U.S. Forest Service researcher studies climate change in Alaska
Playing in the woods near his childhood home in Oregon, Nathan Walker cultivated a lifelong desire to explore, preserve and protect the great outdoors.
“I became interested in the environment from a young age,” he said. “Now, I see threats like habitat loss and pollution facing the nation’s lands and waters, and I want to do all I can to preserve these places for future generations.”
After graduating with a double major in biology and literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz, Walker planted trees, trapped beavers, sampled slugs, fought wildfires, radio-tracked turtles, mapped trails and counted birds in a variety of positions both with nonprofit organizations and the National Park Service.
He then returned to school and earned a master’s degree in environmental management from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.
“I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in some of the most stunningly beautiful places in the country and to get to know many wonderful people who are also passionate about the environment,” said Walker.
Today, as a participant in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Research Participation Program, Walker synthesizes and communicates climate change research to land managers. The USFS-RPP helps train a diverse and highly talented pool of scientists and engineers to address agricultural and technology issues in fields of specific interest to the Forest Service.
Under the mentorship of Erik Johnson, a program analyst in the Forest Service Office of Sustainability and Climate, Walker performs analyses, writes fact sheets, develops recommendations and creates interactive maps and tools to educate land managers and the general public about climate change. Walker is based out of Juneau, Alaska; however, his research benefits managers, scientists and partners throughout the country.
Land managers oversee the stewardship of forests, grasslands and other habitats, and they can use Walker’s analyses, communication tools and recommendations to develop action plans to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Even minor changes in temperature or precipitation can dramatically alter ecosystems.
Beyond the inherent value of these ecosystems, Forest Service lands are also valuable to people who use them for recreation and for whom the sustainable use of timber, fish, drinking water and other natural resources is important for future generations.
Such ecosystem changes affect Forest Service lands from Alaska to Florida. Without tools like those created by Walker and fellow researchers, land managers can be overwhelmed by the staggering amounts of highly technical or specialized data sets and research papers, which may ultimately prove ineffective at inspiring change or action.
“The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of public lands throughout the nation,” said Walker. “Our work can help ensure these lands can continue to serve public needs for many decades to come.”
In addition to honing his writing and research skills, Walker has acquired more specialized skills, such as producing online mapping applications. He has gained insight into the processes that guide federal decision making, which will be valuable for his future work. Above all, this opportunity has helped Walker advance conservation efforts and connect with like-minded individuals.
“My experience has reinforced the respect I feel for federal employees and the hard work they do to further their agencies’ missions,” said Walker. “This opportunity has been immensely valuable to my long-term career development goals, and I would definitely recommend it to others.”
The U.S. Forest Service Research Participation Program is funded by the USDA Forest Service Office of Sustainability and Climate and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.