Spring 2020 Alumni Spotlight - Chris Risbrudt

Portrait of Chris Risbrudt, alumni of the U of MN forestry programChris Risbrudt’s story begins the same as many of our students. He grew up on a farm—a dairy farm, to be exact, that his great-grandfather homesteaded in 1868 between Alexandria and Fergus Falls. Chris went to a country school, the same one his father had attended as a child. After a couple of years of junior college in Fergus Falls, Chris came to the University of Minnesota and earned a bachelor’s degree in Forest Resources Development in 1972.

“Coming from a farm and a small high school with only 22 people in my graduating class, moving down to the city was quite a cultural change, but the professors made me feel at home. It wasn’t just hey, take my class. They were truly interested in you. Dick Skok, Frank Kaufert, and Hans Gregerson were guys I really looked up to. They were not just instructors; they were lifetime consultants.” The faculty helped Chris make the cultural jump from rural to urban environments and got him interested in research.

Chris was accepted to graduate school and could have gone directly there, but he was “really tired of school after graduation,” so he and his wife went to the Peace Corps recruitment station on the St. Paul campus and shipped out to Morocco. When I think of Morocco, I see deserts instead of forests, which showed my ignorance about it.

“They have beautiful trees in the Rif Mountains and their slopes leading to the coast. They have cedar trees there that are 5-6 feet in diameter.”

The Moroccan government had instituted a national reforestation plan to combat rapid deforestation in the previous decades, and they brought in Peace Corps volunteers to help evaluate and execute that plan.

“Every tree plantation in Morocco had a booklet with information on the species of trees they planted and how much it cost. Each booklet also had a little map that would fold out in the back. I was going through one of these booklets, and I opened up this map and there was a square right out of the middle of the plantation labeled ‘Secret American Base.’ I guess it wasn’t much of a secret.”

After two years in the Peace Corps, Chris returned to the US and began his graduate studies at Michigan State University where he earned Masters and doctoral degrees in Forest Economics and Policy. After graduation in 1978, he started his career with the US Forest Service at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. It was his first of many assignments with the Forest Service.

Chris became Deputy Regional Forester in the Northern Region US Forest Service in 1988, one month before the massive Yellowstone Forest Fires. “It was a really great job with a very quick learning curve,” he says. The National Park Service only had one 20-person crew, and the other 9,500 firefighters on the front lines were from the Forest Service. “We had to staff-up really quickly, Chris says, “We spent something like $248 million in 1988 just fighting forest fires in the northern half of Yellowstone.”

Photo of Chris Risbrudt holding a salmon he has caught with a poleAfter his stint as the Deputy Regional Forester, Chris found himself in Washington d.c. as the Forest Service’s Director of Ecosystem Management. “I think I hold the record for moving in and out of there.” He was tasked with providing the data support systems needed to create land management plans for each national forest. He said, “Every national forest has to have a plan, and if it’s not authorized in the plan, you can’t do it.” The National Forest Management Act required the Forest Service shift their focus from primarily timber considerations to considering all resources and integrating them into a comprehensive forest plan. Gathering the different resources from all of the different forests and organizing them wasn’t easy.

“Wildlife biologists would walk through a forest and keep track of how many Elk they saw, for example. It turned out the Forest Service at that time had 600 different databases for natural resources, and none of them used the same syntax. It was this way on one forest and that way on another. The definitions didn’t match nor did the sampling protocol. It was a mess, and we were spending $120 million a year on it.”

Chris led the consolidation of the 600 different databases down to just six, each with consistent definitions, protocols, and metadata. Those six databases set the forestry research agenda for many decades to come. But as most people discover pretty quickly in their forestry careers, you can’t have a plan without people to implement it.

“At the time, there were nine different regions and seven different protocols just for keeping tree data in the system, so we called the regional managers together and said, ‘We’re going to consolidate these seven protocols down into one with these specific standards.’ One of the guys said, ‘We’ve been allowing our people to use their creativity in recording this data for 30 years. What if we don’t want to do this?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ll make sure you don’t get paid.’ The line was quiet for about 20 seconds, and then somebody said, ‘Let’s get to work’. I honestly don’t know if I could have followed through on that, but apparently he didn’t want to find out.”

Chris held many different positions and titles over the course of his career with the Forest Service. In his final role before retiring, he returned to the beginning and joined the Forest Products Laboratory as Director. He led a massive and influential digital archiving and accessibility project at the lab.

“My boss, the Chief of the Forest Service, asked me, ‘How do I know the work your doing is any good and that people are using it?’ It’s a tough thing to answer outside of anecdotes and one-on-one stories where one specific person benefited in one specific way. So, we hired a webmaster to put all of our research publications online. When we ran the analytics, we were shocked to learn that there were 2.5 million downloads every year from the Forest Products Lab website. People from 105 different countries were looking up data in our publications from as far back as 1915.”

Those results proved that the research conducted and published by the Lab was incredibly valuable and in high demand, and Congress responded by appropriating $38 million for a complete upgrade remodel of lab’s facilities.

Exterior photo of the Forest Product Laboratory building

In his retirement, Chris has returned to the gentle pace of country living. He and his wife Sue moved up to Otter Tail County and built a timber-frame lake house where they could settle down and relax. He spends his time like many of us would, given the opportunity, enjoying the outdoors by hunting, fishing, and taking in the sights.

When I asked Chris what advice he has for today’s foresters, he said, “You have to get involved with people. I think a lot of people going into forestry are probably introverts like I am. They want to work with trees, not with people. But you end up mostly working with people. It’s hard to do for some of us, but you can train yourself to be better at it.” It’s a common refrain I hear from veterans of the forestry community. Relationships are important, and the friends you make along the way will be there to help you out in ways you least expect.