Karen Abt

Karen Abt (Forest Service photo)

Meet SRS scientist Karen Abt, a research economist with the Forest Economics and Policy unit in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Her team studies the economics of forest disturbances, forest polices and tax programs, and forest product markets. Their research strives to improve the economic foundation for natural resource management and decision making. Abt leads a team that makes short- and long-term forecasts for wildland fire suppression costs. She also studies how national and international policies affect trends in southern forest timber supply and demand.

What led you to your current field of study?

I didn’t start out in natural resources – and certainly not in economics. In high school, I was a sailor and backpacker, and I headed off to UC Santa Barbara to study French—I wanted to work at the UN. I quickly learned that I wasn’t good enough at either French or surfing to stay at UCSB, and I eventually graduated with a BA in Geography and City Planning from Cal State Long Beach.

After working as a city planner for 6 years, I decided that I needed something different. So I bought a VW campervan, got a golden retriever, and headed off on a year-long road trip, spending most of my time camping in National Forests and National Parks, Still trying to figure out what to do next, I gathered my courage and walked into the Dillon Ranger District Office (on the White River National Forest) and told them I wanted to know what I would need to study to get a job with the Forest Service. Eventually, I think I talked to everyone in the office.

Karen Abt sitting in a camper van next to her golden retriever

Karen and her trusty companion traveled the western US for a year, visiting national parks and forests.

After asking about my experience and degree (planning), they suggested I get a degree in Forest Economics, which would allow me to work in National Forest Planning. This was 1984, and NF Planning meant FORPLAN and IMPLAN, and that meant economics. I applied to Colorado State University and though I had no background in either economics or forestry, Dr. Doug Rideout decided my story and background were ‘interesting’ and I took my very first economics, calculus, and forestry classes there. I learned that economics gave rigor to planning that I didn’t even know I had been missing when I was a city planner.

Abt graduated with a Master of Science in Forest and Wood Sciences from CSU, then got a job on the Beaverhead National Forest as an Economist. It was 1988—the summer of the Yellowstone fires and the beginning of the end of economics in forest planning.

When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?

I moved to the SRS Forest Sciences Lab in RTP in 1989 to work with the Economics unit. I attended NCSU while working for SRS and completed my PhD in 1996.

What do you do for the Southern Research Station?

One area I work in is wood energy, a subset of bioenergy. I apply timber supply and resource management models to track economic trends and evaluate the effects of different policies on southern forests.

I also conduct research on the economics of wildland fire suppression. I develop forecasts of suppression costs for the Forest Service and land management agencies in the Department of Interior. Following the large fires in Florida in 1998, our unit was invited by a team doing ecological analysis to do some economic analysis on those fires, and this ultimately led to a request from the WO to develop statistical forecasts of future firefighting costs. The models use historic data to project monthly, seasonal, and annual expenditures for wildfire suppression.

How did you get interested in wood energy?

While using wood for heat and energy is not new, interest in sustainable and renewable energy that could improve carbon outcomes continues to be important. Combined with the well-established forests and forest industry in the U.S. South, a new industry developed (industrial wood pellets). Currently, most pellets are exported to the EU, but this leads to controversies regarding both the carbon neutrality of energy from wood as well as the impact on other wood using sectors and forest sustainability.

What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, or office?

I don’t do any field or lab work. I work at the computer all day, punctuated by meetings and calls with cooperators and coauthors. I collaborate with Jeff Prestemon, Greg Frey and Natasha James on fire research and work with scientists at NCSU in Raleigh on wood energy projects.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I get to ask interesting questions, or I am asked to answer interesting questions (because all questions are interesting) and then I get to do the research and try to answer them. Science answers a question; it doesn’t guide policy.

Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?

I have finally achieved my goal of working at the U.N.—well, working WITH the U.N. I am a member of the United National Economic Commission for Europe Team of Specialists on Wood Energy (and yes, the US and Canada are considered part of ‘Europe’). This team seeks to link data and policies between the energy and forestry sectors across the ECE.

To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?

It’s a male-dominated field. It can be hard to walk into a room and see no one who looks like you. Sometimes it’s a disadvantage, but it can also be an advantage. Other people at these meetings tend to remember me.

What women have inspired you?

My mom. She chose a career in nursing when few women made proactive decisions about a career. And she continued to work and was the primary caregiver for our family. I have three sisters, two of whom also chose nursing. She has always been my role model.

What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another career in science?

It’s a great place to work. If you’re lucky enough to get a job here, it doesn’t matter what all those men think. Gender isn’t relevant to the job. Find a peer group of two or three others who work in your discipline. That can be tough, because there are not very many women in forest economics!