Tom Sisk: Conserving through Collaboration
Tom Sisk: PhD
Professor of Ecology
Director, Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology
Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences
Environmental conservation runs
deep for ecology professor Tom Sisk. Hanging on the wall in Sisk's office is a
photograph from 1923 of two men standing in front of an old adobe hut. One is
Sisk's grandfather, Arthur Sisk; the other is renowned forester and
environmentalist, Aldo Leopold. The two were friends and hunting companions
when Leopold, then working for the US Forest Service, was stationed in the
Sisk's home state of New Mexico. Like his grandfather, Tom Sisk's passion for
conservation and Southwest landscapes was shaped by hiking, hunting, and
fishing in the mountains and canyons of this vast and ecologically varied
Science advisor in Washington DC
After earning his PhD from
Stanford University in 1992, Sisk worked to develop conservation science in
Central America, then spent two years as a science advisor in the Department of
Interior in Washington, DC. There, he was involved in establishing the National
Biological Service, which is a science agency that is now part of the US
Geological Survey. When a faculty position became available at Northern Arizona
University (NAU) in 1996, Sisk saw it as an opportunity to return home and
pursue his love of field research and commitment to conservation.
"My immersion in politics
and environmental policy, both in Washington and in Central America, changed my
orientation toward academic pursuits," Sisk says. "The research I now
conduct is an intersection of what is scientifically interesting and what is
important with respect to making conservation happen."
Champion of collaboration
Sisk and his students in NAU's
Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology recognize the importance of
collaboration, and work cooperatively with the region's stakeholders, including
businesses, land owners, and conservationists. His lab researches ecological
themes that tie to land management practices, including forestry, livestock
grazing, riparian management, and other land uses. According to Sisk,
collaboration is key to establishing a holistic approach to tackling
conservation problems. "You need to understand the issue in its
entirety," he says, "in order to bring science into the dialogue and
help develop practical solutions."
Developer of ForestEra project
In an effort to assist with
forest conservation efforts, Sisk worked with NAU students and researchers to
develop the ForestERA project. Drawing on expertise in landscape ecology and
experience in collaborative process, the group combines advanced satellite
imagery with collection of on-the-ground data describing vegetation and other
resources to create detailed landscape assessments—"big picture"
snapshots of vast tracts of land, covering millions of acres.
This collaborative approach, Sisk
says, was central to the development of the Statewide Strategy for the
Restoring Arizona's Forests. Endorsed by the state's current and former
governors, this strategy is currently being utilized in the Four Forest
Restoration Initiative—a consortium led by the Forest Service that includes the
timber industry, landowners, lawmakers, and scientists, including NAU's
Ecological Restoration Institute—to seek comprehensive solutions to regional
forest restoration needs. This group effort was recently recognized by the U.S.
Secretary of Agriculture as a model for science-based collaborative efforts in
the United States.
If you ask Sisk why restoration
and conservation is so important to northern Arizona, his answer is simple.
"The forests of the Southwest are vitally important to the region's
survival," he says. "In an arid climate such as ours, healthy ecosystems
act like sponges, capturing much of our modest precipitation and releasing it
over time through streams and natural springs, and recharging underground
aquifers. Without the forests, we would have drier, more barren landscapes and
greater erosion. So the preservation of our forests and grasslands is the key
to preserving the water cycle, biodiversity, and our way of life."
Science collaborator with the Grand Canyon Trust, the Diablo
Sisk, his students, and
colleagues also participate in successful science collaborations with the Grand
Canyon Trust and the Diablo Trust, pursuing research on grassland ecology and
the effects of cattle grazing. Ranchers, too, are impacted by changing land
use, climate, and economics. Sisk and his students have been working in
cooperation with local ranchers to conduct experiments, develop collaborative
approaches to environmental monitoring, and draw on science to examine
grassland condition and grazing impacts. As this information is used to explore
management options and develop sustainable policies, Sisk hopes it will ensure
a more stable future for ranchers—who hold valuable and hard-won knowledge
about the ecological, economic, and cultural realities of life in this arid
region—while sustaining and restoring the health of the Southwest grasslands.
"The type of research we
conduct at NAU is designed to be locally relevant—to inform land and resource
management in the near term—but it has basic scientific value, too, and can be
used globally, especially in other regions with arid climates," says Sisk.
"As we experience the effects of climate change, it is important to
consider specific places and how arid ecosystems may respond. To apply this
information, particularly in managing the region's vast public lands, we need
to work with all the stakeholders, so that the meaning of our research can be
clearly conveyed. Only then can it really help people make more informed
decisions about land use and conservation."
Sisk believes the university's
partnerships with government agencies and private foundations provide its
students with unique research experiences and valuable insight into how public
policy is shaped. "We have an amazing living laboratory here on the
Colorado Plateau," he says. "We can do interesting science that has
conservation value, then see it in action, hopefully improving the way we, as a
diverse society, manage these fabulous public lands. As a conservation
biologist, you couldn't ask for much more than that."
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