Faces of the Forest Service: Bill Hargrove

Once a skeptic, a landscape ecologist is now a leader in his field

Bill Hargrove is an entomologist by training, and now conducts ecological research at the landscape scale.
Bill Hargrove is an entomologist by training, and now conducts ecological research at the landscape scale.

Bill Hargrove likes to wear “loud” shirts, as he describes them—playful prints that reflect the colors and shapes of the natural world as well as a sense of humor that’s hard to match. But it isn’t just his shirts that cause Hargrove to stand out in a crowd. His big ideas and passion for taking them to the next level have made Hargrove a prominent researcher in the field of landscape ecology—a broad discipline that examines patterns and processes across large areas. That wasn’t necessarily his plan, though.

When he was pursuing a Master’s degree in entomology, he worked at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in North Carolina. When he first heard some researchers talking about landscape ecology (a new idea at the time), he was skeptical. “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?!” he says. But as technology began to explode, so did the possibilities.

“Two things happened that changed my mind about landscape ecology: the maturation of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) 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 a PhD in ecology—large-scale ecology.”

Now, Hargrove applies landscape ecology every day as a scientist with the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center in Asheville, North Carolina, a position he has held since 2006. He is the lead researcher for ForWarn, an online system based on NASA satellite imagery that recognizes and tracks vegetation change across the United States. ForWarn provides land managers and other users with weekly GIS maps showing the effects of disturbances such as wildfires, wind, insects, diseases, and year-to-year variations in climate as well as post-disturbance recovery. “It’s a customized tool that helps managers address the problem of monitoring lands at a large scale,” explains Hargrove.

Developing the ForWarn system has been an exercise in creative thinking—something that Hargrove relishes. “I feel like I’m searching for the missing pieces to bridge between research and the applied community of forestry practitioners,” he says. “Dac Crossley, my former professor and mentor, had a saying: ‘Have fun, do science.’ I think the order is important. There’s a big creative aspect to science. In fact, I think there’s just as much creativity in science as there is in art. I strongly believe that there is a vast, fertile plain between what is possible and what is routinely done. And I never know where this endeavor will take me next.”

Hargrove and the Eastern Threat Center will welcome hundreds of landscape ecologists to Asheville in April 2016 as hosts of the annual meeting of the US Regional Association of the International Association for Landscape Ecology (US-IALE).

For more information, email Bill Hargrove at whargrove@fs.fed.us .

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