5. Alumni profiles: Steve Norman

“We need better ways to negotiate critical  ‘known knowns’ among diverse stakeholders”

Steve Norman (Ph.D. ’02) is a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center in Asheville, North Carolina, where he monitors, assesses, and predicts wildfire threats to forests at landscape and national scales.

Steve Norman





Steve Norman plays a key intermediary role between those that implement work on the ground, the public, and the broader research community . Photo provided by Steve Norman.



Norman says childhood experiences in rural Pennsylvania influenced his love of trees and eventual decision to study pyrogeography and climate change.  His father was a volunteer firefighter. “I recall riding through areas that had burned hotly in the past. Seeing those burned over areas gave me longing—they made me value what once had been, and what could have been, had more care been taken.  I long ago moved beyond thinking of fire in simple terms, but that feeling of landscape nostalgia can never go away, nor can my sense that if people care more about their forests, we will all be better off.”
     Geography teachers in high school and at Mansfield University inspired him to apply the process of scientific discovery to answering questions related to those values. “That led to my master’s thesis on how Midwestern forests changed after the wholesale removal of fire, feeding my early sense of fire as a manageable human phenomenon,” he explains.
     “When I began working in interior California for my Ph.D. (advised by Alan Taylor), I experienced a very different fire regime: one that thrived on its own at evolutionary time scales; one that was fed by nuances of climate and history in ways that we were just starting to discover. Back in the mid 1990s, the West was just beginning to realize that the return of landscape scale wildfire was inevitable. Our program of research supported this conclusion while addressing the need for putting more fire on the ground to prevent loss. My postdoctoral work in the coast redwoods showed how human aspects of fire regimes follow complex gradients, much like they do here in the Southeast. Having lived in such different places prepared me to think about fire in powerful ways.”
    Although as a graduate student he had aspired to teach at a university, Norman says his research and field work introduced “some profound societal and environmental challenges that government service plays a key role in mitigating, if not solving. In Forest Service Research, we play an intermediary role between those that implement work on the ground, the public, and the broader research community.”
     “Now, my research unit works with a broad range of collaborators on several projects.  One involves science support for the development and implementation of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which is a new cross-jurisdictional initiative to sustain fire-adapted landscapes and human communities while making wildfire response more effective. In addition, as part of the ForWarn satellite-based monitoring and assessment team, we’re charged with detecting and tracking the effects of climate variation and disturbances on the forests of the U.S. This big-data coarse-filter project gives everyone the ability to monitor the forests of Mt. Nittany, or every other forest in the U.S., from any computer on Earth,” Norman says, adding “The biggest challenge we face is making sure our work is well received by those who can best use it. We emphasize science delivery as much as product development, but engagement requires a serious investment of thought and time. This involves teamwork and strong leadership, which we, quite fortunately, have.”
     The biggest challenges society faces with regard to wildland fire and forest management involve understanding how everything works at the landscape scale and above, Norman says. “It’s at these broader decision scales that conflicts and tradeoffs get in the way of finding collaborative solutions. And the need isn’t so much tackling what we don’t yet know—endlessly addressing those ‘known unknowns’ that science is so good at—or even scoping out those theoretical ‘unknown unknowns.’ Instead, the pressing need is to come up with better ways to negotiate critical ‘known knowns’ among diverse stakeholders. This attention to scale and the need for social and environmental integration is geography at its core.”