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Featured Ecologist: Justin Heyerdahl, MESM

Who or what inspired you to become an ecologist?

Many people and many experiences inspired me over the years that led me toward science in a very atypical way. Like many people who go into ecology, learning about the environment was always a childhood passion of mine and my parents encouraged this interest early on with frequent trips to museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and aquariums. However, unlike many people who go into ecology, I was never much of an outdoor kid. I loved learning about the environment and how to protect it, but things like camping, backpacking, and spending extended duration in the wild never appealed to me. I’m a city kid at heart. Feeling like an outsider, therefore, I think is the reason I never thought I had a place in ecology professionally. As such I ended up graduating in 2008 with a B.A. in Communication from Northwestern University, where I studied theater performance and storytelling, and afterward worked in the entertainment industry in LA. I loved the city but was unhappy with my work, so I began volunteering with a fantastic local non-profit called TreePeople whose focus is on promoting and using urban forestry to make cities more sustainable. Every weekend I would spend 4-6 hours planting and maintaining trees throughout LA neighborhoods and the adjacent Santa Monica Mountains, as well as doing outreach on behalf of the organization for corporate donor and community events.

This volunteer work was the spark that rekindled my childhood passion for the environment, and for the first time I found myself in a situation where there were other large-city urbanites, like me, who deeply cared for the environment and wanted to make a difference. The experience also taught me to build my awareness of the world around me, and suddenly instead of seeing cities in terms of green or grey I began recognizing individual species of trees throughout the city, noticing their habitat use by different wildlife, and even remembering individual trees I myself had planted. This was the first time it really dawned on me that cities are just another kind of ecosystem, and when well-designed and sustainably managed can be part of an environmental solution. It was an “ah-ah!” moment, and over the span of the next six years I slowly unraveled my path forward.

My first major life change was leaving the entertainment industry to work at UCLA, where I immediately felt a greater sense of camaraderie. In my first year there, I took night and weekend courses through UCLA Extension to earn a post-graduate Certificate in Global Sustainability, emphasizing in systems ecology. I had the great fortune to work under two incredible bosses, first an Associate Dean of Academic Affairs (Karim Cherif) whose tenure was sadly cut short due to cancer, and then my Director of Institutional Policy (Fred Churchill). Both inspired me to continue my trajectory toward ecology for different reasons. My first boss was an exceptional human being with zero ego, and he treated everyone he worked with as fellow human beings and not just employees. The openness and humility of his management style allowed me to express myself at work in a way I never had before, and he actively encouraged my interest in continuing education. My second boss was a policy wonk who thought like a scientist and acted like a lawyer. He taught me to approach problems with healthy skepticism, analyze issues critically as well as creatively, and always support conclusions with data-driven evidence whenever possible. He served as my mentor as I explored graduate school opportunities, took additional night and weekend science courses to get my prerequisites, and wrote my letter of recommendation to the UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science & Management where I completed my master’s degree.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

A typical day for me involves mostly desktop work in an office with meetings scattered throughout. My subject matter expertise is a combination of landscape and quantitative ecology, which exists at the intersection of physics, geography, ecology, and planning. Using computers and environmental data I quantify, simulate, and extrapolate distributional and temporal patterns of ecosystem form and function at our project sites. This builds insight into the what, where, when, why and how of hidden spatial relationships, and allows for more informed projections about response to stress and disturbance, whether human or natural. I consider myself a full-cycle analyst, which means I’m involved in most steps of a project ranging from initial scoping and problem formulation, technical strategy, research, data sourcing and QAQC, data analysis, report write-ups, and presentation.

What do you see as the "next big thing" in ecological consulting?

The field of ecology, within which consultants play a critical role, is rapidly evolving with the advent of more sophisticated sensors, sensor vehicles, and data modeling approaches that are helping to unravel the complexity of ecological relationships. This is a field that is swiftly becoming far more quantitative than it was even 20 or 30 years ago (especially outside of academia), and so there’s an increasing demand for ecological consultants who are more comfortable with handling large volumes of data, computer coding, and model development. Further, there’s an equally important need for ecological consultants who can bridge the science communication gap to effectively synthesize complex ecological information for stakeholders into accessible and executable management and policy goals, objectives, actions, and indicators through which improvement can be tracked over time. I think the ever-increasing pace of innovation has really pushed ecologists to test what they think they know about how ecosystems work and, in an effort to substantiate our knowledge with hard evidence, tap into a larger arsenal of tools to conduct scientific investigation and apply the research to solve real-world problems.

Historically (before the widespread availability of computers, large-scale data, and satellite imaging), ecologists often operated under the assumption that selective observation of habitats or species as isolated components of study gave us a correct interpretation of how the larger ecosystem works. It’s an easy approach to nitpick in hindsight, but while science is an ever-evolving pursuit for the truth you’re always limited to the tools you have at the time for investigation. Ecological systems are particularly difficult to study because you can’t fit something like a forest in a lab and perform controlled experimentation, although there are examples of excellent studies that have pulled this off in-situ. Still, I think what ecologists have realized by incorporating more landscape-scale technology into the assessment, evaluation, and management of environmental issues is that ecological systems are not always what they appear on the surface. It is the discovery of latent variables underlying system processes that has revealed how interconnected ecosystems, habitats, wildlife populations, and people really are, and emphasizes the importance, especially for those ecologists in consulting, to combine knowledge across disciplines to deliver better guidance for stakeholders.

An excellent example of this need are the current issues plaguing the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which since the mid-20th Century have been maintained more like a garden than a naturally fire-resilient forest. In consultation with ecologists, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a land management program which emphasized forest fire suppression and a concerted effort to increase forest edges around expanding communities in the wildland-urban interface. The ecological thinking at the time was that edges would improve access for firefighters and utilities while at the same time improving biodiversity and forest health, since there had been (and still is) evidence that some select species can take advantage of the transitional habitat zones edges create. However, what ecologists at the time failed to understand was that fire was an essential ingredient of this landscape, and effectively provided natural vegetation management that reduced over-competition and improved resource partitioning. Further, the proliferation of edges has led to severe fragmentation of the landscape, resulting in an overall degradation of ecological processes. The decision to adopt a suppression-first management strategy utterly destabilized the forest ecosystem by increasing vegetative fuel-loading well beyond what the landscape could support, eventually leading to more severe forest fires, and necessitating an ever-increasing need for forest fire suppression funding from state and federal sources. The end result is that, even with this knowledge, the vast majority of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget is still allocated to firefighting while proactive forest management activities such as strategic restoration, vegetative thinning, and community engagement remain chronically under-funded and under-utilized.

Often, the relationships that govern how ecosystems work, and indicators for their well-being, are not always observable with the naked eye and it is here that good data collection in concert with keen analysis can help ecological consultants weave together the larger story about the world around us. Through improvements in spatial technology and data, frequent but low intensity fire is now regarded as part of the solution to forest management in naturally fire-prone landscapes like the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Improvements in environmental modeling have vastly improved our understanding of the underlying relationships between natural disturbances (like fire) operating through landscape patch dynamics to enhance key ecosystem services such as habitat diversification, carbon sequestration, soil nutrient replenishment, water quality and supply, pest control, and biodiversity. One of the most amazing examples of this happening right now is NASA’s recently launched (est. 2018) GEDI Program, which stands for Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation. The effort has produced one of the most comprehensive efforts to map global vegetation in 3D using high-resolution LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology to better understand how vegetation influences the atmosphere, global water cycling, and patterns of biodiversity. This is just the beginning of a massive movement toward ultra-sophisticated environmental monitoring and data collection that will empower ecological consultants to tap into and utilize ever more crisp intelligence to inform our work.

There is a fascinating concept I stumbled across years ago called the noosphere, which is hypothesized as the next stage of evolutionary development beyond the biosphere. In essence, it’s the sphere of human consciousness, or an ecosystem of the mind. Much like the biosphere, the noosphere encompasses many of the same levels of organization ranging from the individual, population, and community, to the system as a whole. With missions like GEDI contributing to the Internet-of-Things ─ the physical technology we use to gather, synthesize, and share information ─ there’s strong evidence this phenomenon is taking place. The more ecological consultants can tap into this global knowledge and data sharing, the better positioned we will be to tackle major environmental issues. There will always be a role for ecological consultants to provide insight from a regulatory and compliance perspective, such as through NEPA and CEQA. However, I think ecological consultants, through our understanding of complex relationships, are equally well-poised to take more leadership roles as it comes to providing key strategic recommendations that inform economic, social, and environmental management and policy decision-making.

Over the course of your career with Great Ecology, is there one project that stands out among the others? Why?

I’ve only been with Great Ecology for under two years, but during that time most of my work has focused on Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) cases. The work is complex and involves tapping into several different methodologies to understand:

  • What injuries were sustained to an ecosystem over time;
  • What the ecosystem looked like before and after the injury occurred;
  • Quantifying the value of ecological services that were lost to injury; and
  • Developing restoration-based solutions to replace those services and offset the injury.

Fortunately, the work has tapped into many of my core knowledge centers and skillsets, affording me the opportunity to enhance a lot of the casework with data-driven evidence and modeling. It’s provided an avenue for me to further explore the intersection of disturbance, ecological processes, and human influence, while also occurring in a very applied format to real-world sites. My hope is to further develop the approaches, models, and research I utilize in NRDA cases to better understand other major environmental issues such as climate change, landscape integrity, and resilience.

If you had free reign and unlimited resources, what environmental issue would you most like to tackle?

Biodiversity valuation, large-scale ecological performance monitoring, and integrated resilience planning.

Do you have any advice for people considering a career as an ecologist?

While working at UCLA I had the good fortune of receiving excellent career counseling from Dr. Darlene Minnini, an emotional health specialist, who introduce me to the concept of ikigai, which is the Japanese word for “a reason for being.” The structure of ikigai is formulated around four centers of fulfillment:

  • What you love;
  • What you're good at;
  • What the world needs; and
  • What you can be paid for.

My advice to anyone considering a career as an ecologist would be to figure out whether what you personally would populate in those four centers of fulfillment align with the academic requirements, day-to-day responsibilities, and overall career path of being an ecologist. I will also say that the field of ecology offers numerous sub-disciplines, such as ecohydrology, pyroecology, or population ecology, and each one offers its own challenges and rewards. The field of ecology also offers immense overlap in terms of transferable skills to other areas such as planning and land use. So, I encourage anyone considering this field to think critically about your own centers of fulfillment and be creative in how you develop your own path going forward. If there’s anything I’ve learned from becoming an ecologist, it’s that it’s never too late to pursue something else that makes you enjoy life more, and that taking an atypical pathway can be equally empowering and insightful for your future work.