Faces of the Forest Service

Meet William “Bill” Hargrove

Office of Communication
U.S. Forest Service
July 30th, 2015 at 1:15PM

From an early age, Bill Hargrove was curious. So curious, he read an entire set of encyclopedias from cover to cover, dodged the fate of lightning bolts dancing around his shortwave radio, and became a familiar fixture at his local library. His interests broadened to studying insects and then leapfrogged from working on ecosystems at the watershed level to the much broader scale of landscape ecology. His Forest Service career has tracked a number of forest threats, each providing a unique challenge that has created a legacy of service that inspired curiosity, motivated his work and has ultimately proved very gratifying.

Did you always want to be a scientist? Where did that inspiration come from?

It was pretty clear from a young age that I was going to be involved in the sciences. When I was a little kid, my parents bought an encyclopedia set from a door-to-door salesman. I read the entire set. My dad was an organic chemist who worked on a computer back when computers filled entire rooms. I was interested in science fiction and robots. When I was a little older, I was an amateur radio enthusiast and electronic shortwave listener. I put up antennas all over the yard. They got hit by lightning a lot!

Your parents must’ve been very supportive!

They were. They thought it was a good thing that I sat in my room and read books. They used to drop me off at the library and leave me for many hours. I would always come home with a new, giant stack of books.

You’re an entomologist by training. Why did you decide to study insects?

I knew that I wanted to be some kind of a whole animal biologist. I thought about ichthyology—the branch of biology involving fish—for a long time. But since insects are so important, I thought I would be more likely to make a living if I studied them. At the University of Georgia I learned how insects fit into ecosystems and the world. I also learned about mites which made me think I was visiting another planet. Mites are so bizarre and unusual. You just can't believe they’re real when you're looking at them through a microscope. Some of the astigmatid feather mites look like they came out of a science fiction movie!

How did you enter the field of landscape ecology?

When I was working on my master’s degree, I worked at the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab, an experimental forest in North Carolina. We studied ecosystem ecology at the watershed level. I was also a member of the university’s Institute of Ecology, which was an independent research center. Some of the Institute’s researchers began talking about a new idea: landscape ecology. My fellow graduate students and I weren’t sure what to think about that, because we were ecosystem-level ecologists doing watershed-scale work, and we thought that was the largest scale anybody could ever manage. How could one ever hope to study ecology at the landscape scale? Two things happened that changed my mind: the maturation of Geographic Information Systems, commonly referred to as GIS now and remote sensing technologies, and the explosion of desktop workstation computers. Suddenly, I realized that there really was a way to study ecology at scales larger than ecosystems. So I pursued my doctorate degree in ecology — specifically large-scale ecology.

What was one of your first discoveries?

For three summers, I was part of a large project to study the regrowth of vegetation in the aftermath of the big 1988 wildfires in Yellowstone National Park. When we went into that project, we had a mental model of a wildfire burn as if it was like a nuclear bomb blast and we thought that the vegetation would grow back from the edges. We imagined that small burned areas would recover fastest and that the biggest burned areas would take the longest. Nothing could have been further from the truth. When we compared satellite images with GPS information and field measurements, we realized that wildfire is like a swirling fire tornado. It moves through and leaves in its wake a very mixed pattern of burn severity. And, in fact, some of the places—even ones very close to the center of the large burn patch—are not burned very severely. These areas are the source of seeds for the newly burned places, so that recovery doesn’t have to gradually creep in from the distant edges. This important understanding changed my way of thinking about the nature of wildfires.

As a research ecologist with the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, how do you apply landscape ecology?

I’m the lead researcher for ForWarn, an online system that recognizes and tracks changes in vegetation from coast to coast, all year long. Maps based on NASA satellite imagery show the effects of disturbances such as wildfires, wind, insects, diseases and human causes as well as year-to-year changes due to variations in climate. It's a customized tool that helps managers address the problem of monitoring lands on a large scale.

Because we study so many potential forest threats, I enjoy the broad mission charge of both the Eastern Center and the Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center. The Centers are part of three Forest Service branches—Research and Development, the National Forest System and State & Private Forestry. The Threat Centers are relatively new, so there's also an expectation that we are going to be doing new and different things to develop and provide practical tools that people can use. We act as a clearinghouse for forest health information, and our goal is to grow the knowledge and understanding of many environmental stressors to support forest management. The ForWarn team can pick up the phone and call almost anybody in the Forest Service if we detect an unusual vegetation change and anyone in the agency can call us with a topic of concern. These are very gratifying and motivating factors for me.

What is a typical work day for you?

I typically telework. I do a lot of programming, so I often have two or three jobs running on multiple computers. Each computer has dual 24-inch monitors, so my home office looks like something out of the Crystal Palace or Houston Mission Control. I use GIS, remote sensing and statistical tools, and I spend a lot of time writing, e-mailing and talking on the phone. I usually work at my Forest Service office one or two days a week so I can communicate with folks in person.

What challenges are you currently working on?

I'm interested in the growing problem of invasive species, particularly situations where people are tied down to a small geographic footprint—- such as on an island, a national forest or tribal or reservation lands. I’m concerned about their vulnerability to new plant and animal invasives as well as climate changes. Increased trade and travel activities will also bring new governmental and management challenges. We will need new approaches and efficiencies to deal with the onslaught of invasive species.

If you could have another career, what would it be?

One of my other strong interests is archaeology, particularly ancient Mayan archaeology. As a hobby, I work with a handful of world experts who read Mayan hieroglyphs. The Mayans invented writing in the Americas. It's really cool to be able to read monuments and ceramics to see what they had to say in the year 600.

I see parallels between the development of human languages and computer languages. Could the way human languages have developed provide insights into what we could expect in the next generations of computer languages?

You also work with children through a local science club and other science-related activities. Why do you feel this is important?

I have two kids so I try to think back about what it was that turned me on. When I was little, I went through phases of intense interest in different subjects. My parents fanned those flames of learning, sparking many curious pursuits. It worked for me, and I think that’s what motivates the kids. So I try to fan the flames.

I think to be highly successful, you can't really be a specialist in just one little thing. It takes a person who is very well-rounded with a broad experience in many aspects of liberal arts education. I probably bewildered my parents when I went to college and took a lot of bizarre classes. They must’ve wondered, ‘Why are you studying this strange subject?’ I was making the most of the chance I had. And it paid off by personally enriching the rest of my life.