A couple weeks ago in Nature, researchers reported that a probe from the Mars Rover had collected sediments indicating the presence of water and sediments, at some point long ago, that would have been ‘sufficiently benign’ to support microbial life. I’ve always been inspired by space exploration and consider it a worthy pursuit (and the soil scientist in me felt a rush of pride that “sediment” could command such international attention). Yet I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony, or at least the oddness, of scouring the soil of a planet millions of miles away for hints of life, when we have the greatest test ground for life right here on Earth—and where there’s plenty of work left to do to reach a sustainable balance with our own natural world.

MarsWe live on a planet where water is abundant and temperatures are uniquely hospitable. Solar radiation is tempered by a thick atmosphere of nitrogen and oxygen, and minerals in the soil support plant life and other conditions crucial to our existence. In the Pacific Northwest, in particular, we have the perfect combination of light, warmth and precipitation to grow trees tall and wide. And although most natural resources are not currently at a crisis point (at least for human uses), our historical patterns of population growth and consumption—coupled with emerging challenges associated with climate change—could soon oblige us to face an age of natural resource scarcity.

So while some call space the “final frontier,” I would argue our next true frontier is finding a sustainable balance of natural resource management and use on our own planet. There’s real ground for exploration and discovery here, for ambitious science and imaginative thinking, and I’m proud that our research at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) is at the leading edge of this field—and on multiple coordinated fronts.

Our mission at SEFS highlights sustainable landscape management with the hope that our land-use practices today will provide fiber, forests, clean water, wildlife habitat and human wellness for generations to come. Our students press into this frontier of sustainability by acquiring knowledge of current and past approaches to land management, a clear understanding of human dependence on managed landscapes, and a deep and fundamental appreciation of how natural ecosystems function. With these tools, our students are encouraged to envision how managed ecosystems of the future can simultaneously function in harmony with natural landscapes, while also providing timber and non-timber resources for regional and global applications.

The key is finding an enduring balance, and as always our students provide me with hope for the future. So let’s keep our eyes on the sky and expand our knowledge of space—but let’s also tend the soil in our own backyard forests and fields, and keep investing in this planet’s fitness and future.