Sean Parks Wins Prestigious Award

A mustachioed fellow in a red hardhat, holding a clipboard, looks at something slightly overhead, off camera to his left.

FORT COLLINS, Colo., Nov. 27, 2017 – Dr. Sean Parks’ accomplishments conducting high-impact relevant and applicable scientific studies with the potential to advance ecological and fire sciences has earned him the 2017 Research & Development Deputy Chief’s Early Career Scientist Award. He earned his PhD from the University of Montana in May 2014.
Dr. Parks is a research ecologist with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute in Missoula, Mont. His research is in the field of landscape ecology, which is the study of spatial pattern and processes in landscapes, including those related to human activities and natural disturbances. The wilderness provides Parks with the perfect laboratory for much of his research, which focuses around three main topics.
The first is the self-regulating process of wildfire. He has examined over 1,000 fires across four large wilderness areas to provide compelling evidence that burned areas often limit the spread and size of subsequent fire. This finding supports the notion that a wildfire today can serve as an effective fuel-break tomorrow. Importantly, he quantified in his study how time-since-fire and weather conditions impact this fuel-break effect. His work provided a robust test of ecological theory while producing quantitative information with direct utility for fire and land managers.
The second is changing fire regimes. His research in this area has helped determine to what degree climate and/or past management are responsible for changes in expected fire activity across the western United States. This involved developing a model to quantify departures from contemporary natural levels of expected fire activity, and identified and mapped areas of “fire deficit” and “fire surplus.” A fire deficit indicates less fire than expected whereas a fire surplus more fire than expected. This study showed that areas of fire deficit often occurred in forested regions and areas of fire surplus were usually found in non-forested regions affected by invasive grasses. This is useful information for federal land managers who are increasingly interested in restoring the natural role of fire because it shows how much fire could occur in the absence of suppression and quantifies the current degree of departure from natural fire regimes.
His third area of research is in landscape connectivity through space and time. This work employs the concept of climate velocity, which is used to estimate the rate at which organisms must migrate in order to keep pace with a warming climate. Dr. Parks and his colleague introduced a useful metric to quantify climate change vulnerability termed “minimum climate exposure.” The study, published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, used this new metric to show that a warming climate will challenge organisms to migrate farther than previously thought, and that organisms living in mountainous areas are more vulnerable to climate change than previously thought.
Dr. Parks’ productivity over the last three years is commendable as the lead author of nine peer-reviewed journal articles and co-author of 11. The vast majority of these have appeared in highly rated refereed journals – the gold standard for research publication quality. He has also archived and made publicly available four datasets, provided content for seven short briefs and research syntheses, and delivered 20 presentations and webinars (12 of which were invited) to a wide variety of audiences that include land managers, policy makers, and research scientists.
“You are being recognized for your remarkable accomplishments that demonstrate exceptional productivity, and your ability to conduct high-impact relevant and applicable scientific studies with the potential to advance ecological and fire science,” said Forest Service Deputy Chief for Research & Development Carlos Rodriguez-Franco. Dr. Parks will travel to Washington, DC where he will receive his award from during a special ceremony on Feb. 7, 2018.