Terrie Benavidez Jain, PhD in Boise Basin Experimental Forest, Idaho, June 2008

Latina pioneer fights forest fires with science

Not everyone can say their work is to save forests. Dr. Terrie Benavidez Jain can not only say that, but she is also working  on a publication documenting the best practice approaches to mitigate potential causes and effects of forest fires. This 300-page document will be used by federal, state, and local land management agencies.

Dr. Jain always loved the outdoors, so she decided to make a career out of working with trees. For more than 30 years now, she has been working for the USDA Forest Service in Moscow, Idaho. She’s planted trees, conducted timber sales, and most recently provides research results that forest managers need to do their jobs.

The award-winning research forester who grew up in northern New Mexico, spending much of her youth camping and fishing in the forests of Tres Piedras. “I was kind of opening new ground in a lot of ways,” says Jain about her career choice. “Along the way, it wasn’t a clear road. I did have people question my ability to do things, partially because I was Hispanic and because I was a woman.”

She says she originally started her college education studying biology, but she quickly realized she couldn’t stand working in a laboratory.

“I was dating a guy that was going to go into forestry,” says Jain who already knew she loved the outdoors, but didn’t ever think about studying forests. “I transferred to Colorado State University and started my forestry degree.”

She says there were hardly any women at all, and even fewer Hispanics, in her program.

“Most people would tell me, ‘People of your background usually don’t make it through college,’” says Jain, who learned how to be proud of her culture from her dad. “In New Mexico, the Hispanic culture is so strong, you don’t even know you’re a minority until you leave the state.”

But Jain defeated the odds. She says she studied math, chemistry, soils and plant identification to learn how to determine how different factors influence a particular forest, as well as how to pay for the management of forests.

“You need to understand how people think and government policy,” says the well-rounded scientist. “A lot of the programs are influenced by the government.”

Although her job takes her out in the woods quite a bit to measure trees, take soil samples, and collect data, Jain says another typical day involves writing papers, fact sheets, and presenting her large studies to others.

“My role is kind of like a bridge between managers, environmental groups and the general public,” she says. “I’m an educator teaching people about what it is to be successful in making a forest successful.”

She says she needs to communicate the science she’s so passionate about in a way other people of different backgrounds can understand. Educating people can help in managing forests, but she says it can’t help in preventing fires.

“Fires here occur by lightning,” says Jain about fire season in the U.S., which starts in early spring and sometimes goes on through December. “We can identify the areas that are important to protect – recreation areas, communities, and what we can do is manipulate the forest to give us opportunities to protect areas…What we call them is field treatments.”

An example of this, she says, was in 2007 when there was a fire in a recreational area in Central Idaho.

“A series of field treatments were put around the lake…surface fuels — the fire would drop to the ground and we would be able to manage it and put it out,” says Jain.

She says fires aren’t always bad, and sometimes they are used to manage vegetation.

“My job creates methods and ideas that if there is a wildfire, we can be happy with the result,” says Jain about the importance of having foresight and vision in creating new ideas for forest management. “I want to explain to the taxpayers that I’m doing something they would be proud of. The biggest thing that keeps me working is when someone tells me, ‘You are doing awesome work, and you are making a big difference in what’s going on in the ground.’ That’s what makes my job worthwhile…”

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