Jim Archuleta grew up in Junction City, Kansas in the Flint Hills area. He started his career as a district soil scientist on USDA Forest Service’s Umpqua National Forest, where he became interested in using charcoal and biochar to improve the soil quality. This experience eventually evolved into a career in biomass and wood innovation, and ultimately to his current position as the Pacific Northwest Region Biomass and Wood Innovation Coordinator.
Who or what inspired you growing up?
My Grandmother Lena who lived at Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. She often spoke of the natural world and how our mark, or footprint, on it should be like that of the other animals: less persistent on the land. In my work in the Forest Service first as a soil scientist and now in biomass and wood innovation, I try to remember that concept in the work I do.
What do you like to do for fun in your free time?
Mostly try to spend time with my two grandsons.
What is your favorite part of your job?
In my current position as the Biomass and Wood Innovation Coordinator for the Forest Service’s Region 6, it’s finding connections in the area of biomass, especially between projects that, on the surface, seem to have no common connection.
How has your education, background, or personal experiences prepared you for the work that you do now?
I was a non-traditional student. After many years in the construction trades, chasing temp job to temp job, I got my GED and followed my wife Joy into college. She had just left the military and was returning to her higher education goals.
Through Haskell Indian Nations University, I received a Student Career Experience Program opportunity to work as a district soil scientist at Diamond Lake Ranger District of Umpqua National Forest. Following the completion of my Bachelor of Science degree in crop and soil I converted to a full time position on the Umpqua. It was there I became interested in charcoal and biochar as tools for improving the soil. My experience working to improve the nutrient-poor soils of the Diamond Lake Ranger District led to my current position as the Regional Biomass and Wood Innovation Coordinator.
Throughout my work with the Forest Service, I was able to use not only my education, but also my metal fabrication experiences in a series of soil restoration equipment applications. Though it may appear that forest soil science and construction/metal fabrication are very different, I found that my past experience as a welder helped me redesign the subsoiling equipment used to soil restoration, ultimately leading to improvements that enabled us to work cheaper and faster, with less adverse impact on the surrounding landscape. These new tools resulted in five patent proposals now being pursued by the Forest Service.
Describe a recent, current, or upcoming project that you’re currently working on.
Currently we have a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with a private company, Air Burners Inc. Administered by the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. This CRADA manages the soil chemistry effects. My work within the CRADA is to help the company retrofit their existing equipment to manufacture charcoal with a mobile system. Once finished, the equipment will convert non-valued forest biomass into a valued product with no transportation costs to a stationary processing plant while removing excess fuels from the forest.
Describe a professional or personal achievement that you are particularly proud of.
In 2011, I was honored as Field Soil Scientist of the Year with a Rise to the Future award, which recognizes outstanding achievements by the agency’s natural resource professionals. Now in my current job, I hope to bring that level of recognition to our State and Private Forestry Wood Innovations Program.
Why do you think your field is important?
In 2017 the Forest Service hit a dubious benchmark: Using half that year’s budget on wildfire suppression. As it so happens, a good part of the wildfire risk is not from the larger woody material that ends up in saw mills, but rather the smaller non-merchantable material that’s often disposed of through open burning. So finding a way to monetize biomass may help marginal timber sales move forward while allowing restoration work to reach more acres for less cost.
What are some of the greatest challenges confronting your field?
Some of the greatest challenges are moving low-value wood products, such as small diameter saw logs, wood chips, and slash, to consumers and reducing the costs of land management activities.
What are some of the most promising strategies being used by the Forest Service to address these challenges?
The Wood Innovation Program and the three work areas in Region 6: mass timber, bio-energy, and biochar. The program offers up to $250,000 in reimbursable grants for partners who bring at least $125,000 to a project. This economic incentive has been noted by some partners as pushing them toward recent accomplishments that would not have been possible otherwise.
How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?
Often it is perceived the forest will do fine without humans playing a role. Depending upon the ecosystem and the assumed objectives that may not be a sustainable method. Often insects, disease and wildfire, in addition to other disturbances, change conditions. Forest management offers buffers to those disturbances which can offer the Greatest Good to the public.