiologist on the television series “Star Trek: Voyager” — yes, I’m a bit of a Trekkie. Besides thinking she has a really cool job — xenobiologists study alien life forms — I’m a fan because the character was inspired by a real-life person who was an organ donor. My family’s been touched by people who generously donated to help others overcome critical health problems. It’s a tremendously generous and thoughtful act, which I admire a lot.

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

I love working with my hands and figuring out how to make things. Maybe I’d be an engineer.

Where is your favorite spot to experience nature and why?

The Superior-Quetico wilderness in Minnesota and Ontario is probably my favorite place in nature. I love all the water in lakes that are so clean and clear you can drink right from them. The changes in the forests from year to year, especially following major storms and wildfires, are great reminders that trees and forests — no matter how magnificent and majestic they may seem — eventually fall over and get replaced by seedlings. And, no matter how impressive the tree, it was once a seedling, too — often not as long ago as you might think!

What is your favorite tree and why?

That’s a tough one. Trees are like songs to me. For a while, I can’t stop thinking of a particular one, but eventually, something changes and I get a new favorite. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time noticing white oaks (Quercus alba). They are like great old songs that you can listen to over and over without ever getting tired of them.