Conserving Through Collaboration
Tom Sisk: PhD
Professor of Ecology
Director, Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology
College of 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 region.
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, D.C. There, he was involved in establishing the National Biological Service, which is a science agency that is now part of the U.S. Geological Survey. When a faculty position became available at Northern Arizona University 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."
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 problems related to conservation. "You need to understand the issue in its entirety," he says, "in order to bring science into the dialogue and help develop practical solutions."
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."
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."