Morgan Grove is an avid cyclist. He can simply describe his job in 30 seconds. He can easily make the connection between economic and socio-environmental factors that influence urban living. He is all these things because of his love of the great outdoors and because he’s observed, learned and shared a lot of his scientific expertise during his 17 years with the Forest Service as a research scientist at the Northern Research Station’s field office in Baltimore.
Where do you bike, and why is it so important to you?
Indeed. I love mountain biking, road cycling, and time trialing…it’s all good. I’ve always loved biking ever since being a kid. I grew up in a small town and the only way to get anywhere was by bike. I watched “Wide World of Sports” and dreamt along with the Tour de France riders of being outdoors in the mountains. I love to be outdoors. I love the freedom. I love the speed.
When I worked in Vermont at the George D. Aiken Forestry Sciences Laboratory, my commute was eight minutes along a ridge. To my left, I saw all of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. To my right, I’d see the Green Mountains and Mount Mansfield, the tallest mountain in Vermont. I was in heaven as I biked through the entire state. Here, in the Baltimore-D.C. area, I bike the Capital Crescent Trail in the D.C. area and Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park and use thebike trails through the Pisgah National Forest.
Have you participated in any races? What do you expect from them?
I have a 100-mile road race coming up in May called the “Mountains of Misery” near Blacksburg, Va., in the Jefferson part of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. The last four miles travel up a 12- to 16-percent grade. A friend of mine told me, “an educated person would not sign up for a race that begins with misery in it.” But, for me, it’s “game on!”
If you had 30 seconds to brief your top managers, how would you describe your job?
I work to make cities better and safer places for people to live. Our Forest Service research benefits the public in many ways including having clean water to drink, safer living environments and recreating outside for healthier lives.
You’ve been with the Forest Service 17 years. What was your “aha” moment where you saw the value of connecting economic and socio-environmental factors together?
I can think of two different experiences. Our office participated in a leadership and job training program for inner-city youth where a Forest Service employee partnered with an Outward Bound instructor for eight weeks.
One day while we were walking through the neighborhood where the kids lived, one turned to us and said, “How come we are worrying about all of these forests in the Amazon and no one is worrying about the trees where I live?” I realized there was a fundamental, social justice element to our environmental work. East of the Mississippi, 80 percent of all the land in cities is privately owned. Take Philadelphia for example, where there are 450,000 private forest landowners. Our urban and community forestry mission helps cities address the mix of incentives and regulations that are most effective in motivating people’s behavior in these environments so cities can meet their sustainability goals.
A second “aha” moment involved a recent paper we published. We showed how the number of trees where people live in urban residential areas directly affects their lives. As the amount of tree cover went up in their neighborhoods, the amount of crime went down.
Trees play several roles. They are a symbol to the people who live there that they have a well-cared-for neighborhood. For the criminal, a well-cared-for neighborhood signals a community’s vigilance to protect itself from crime. When trees are an integral part of the landscape, it’s more pleasant to be outside, which in turn draws people outside thus making it unsafe for criminals.
Jeff Donovan, one of my fellow Forest Service researchers in Portland, Ore., found that the relationship between the height of the tree canopy and lower branches also played a significant role. If branches were lower than 22 feet off the ground, it didn’t have as much effect on lowering crime. The reason being people can’t see the street from their front windows when tree branches are too low. We don’t usually think of ourselves as improving safety in places where people live, but our research made this pretty clear.
How did research become your career direction?
It wasn’t part of my early studies but then mid-stream through college, I really hit my stride. I began to see how to make the connections between science and people’s lives, studying the interactions between ecological, societal and economic factors. I have always been interested in applications where science improves people’s lives, so the research and development field was a perfect fit for me.
What’s your favorite part of conducting research?
I like seeing the connections between how trees and landscapes can improve the health, prosperity, and environment in cities and then using these connections to inform policies, plans and designs to make cities more sustainable and desirable places to live. Also, decision makers ask really hard questions and some of the best research ideas we have pursued have come from translating their inquiries and insights into policy and planning efforts. Many times, a group will be looking at solving say maybe four issues but then I take a holistic look at the city’s management, crime and other problems and combine these with cutting-edge science to solve five or six problems through integrated or linked actions. That’s fun!
Do you have a current example of problem solving?
Yes, we’re working on a water sustainability grant with university researchers to regulate the thermodynamics of a city. One idea was to install brick sidewalks and water them with a quarter inch of water every day during heat waves to help reduce a city’s temperature by 20 degrees. The problem was where to find the water. I saw a number of vacant lots and suggested putting cistern tanks in the abandoned lots and basements of vacant buildings. We could then connect the downspouts from neighboring houses, which would provide a source for water to fill the cisterns and reduce storm water runoff as well. I suggested using solar panels on the tops of these buildings as a source of electricity to pump water from the cisterns to cool the brick sidewalks, thus providing a source of energy that is also renewable.
What kind of scientific and professional publications are you involved with?
I have about 110 published articles to date that focus on different aspects of human dynamics related to urban forests. I’m addressing how we can improve watersheds and how the Forest Service can assist with plans to make our cities as green as possible.
What are the highlights of your job?
I actually really enjoy meetings. I get to advance ideas and connect policymakers, managers and scientists together. As researchers, we give the decision makers the scientific basis to make some really exciting decisions. I love that. Also, I had my son out with me one time and he said “Wow, Dad. We are really lucky where we live.” And then he said, “And it’s really cool that the outdoors is your office.”
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.