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Meet Randy Kolka

January 4, 2018 at 11:45am

Randy Kolka holds up a muskie he caught on Deer Lake, which is north of Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

Randy Kolka holds up a muskie he caught on Deer Lake, which is north of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Randy Kolka / USFS)

Working out of an office in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Randy Kolka studies how uplands, wetlands, and surface waters respond to changes in the environment. A research soil scientist with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, Randy’s many other responsibilities include ongoing studies in forests and wetlands from northern Minnesota, to the corn fields of Iowa, to tropical forests in Mexico, to wetlands in Indonesia and Peru.

What led you to the Forest Service and when did you start working here?

In the early 1990s, while a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, I worked part-time with the Forest Service on a project that needed some soil expertise. I returned to the Forest Service in 1996 as a post-doctoral researcher on the Savannah River Site in South Carolina working on a large wetland restoration project. Two years later I became an Assistant Professor of Forest Hydrology and Watershed Management at the University of Kentucky and continued to work with Forest Service scientists. However, in 2002, I was able to return closer to home in my current role as research soil scientist with the Forest Service.


Randy Kolka in front of one of the SPRUCE (Spruce and Peatland Reponses under Changing Environments) experimental chambers at the Marcell Experimental Forest in northern Minnesota.

Randy Kolka in front of one of the SPRUCE (Spruce and Peatland Reponses under Changing Environments) experimental chambers at the Marcell Experimental Forest in northern Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Randy Kolka / USFS)

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in northcentral Wisconsin, in the country. I worked on farms as a young teenager and at a grocery store and window and door factory later in high school. I went to Merrill High School, played football, wrestled and played baseball -- go Bluejays!  Also, my wife, Sue, grew up near me and we’ve known each other since seventh grade.

Who or what inspired you growing up?

Although I always had a love for the outdoors, I really didn’t figure out what I wanted to do professionally until I was about 23. My mom and dad and brother instilled good values in me but I was still a bit of a problem child late in high school and early in college. I started college at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, mainly to wrestle. My major of business management was just because I had to declare something.

While in school, Sue and I had our first child, Ashley, which changed my life. After dropping out of school for two years to support my new family working in a factory in Merrill, Sue gave me the opportunity to go back to school. At that point I knew I wanted a career in natural resources and the place to go in Wisconsin for a career in natural resources is the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I found my true calling as a soil-water person at a natural resources summer camp the following summer and the rest is history. Toward the end of my undergrad studies we had our second child, Ryan, and that further motivated me to get through graduate school at the University of Minnesota.

What do you like to do for fun on your free time?

Before Hurricane Maria - Randy Kolka and his wife Susan in San Juan, Puerto Rico during a visit to the El Yunque National Forest to explore the Luquillo Experimental Forest.

Before Hurricane Maria - Randy Kolka and his wife Susan in San Juan, Puerto Rico during a visit to the El Yunque National Forest to explore the Luquillo Experimental Forest. (Photo courtesy of Randy Kolka / USFS)

I still like the outdoors and spend as much time as I can on the water or ice fishing and hunting.  I also like to spend time with my family, and travel. For exercise, I like to cross-country ski in the winter and jog the rest of the year.

What is your highest personal achievement?

I would have to say without doubt my family. I’m so proud of them!

What is your highest professional achievement?

I helped develop a project in Iowa to strategically embed native prairie strips in corn-soybean fields to lessen erosion and transport of agricultural chemicals and excess nutrients while providing other ecosystem services. The project focused on higher plant and animal diversity, more native pollinators, and better habitat for many important species. “Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips STRIPS has really taken off from our early studies demonstrating the concept on the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge.

How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?

We provide the best science to support the management for America’s forests and grasslands.  Although our numbers continue to dwindle, as a group, we are the largest forestry-related research group on the planet. As USDA Forest Service scientists we are proud of both our contributions to helping manage our National Forests but also many other public and private lands, not only in the United States but across the globe.

What are your future career goals?

To continue to provide sound, high-impact science for policy and decision makers at the local, state and national levels, as well as globally. I want my science to contribute to how we, as a planet, will mitigate and adapt to change, especially land use. And to help to protect and conserve tropical forests and wetlands.

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a USDA Forest Service employee?

I can’t think of a more rewarding career. Although it takes a lot of schooling the rewards are well worth it.

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