The main cabin at Big Springs Field Station in northern Arizona's Kaibab National Forest isn't the prettiest; there's paint chipping from the floors and mouse poop in the corners. But the decorations cost about $9 million and took 20 years to collect. Oversized graphs, tables, maps and aerial photos crowd each other for wall space. Some tell the demographic history of the Kaibab Plateau's northern goshawk population since 1991, using data from hundreds of nests and banded birds. Others describe forest management strategies developed in conjunction with this research -- what U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Richard Reynolds calls the Goshawk Recommendations.
"I hope you're excited to participate in the biggest, longest, most intensive, and most fun study of the northern goshawk in the world," Reynolds says to a coffee-slurping crew of 14 summer field technicians. "You'll probably get hurt -- but not bad -- and you're going to hike and hike until you don't think you can hike anymore." It's a June morning, the beginning of the field season at Big Springs, and Reynolds is wearing his usual outfit: brown leather boots, crisp blue jeans, a large silver belt buckle in the shape of a bear's claw. His mustache is white, neatly trimmed. His T-shirt, selected from a Superman-like closet of replicas, depicts a goshawk with crimson eyes and scimitar talons.
The goshawk is a large raptor, a bit smaller than a red-tailed hawk. It's known for its aggressive nature; the bird's image once adorned Genghis Khan's war helmet. It's elusive, though, aptly nicknamed the gray ghost. "A goddamn hard bird to find," Reynolds warns.
He should know: Reynolds has spent 42 consecutive summers searching Western forests for goshawks and other raptors, the past two decades on Arizona's Kaibab Plateau. His study area extends from the Grand Canyon's North Rim nearly to the Utah border, encompassing 700 square miles of ponderosa pine, mixed-conifer and spruce-fir ecosystems. He sometimes curses this endless search, which has come to define his career, but each field season he's eager to return. He had heart surgery in 2008 and then was hit by a car while bicycling. Just two months later, he was back at Big Springs.
Reynolds is after more than a peek into goshawks' hidden lives. By studying the health of the individual birds and the habitat they nest and hunt in, he's trying to learn what kind of forest structure best supports goshawks. If there's one thing he obsesses over more than the birds themselves, it's the management of the forests they inhabit. The hope is that once all of the data he's collected on the Kaibab is analyzed -- a task that Reynolds expects will take years after he retires from fieldwork -- the results will provide additional scientific support for the management guidelines he and his colleagues outlined in the Goshawk Recommendations back in the early '90s.
Reynolds started thinking seriously about forest management while conducting his master's research in Corvallis, Ore. He studied goshawks and northern spotted owls, and each year watched half of his study plots disappear to clear-cuts, and with them half of his birds. "Timber was king in the Forest Service," he says of that era. In 1971, he presented data on the declining bird populations in his plots at a conference, arguing that the rate and style of logging were unsustainable for both forest ecosystems and the federal agency tasked with managing them. Sooner or later, Reynolds believed, the Forest Service would be crippled by environmental lawsuits. It wasn't a mainstream viewpoint at the time: After the presentation, a senior Forest Service official told him that no little bird was going to change how they managed forests.
Undeterred, over the next decade Reynolds formulated "a food web approach to management." His idea was to work backwards from the goshawk to determine how a healthy forest should look and behave, then use logging and controlled fires to move real forests toward that standard. Because goshawks are apex predators -- at the top of their food web -- their success depends on the health of the entire ecosystem. In other words, sustaining the birds means sustaining the squirrels they prey on, the seeds the squirrels subsist on, the forest structure that optimizes production of these seeds, and so on. Build the forest of the goshawk's dreams and, as far as Reynolds could tell, the whole ecosystem would flourish.