Jim Reaves’ saga is a classic American success story. The eldest of eight children born to a sharecropper in rural Horry County, S.C., he’s gone from being the first person in his family to attend college to leading the world’s largest forest-research organization in a field dominated by white men. Leaving his job as director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station in Asheville, Reaves is stepping up to become deputy chief for research and development in Washington.
There, he’ll steer an organization staffed by more than 400 scientists and 1200 professional staff, with a budget of some $312 million. “Originally, my plan was to retire here in Asheville," says Reaves, adding that he didn’t even know he was being considered for the D.C. post. “I was humbled, and proud that folks thought I could add value at a leadership level.”
Reaves has strong connections to the Asheville area, having worked at the Southern Research Station headquarters twice in his 28-year Forest Service career. But his interest in biology has even deeper roots. During the growing season, his high school would close for weeks at a time so students could work on the family farm.
“Out in the tobacco fields, we had a disease called black shank, a viral disease that makes tobacco wilt,” Reaves recalls. “And I was always wondering: Why is this tobacco yellow and wilted? You have to put a lot of poisons on tobacco for bugs and other diseases. It made me think I’d like to follow up on that.
“I was a country boy, hardly ever been out of the county — I think I’d been to Baltimore one time before leaving for college. … But I could dissect a frog and [still] go eat lunch, you know.”
While in graduate school at Atlanta University, Reaves met a Forest Service recruiter who persuaded him to take a summer job at a fire-research lab in Bend, Ore. “I rode the bus out there — it took five days,” he recalls with a grin. “It was 1978 — a time when you could go anywhere for $52 on Greyhound.”
Reaves wound up doing both his master’s thesis and Ph.D. research there, studying whether one obscure soil-born fungus could displace another that attacks the roots of commercially valuable Western conifers such as ponderosa pine. He enjoyed the work, but he knew he was an anomaly both in his former world and in this one.
“The Forest Service is an agency that promotes being outside, working in the forest, and a land ethic,” he says. “Growing up as an African-American, we were pushed to go away from that — you know, to be a doctor, a lawyer. … Not going to work in the fields, because that’s where we came from: sharecroppers doing manual labor. Many of my folks couldn’t understand why I was going into forestry. But it provided a lot of opportunities I would never have had: going to Crater Lake and Mount St. Helens, seeing beautiful places this country has to offer.”
Even so, as an African-American, Reaves was part of a tiny minority at the agency — an imbalance that persists today. Accordingly, Reaves developed the “Partnership Enhancement Initiative," a grant program designed to increase opportunities for minority students in natural-resource fields at Southern universities while expanding the pool of potential Forest Service employees.
The agency, he notes, "seeks to hire experts from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds so that its research division reflects the diversity of America," an effort that’s seen at least some success. “The national leadership team is the most diverse in the whole agency — African-Americans, Hispanics, women. But we’re long in the tooth. Where we’re lacking in diversity is that pipeline”: young people coming up.
As for scientific contributions, Reaves believes the Southern Research Station is in the forefront of developing solutions to some of our region’s most pressing environmental problems, including climate change and its effects on forests. But how do you make such a complex phenomenon relevant to ordinary folks?
“I ask them, ‘You like to drink water, don’t you?’ Water, in the next 50 to 100 years, is going to be the key. You think we’re fighting over oil? Water is gonna be it. And if you don’t have the forest, you aren’t going to have water.
“You are part of the ecosystem,” he emphasizes. “Somehow, we have to articulate this.”
— Direct your environmental news to Susan Andrew: 251-1333, ext. 153, or email@example.com.