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Steven Schwarzbach, Center Director of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, has retired from federal service. WERC Deputy Center Director Dr. Keith Miles acted as Acting Center Director in the interim, and is now the official Center Director.

Steven Schwarzbach, Center Director of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, has retired from federal service. WERC Deputy Center Director Dr. Keith Miles will serve as Acting Center Director in the interim.

Best known as an ecologist and an administrator, Schwarzbach’s roots were in education. He obtained a M.A. in Education from San Francisco State University in 1983, and went on to teach 7th and 8th grade science and 5th and 6th grade in Placerville, Calif. in the early 1980's. There, he also developed a K-8 environmental education curriculum. 

His deep passion was science, however, having worked early stints with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. He returned to ecology, receiving his PhD from UC Davis in 1989. His thesis: "Metabolism and storage of the miticide dicofol in ring neck doves (Streptopelia risoria) and American kestrels (Falco sparverius): relationships to dicofol induced eggshell thinning".

Photo of former USGS WERC director, Steven Schwarzbach
Photo of Dr. Steven Schwarzbach, former director of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center.(Credit: Laurel Schwarzbach. Public domain.)

With that background in ecology and toxicology, Schwarzbach would then join the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working as a scientist beginning in 1988. He conducted numerous field studies of contamination impacts to fish and wildlife and their habitats, working on mercury, selenium, petroleum spills, hazardous waste, agricultural drainwater, pesticides, acid mine drainage, and halogenated compounds of many origins. In 1996, Schwarzbach became the Chief of the USFWS Environmental Contaminants Division in Sacramento, leading scientific oversight for major environmental contamination cases in California and adding emphasis on the use of peer-reviewed scientific information in decisions.

That experience in state and federal policy, applied ecological research, and operational management brought Schwarzbach to USGS in 2002, joining WERC as a Research Manager. In 2005, he was promoted to WERC Center Director.

Collage of Dr. Steven Schwarzbach
Schwarzbach's beginnings as a USFWS scientist (upper left); Schwarzbach sampling the San Luis Drain while with the USFWS (lower left); in the Virginia Mountains, Schwarzbach visits WERC sage-grouse researchers (lower right); Schwarzbach together with WERC Principle Investigators in 2014 (upper right); Schwarzbach receiving an award from the USGS Regional Office in 2008.(Public domain.)

Schwarzbach's term as Center Director has transformed WERC into one of the highest-performing, highly productive research facilities in the U.S. Geological Survey, leading more than 24 principal investigators at 13 field stations located throughout California and Nevada, and working with DOI, state, local, university and military partners to address science needs for ecosystem resource questions in the Pacific West. Under Schwarzbach's guidance, the WERC research and capabilities portfolio also adapted and strengthened to address some of the most pressing questions facing natural resource management in the Pacific region.

In the Mojave Desert, the Nevada sagebrush steppes, or offshore marine habitat of the California Coast and Hawaii, it was addressing data needs and decision tools to help renewable energy planners reconcile ecosystem function and species needs. In South San Francisco Bay, it was harnessing the collaborative science to inform adaptive management plans restoring thousands of acres of former salt ponds back to wetland habitat. In Southern California, it was bringing fire ecologists into the conversation to understand wildfire risk factors and losses to human property and biodiversity. Across the Pacific, it was using satellite telemetry and building international cooperation to understand how waterfowl ecology could elucidate the transmission of avian flu across nations.

Dr. Steven Schwarzbach with Senator Dianne Feinstein
Steven Schwarbach touring the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project near Menlo Park with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge officials in 2010. (Credit: Ben Young Landis. Public domain.)

Beyond WERC, Schwarzbach also lent his experience and insight into strategic planning initiatives, both within USGS and outside of it. He has served on numerous regional and national panels and review teams to assure quality science in the federal government and for the needs of resource management agencies. In 2012, Schwarzbach chaired the Independent Science Advisory Panel to review the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), helping the State of California and federal partners strengthen the science behind its land-use plans for the Mojave Desert. 

Notably, Schwarzbach participated in a revision of the science vision for Biology for USGS, as coauthor of Facing Tomorrow’s Challenges – U.S. Geological Survey Science in the Decade 2007 – 2017 -- an outline of the USGS science strategy used in this current decade. Schwarzbach also served a four-month term as USGS Acting Regional Director for the Pacific Region in 2011.

With retirement, Schwarzbach will return to science once more, publishing as a USGS Researcher Emeritus. But for now, we wish him well as he takes a much-deserved sojourn traveling as a backcountry skier, amid snowy peaks and warm fires.

-- Ben Young Landis