Faces of the Forest Service

Meet John Parrotta

October 7th, 2019 at 12:00PM
In September 2019, Parotta begins a five-year term as President of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), a global network of forest scientists that promotes cooperation in forest-related research.
In September 2019, Parotta begins a five-year term as President of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), a global network of forest scientists that promotes cooperation in forest-related research. Photo by Elena Paoletti.

A research scientist in the agency’s Research and Development deputy area, John Parrotta grew up amid the mixed pine-hardwood forests, wetlands and fields of northeastern Massachusetts. He was able to roam the landscape freely as a child, and as a result, he developed a deep affinity to nature, and to forests in particular. He was recently named President of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), a global network of forest scientists.

 

Who or what inspired you growing up?

When I was growing up, the modern environmental movement was really beginning to make a difference. Air, water and marine pollution, and loss of habitat for endangered species were growing concerns that our leaders could not, and did not, ignore. I was inspired by people – usually scientists – who were able to so effectively communicate their knowledge and concern for the environment to the general public through their writings. People like Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, and Barry Commoner. But the person who really got to me – through his documentary television films – was the filmmaker, researcher and marine explorer Jacques Cousteau.

 

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

When I have free time, I enjoy landscape and botanical photography, music, and travel with my wife Nalini and our daughter Priya. We also watch a lot of movies together.

 

What do you do in the Forest Service and when did you start working here?

For the past 19 years, I’ve served as the national research program leader for international science issues in the Washington Office. This involves providing scientific advice on a variety of forest-related topics to develop U.S. positions in international policy forums. I also work to facilitate international forest science collaboration. But my Forest Service career began much earlier in 1991, as a research forester at the agency’s International Institute of Tropical Forestry. There my research focused mainly on tropical forest restoration, ecology and silviculture, mainly in Puerto Rico and Brazil.

 

What is your favorite part of your job?

In my day-to-day work, I really enjoy interacting with a diversity of people both within the agency and around the world. The variety of knowledge and perspectives that people bring to their work helps to broaden my understanding of how my own efforts can contribute to something much larger.

 

Parrotta relaxing with his daughter Priya (center) and wife Nalini (right) on San Juan Bay, Puerto Rico. Courtesy photo provided by John Parrotta.

How has your education, background, or personal experiences prepared you for the work that you do now?

While my education in the fields of biology, chemistry, ecology and forestry has been relatively focused, my career and personal experiences have given me a much broader perspective on the world. I think this has been indispensable to my work with scientific colleagues across a wide range of disciplines as well as other professionals and decision-makers. Understanding where these colleagues are coming from intellectually and culturally, and appreciating their knowledge and experience, are prerequisites for fruitful collaboration.

 

Describe a recent, current, or upcoming project that you’re currently working on.

On October 5, I began a five-year term as President of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO). IUFRO, established in 1892, is a global network of forest scientists that promotes cooperation in forest-related research to advance research excellence, knowledge sharing, and the development of science-based solutions to forest-related challenges. Our agency has been very active in IUFRO’s work for most of the past century. Since the late 1960s, two Research and Development Deputy Chiefs have held the position of IUFRO President: Dr. James Jemison (1968-1971) and Dr. Robert Buckman (1987-1990). Dozens of Forest Service scientists from around the country currently serve as IUFRO officeholders in a variety of specialized research groups and cross-cutting initiatives.

 

Describe a professional or personal achievement that you are particularly proud of.

I am quite proud of my earlier research accomplishments related to tropical forest restoration. But I also value the work I’ve done more recently to promote better understanding and appreciation of the importance of traditional forest knowledge that has been developed and practiced by indigenous and local communities. Such knowledge, previously ignored by the forest scientists and professionals, has a lot to teach us about sustainable forest management for multiple economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits, including biodiversity conservation.

 

Why do you think your field is important?

The collective knowledge of the forest science community – across all fields – and its application to forest and landscape management challenges is fundamental to realizing our Forest Service mission of “Caring for the Land and Serving People.”  While this has always been true, it is perhaps even more critical than ever as sustaining the health of our forests is becoming ever more complex a task in the face of climate change and other threats.

 

John Parrotta, second from left, leading the delegation of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations to the United Nations Forum on Forests (May 2019). From left to right: Mónica Gabay (Argentina), John Parrotta, Andre Purret (Estonia/Austria) and Mika Rekola (Finland).
John Parrotta, second from left, leading the delegation of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations to the United Nations Forum on Forests (May 2019). From left to right: Mónica Gabay (Argentina), John Parrotta, Andre Purret (Estonia/Austria) and Mika Rekola (Finland). Courtesy photos provided by John Parrotta.

What are some of the greatest challenges confronting your field?

I believe that our greatest challenge lies in convincing a broader swathe of the public of the importance of conserving and sustainably managing our forests and other public lands. I think we need to do a better job of getting our messages across about the connections between healthy forests and other things that people really care about, like clean water, livable cities, human health, stable rural economies, climate change mitigation, and biodiversity.

 

What are some of the most promising strategies being used by the Forest Service to address these challenges?

The Forest Service is making important strides towards greater and more meaningful engagement with the public, including efforts towards collaborative management, emphasis on urban forestry, and its expanded emphasis on communications.

 

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

That we are a highly professional and phenomenally dedicated agency doing the best we can – given the limitations – to manage our public lands and assist private and other forest owners for the benefit of present and future generations.