Jan van Wagtendonk

Jan van Wagtendonk worked for most of his career as research scientist with the National Park Service at Yosemite National Park. Born in Palo Alto, California, in 1940, Jan grew up in Indiana and began his study of forestry at Purdue University.  After undertaking summer seasonal work as a firefighter and smokejumper for the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, he transferred to Oregon State University where he received a B.S in forest management in 1963. From 1963-1967, he served as an officer in the 101st Airborne Division and as an advisor to the Vietnamese army. In 1967, he began graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his M.S. in range management in 1968 and his Ph.D. in wildland resource science with a specialty in fire ecology in 1972. His mentor Dr. Harold Biswell played a pivotal role in shifting a century of National Park Service fire suppression policy. Dr. Biswell conducted studies in the 1960s and 1970s at Whitaker’s Forest just outside of Kings Canyon National Park that demonstrated the vital ecological role that fire played within giant sequoia groves. Following his observations, Kings Canyon and Sequoia instituted a new fire policy of allowing natural fires to burn and conducted prescribed burns in areas long subject to fire suppression. Interest in Biswell’s work extended to Yosemite National Park, and Robert Barbee, the natural resources manager for the park, consulted with Biswell about how fire might be reintroduced into Yosemite. For his dissertation topic, Jan conducted experiments in Yosemite National Park designed to develop quantitative burning prescriptions. The observations recorded in his dissertation still form the basis of the Yosemite fire management program today.

Dr. van Wagtendonk standing in the forest in a Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap.

From 1972 through 1993, Jan was employed as a research scientist with the National Park Service at Yosemite National Park. In 1994, park scientists were transferred to the U.S. Geological Survey, where Jan worked, still at the Yosemite Field Station, until his retirement in 2009. When first hired in 1972, Jan was appointed the wilderness manager for Yosemite, where he wrote the park’s first Backcountry Use and Operations Plan and helped develop a trailhead use limit system called QUOTA to alleviate problems of overcrowding in the backcountry. The trailhead quota system is still in use today.  He served as Yosemite’s representative at the Denver Service Center during the development of the 1974 Yosemite Master Plan, and later served as a consultant for the development of the 1980 Master Plan. His work on carrying capacity led him to explore travel simulation as a tool for setting wilderness use limits. He worked on campsite impact and monitoring and in the early 2000s on the impacts of packstock grazing in meadows.

Jan continued work on prescribed burning and the effects of fire suppression that provided major contributions to Yosemite’s fire management program. His papers outlined the achievements and consequences of fire management, showing how Yosemite had measured its prescriptions for fire and how science changed the parameters of such planning.  Along with his work in fire ecology and social carrying capacity, Jan helped develop a geographic information and management system to combine preexisting maps and digital information about the park into one database. He also served on a number of federal panels relating to fire policy and management.

Jan has written over 100 publications, including book chapters, peer reviewed journal articles, and technical reports. He was a lead editor of the revised edition of the book Fire in California’s Ecosystems. He has received the National Park Service Director’s Award for Research in Natural Resources (1995), the Forest Service Chief’s Excellence in Wilderness Stewardship Research Award (2002), the Department of the Interior Meritorious Service Award (2003), the George Melendez Wright Award from the George Wright Society (2005) and the Biswell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Fire Ecology. He was a member of the 1995 and 2001 Federal Fire Policy Review working groups, served on the California Spotted Owl Federal Advisory Committee and the Joint Fire Science Stakeholders Federal Advisory Committee, and was the USGS representative on the Joint Fire Science Program board of governors. He is a founding member of the Association for Fire Ecology, served as its president for three years, and is now an associate editor for Fire Ecology, the journal of the Association.