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Donna Leonard: At the Helm of a World-Renowned Forest Insect Management Program

Donna Leonard - ground net sampling

As part of the “slow the spread” program for gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar), Donna Leonard, forest entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service, collects data to find out where in the forest canopy the gypsy moth pheromone landed—and stuck—following aerial application, in Giles County, Virginia. (Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service, Region 8)

By Laurel Haavik, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in the “Behind the Science” series by Laurel Haavik that peeks into the lives of scientists. See other posts in the series.

The tension surrounding gender inequality is palpable for nearly all of us lately. It is now well-recognized that women have been, and still are, unfairly challenged in science. Much of this focus is on the current cohort of working women and the biases and personal- or societal-imposed obstacles that they face. My unsettled mind has wandered to the women who came before me. They boldly entered the workforce years ago, as a true minority, and captured many firsts for those of us who followed. What are their stories? How did they achieve happiness and reward in their careers?

Laurel Haavik, Ph.D.

Donna Leonard, forest entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service, is an excellent example of such a woman. In her first forestry job in 1977, Donna was the only female forester working for a large pulp, paper, and building products company. The men she worked with were baffled as to how she might relieve herself while in the woods all day. In her characteristic, matter-of-fact manner that she is well-known for, she replied, “Well, I pee—what else? I have to remove more clothing than you do, but I pee!”

As entomologists, we should all pay attention to Donna’s story, for two important reasons: She has navigated a career among nearly all male colleagues and, simultaneously, piloted one of the most successful forest insect-management programs in the world for over 20 years running. Donna has consistently orchestrated a suite of forest managers, regulatory officials, and researchers across administrative and jurisdictional boundaries to implement a standardized program that always reaches its goal, every single year.

I was brimming with curiosity about this woman from the moment I met her. How does she run this famous program—and make it look so easy? What are her secrets? Where did she come from? Where does she think the program is going? Where is she going?

Donna has been the manager of the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) “slow-the-spread” program almost since its inception in 1992. Slow-the-spread is a combined effort between the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies (primarily departments of agriculture) to slow the invasion wave of European gypsy moth across the U.S. Without slow-the-spread, gypsy moth would invade previously uninfested territory at a much faster rate. Although gypsy moth doesn’t always kill trees, it easily defoliates them, which leaves them more vulnerable to other stressors and creates an unsightly forest canopy. Without slow-the-spread, agencies would be forced to resort to more costly control measures, tourism and recreation would be affected (masses of caterpillars cover forests and homes, and some people are allergic to their furry exterior), and forest composition would change (in particular, loss of oak and aspen).

slow the spread comparision map

Slow-the-spread is a combined effort between the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies that uses a variety of methods to slow the expansion of gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar). The maps here show projected spread of gypsy moth across the U.S. with (left) and without (right) slow-the-spread. (Image credit: Slow the Spread Foundation)

The program boasts the ability to slow gypsy moth from expanding west and south from a historical rate of 20 kilometers per year to less than 8 kilometers per year (Fig. 1). It succeeds at this through an annual combination of monitoring and treatment. Sex pheromone-baited traps that capture male moths are placed in a systematic grid along the advancing invasion front, an area called the action zone. Numbers of males caught one year dictate what is done to manage the insect the next year. A sophisticated model uses these moth counts; it then takes into account the density of moths in nearby areas and in the same area in previous years, as well as the distance from the leading edge of the action zone to recommend whether a forest should be treated. If moth counts are sufficiently high in an area, the model will suggest treatment.

Donna and state partners painstakingly review each treatment area recommended by the model and decide whether to actually treat it, weighing a number of external factors that the model cannot account for. Once treatment areas for the season are designated, necessary permissions are obtained, and applications commence in spring. Spray treatments are applied to the forest canopy by planes or helicopters in spring to target caterpillars (using Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. kurstaki) or summer to target male moths in flight (using mating disruption). Traps are set for male moths the following year to determine whether treatment was effective. All of this is carefully overseen by Donna on a strict seasonal cycle that repeats annually.

slow the spread team - aircraft calibration

As part of the slow-the-spread program for gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar), Donna Leonard (at left, in white) and team calibrate a fixed-wing aircraft to dispense the correct amount of gypsy moth pheromone above the forest canopy. (Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service, Region 8)

Donna attributes the program’s success to strong partnerships and relationships, both personal and professional, that formed and held over the years and to effective science that was the “right thing at the right time.” Development of mating disruption for gypsy moth, from discovery of the pheromone to synthesis of a cost-effective and easily-applied product, was a multi-agency effort that landed, she says, “first place in my heart as projects that keep me happy; something that balances out all the bureaucratic red tape of my job.” Mating disruption had to be effective for slow-the-spread to work, because other treatments for gypsy moth were either too expensive or not host-specific.

Slow-the-spread also had to be standardized across state boundaries, something Donna realized early on. In-person meetings were frequent, which meant a hectic travel schedule for Donna, but she knew they were essential, because they glued the group together. As gypsy moth marched across the northeast, new states joined the program, and others exited it. Social bonds were formed and maintained at meetings. Knowing others in the group on a personal level made coordinating the work come naturally. Another key aspect is that the group formed a nonprofit foundation to manage the federal funds allocated for slow-the-spread. This forced ownership, cooperation, and sharing of program dollars in a non-competitive way among the state partners. If less money was available in a given year, the group decided what to do, rather than one state suffering at the expense of another.

Donna Leonard - slow the spread trailer

Donna Leonard and team often work in a traveling office, tracking flight patterns over treatment blocks in real time. Detailed aeronautical maps of treatment blocks and surrounding areas are mounted on the wall behind them. (Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service, Region 8)

Donna is a sharp, almost abrupt, yet very passionate person. She has poured this energy into slow-the-spread and its people throughout her career. Many wonder whether she has a personal life outside of work. I suspect she does. She has a loving husband whom she talks about often, and when I asked her how her career has affected her personal life she smiled. “My husband would laugh at that one,” she says. “When people ask him about it, he tells them he wouldn’t advise anyone to do it the way we did it, but it worked for us.”

gypsy moth aerial spray

A helicopter speeds over a neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota, spraying Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. kurstaki—an insecticidal bacteria that is non-toxic to humans—atop oaks to kill gypsy moth larvae (Lymantria dispar). (Photo credit: Laurel Haavik, Ph.D.)

Donna describes herself as assertive—almost bordering on aggressive, outspoken, and difficult to intimidate. She attributes these character traits to a combination of childhood experiences and her early years as a forester being heavily scrutinized, since she was the only woman on the job. She doesn’t think these traits were inherent, but rather that they came later. “I developed as I went along, based on a skill set I needed to survive wherever it was I landed.” She is the youngest of three girls. Her father was in the military, which meant the family moved around often throughout the girls’ school years. Donna learned to love this transitory life, which forced her to become outgoing and quickly make new friends. She later became a forestry major in college because the notion of becoming a nurse or a teacher (the two “accepted” careers for women at that time) did not appeal to her; plus, the course work allowed her to wear blue jeans and hiking boots to class with the promise of spending full days in the woods away from the classroom.

After nine seasons as a temporary technician, she finally landed a permanent position with the U.S. Forest Service. She then competed for and got a training opportunity to further her education and pick up enough hours in entomology to qualify for a professional position. When offered the position of program manager for the newly launched slow-the-spread pilot project, she didn’t focus on how she got the job, but that she got it, and proceeded with her best effort.

Now, 25 years later, she reflects on what a great opportunity it turned out to be. Donna advises that it’s better to speak up, ask questions, and look stupid than to not speak up at all—others who are more timid likely have the same concerns and questions. She’s discovered that it’s easy to let personal likes and dislikes influence decisions more than they should and says she has to stay aware of that in her own work. She emphasizes the importance of face-to-face meetings: Issues pop up that would not be mentioned in email, and people are often more willing to confront a sensitive matter in person than on the phone or over email. She says she’s “learned a lot over the years, but unfortunately for me that doesn’t always guarantee changed behavior!”

The short-term future of slow-the-spread is good, but the long-term future is uncertain, as is the case with many government-funded programs. Federal budget cuts are the norm lately, and gypsy moth is no longer considered the highest priority forest pest. Whether slow-the-spread is important enough to continue demanding a big chunk of the dwindling budget is hard to say; yet it remains an important example of a forest insect management program that has clearly demonstrated that it works, something that is rare.

As Donna contemplates what’s next, she worries that if a person “retires without a plan, you’re sort of adrift.” Some might see this as the downside of being passionate and well-rewarded in a career, maybe even a harbinger of darker days in the winter of a lifetime. I disagree; I think people like Donna, who have been fulfilled by their work, will simply shift the focus of this energy to something else. Maybe Donna hasn’t found what that is yet, but I’m confident that she will.

Laurel Haavik, Ph.D., is a Forest Entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service, where she is involved with the Slow the Spread program for the gypsy moth, among other forest insect projects. Follow her on Twitter @ljhaavik, and check out her blog, Science Shapes Lives.

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