Tony Chang

Montana State University post-doc Tony Chang recently was named a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow. 

Tony Chang's parents were skeptical when he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and then spent the next three years living out of his car while working for the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and several conservation groups.

But those experiences, followed by two more academic degrees, turned Chang into a scientist who now plans research how forest disturbances affect water supplies across the West.

Chang is one of five recipients of the 2017 David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship. The award will give him $55,000 per year for two years, plus $40,000 for his research.

"It worked out," Chang said, referring to the unusual path that led to his second fellowship in two years. He earned his Ph.D. this spring in MSU’s Department of Ecology.

Chang used his first fellowship — from NASA — to fund his doctoral research into the die-off of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

With his new fellowship, Chang will use state-of-the-art computer modeling to determine on a massive scale how disturbances in forests affect the availability of water.

Working with researchers at the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners Inc., Colorado State University and NASA, Chang plans to use satellite imagery and other tools to count nearly every tree — dead or alive — in the West. He will then see how many trees are lost over a year to factors like insects and fire. 

Trees influence how fast snow melts and runs down mountains. They also influence rates of evaporation from the ground and through their leaves. But Chang wants to look deeper at those relationships to produce information useful to natural resource managers.

Over the past 30 years, he said, land management policies, climate change and land use have substantially affected the frequency and magnitude of forest disturbances — such as drought, wildfires and insect outbreaks — that can alter forest structures and impact watersheds, Chang said.

Many studies on forest disturbances exist, but they are limited in scope, he said. “A national-scale analysis with an increased sample set can vastly improve inferences and better characterize general patterns of watershed impacts," Chang said.

He also said he hopes his research hammers home the importance of public land to ordinary people.

“I think there's a disconnect between urban-centered populations and the value of our natural forests,” Chang said.

Chang saw that disconnect for himself after moving to the United States from Taiwan at age 3 and growing up in Los Angeles. He said urban dwellers tend to think of forests as pretty places to play, not as regulators of water.

“I was an indoor kid," Chang said. "I spent a lot of time in front of a television set, not knowing the value of being outside until later in my life. When I got the opportunity to go outside during my college years, it was pretty profound for me.”

He became an avid rock climber,  who received an American Alpine Club grant to climb four peaks in a week in the Sierra Nevada. He became an elite wildland firefighter who fought wildfires in 26 states. He worked jobs that had him literally on the ground level of implementing federal policies for restoring landscapes and wildlife on public lands.

“To me, Tony is really a model fellow,” said Brett Dickson, president and chief scientist of Conservation Science Partners in Truckee, California.

“As a former engineer, he comes from a nontraditional professional background but knows how to put this same background to use in solving pressing conservation problems,” Dickson said. 

Professor Andrew Hansen, director of MSU’s Landscape Biodiversity Lab, who mentored Chang as he earned his doctorate, said Chang has an “extraordinary ability to do sophisticated technical analyses on big data sets. He networks very well with others and has built a large number of collaborators.”

Chang earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 2005 at the University of California, Los Angeles. He earned his master's in environmental science and policy in 2012 from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

He will move to Truckee in August and begin his fellowship in September.

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