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DAA: Eric J. Gustafson

Eric Gustafson

Eric J. Gustafson

Rhinelander, WI | Distinguished Ag Alumni: 2010

From the window of an airplane over Indiana on a clear day, you would see a patchwork of fields, towns, cities, and scattered woodlots (forests). The pattern changes across different areas; over Wisconsin, for example, you would see more and larger forests. How forests are arranged over a broad scale—their size, relative age, and proximity to each other— affects the ecological processes for the plants and animals that live in them. Eric Gustafson is a scientist who, by advancing new ideas in the growing discipline of landscape ecology, has impacted academic thinking and the management of forest resources around the world. Gustafson grew up in Massachusetts, near his family’s tree farm in southern Vermont, where camping and backpacking gave him an early appreciation for the woods. Today, Gustafson directs the Institute for Applied Ecosystem Studies, a unit of the Northern Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service. While some of his researchers and technicians work in the field, Gustafson is usually at a computer. As a modeler, he conducts experiments at scales of space and time that are not possible in real life. Gustafson has developed spatial pattern analysis software, which takes digital maps of ecological systems over large areas, quantifies measures of their characteristics, and relates them to a forest’s ecological health. At Purdue, he developed a timber harvest simulation called HARVEST. That led him to other scientists working on sophisticated software called LANDIS, for which Gustafson wrote additional modules. National Forest planners, state land management agencies, and large-scale land managers use Gustafson’s models to quantify the implications of their timber management choices. Gustafson publishes extensively and speaks frequently about his work, but he still makes time for the outdoors. He enjoys downhill skiing and hiking, especially with his daughter April, 23. “The joy of seeing and understanding nature is why I love to be out in the woods,” he says. “I was not a landscape ecologist until I came to Purdue. In writing the software for my thesis, I discovered that I really enjoyed computer programming. Programming was the ‘foot in the door’ that got me into simulation modeling.”