Research Communication–and Brevity–Earn Prize for Eastern Threat Center Scientist

Serra Hoagland explains her research on forest treatments and Mexican spotted owls in a video recorded during NAU’s 3 Minute Research Presentation Project contest.
Serra Hoagland explains her research on forest treatments and Mexican spotted owls in a video recorded during NAU’s 3 Minute Research Presentation Project contest.

“How good is the research if we can’t communicate it?” says Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center biological scientist Serra Hoagland after taking top honors at Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) 3 Minute Research Presentation Project contest.

The inaugural event at NAU, where Hoagland is pursuing a PhD in forest science, challenges graduate students to explain their research—in plain language—to a general audience in just three minutes. This honing of communication skills results in a better understanding of research significance by the public, including decision makers.

Through a partnership with the Mescalero Apache Tribe, Hoagland is studying the effects of forest treatments on Mexican spotted owls. A threatened species, the owl faces dramatic habitat loss throughout its range in the southwestern United States, primarily due to wildfires. The Mescalero Apache Tribe actively manages their forests in south central New Mexico with prescribed burning and cutting to promote forest health, provide forest products for the tribe, and reduce wildfire risk. In other forests of the Southwest, many forest managers have taken a hands-off approach in order to keep owl habitat intact, which has resulted in overgrown forests—and plenty of fuel. “It’s a classic ‘catch-22’ dilemma,” says Hoagland. “Owls need trees for their nest sites, but too many trees can cause disastrous wildfires.”

Hoagland is gathering data from the Mescalero Apache’s forests and the tribe’s own extensive data archive that provides valuable information about forest treatments and Mexican spotted owl populations on the reservation. Additionally, satellite imagery processed for the Eastern Threat Center’s ForWarn forest monitoring system is providing insight into the specific habitat types that the owls find suitable for nesting. Hoagland is discovering some interesting dynamics in the forest ecosystem and explains, “Thinning doesn’t appear to scare the owls away and could be beneficial as it allows understory grasses to grow and provide a food source for the rodents that owls eat.”

A cash prize awarded from the NAU contest will help Hoagland with expenses for travel and supplies as she completes her work. “Indian forest management practices are a great model for environmental sustainability, and due to the tribe’s sovereignty, they can be very proactive and experimental in their management,” says Hoagland. As she identifies the balance in forest management achieved by the tribe, her research will help other land managers develop practices to sustain healthy forests, people, and, of course, owls.

Read more about her work and the contest, and watch a video of her presentation.

 For more information, email Serra Hoagland at sjhoagland@fs.fed.us.

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