Professor Karen Holl wins MacArthur Foundation endowed chair to support work on natural climate solutions

Karen Holl posing for a portrait outdoors
Professor Karen Holl is an ecologist who has studied how to restore tropical and temperate forests for nearly three decades.

This week, campus leadership awarded Environmental Studies Professor Karen Holl the MacArthur Foundation Chair at UC Santa Cruz. This five-year appointment begins on July 1st and will provide Holl with funding for her work to increase the effectiveness of forest restoration efforts in combating climate change. 

“I’m incredibly honored to receive this award and to be recognized as a MacArthur Foundation Chair,” Holl said. “Forest restoration and increasing tree cover in agricultural landscapes are an important part of climate solutions, but so far, they generally haven’t been done well. My work aims to develop and share scientific guidance so we can do it much better and make this a more successful part of the solution.” 

Holl is an ecologist who has studied how to restore tropical and temperate forests for nearly three decades. In recent years, tree-planting campaigns have gained popularity as a “natural climate solution” because plants absorb carbon dioxide, which is one of the heat-trapping gasses that have built up in excess around our planet due to human activities like the burning of fossil fuels. But Holl knows there are limits to what trees can do to help. 

That’s why she’s collaborating with conservation organizations and climate advocates to appropriately plan and care for forest restoration projects so that trees can be effective in storing as much carbon dioxide as possible in the long term. When done well, tree-planting provides a whole host of benefits for people and the planet. But without proper planning, there can actually be unintended negative consequences. And Holl wants to see more focus on preserving existing ecosystems, since it’s easier to protect a healthy forest or grassland than to restore one that has been lost. 

Perhaps most importantly, Holl wants people to understand that trees can’t restore balance to our planet’s carbon cycle all on their own; we must also dramatically reduce the amount of excess carbon dioxide we’re emitting. The MacArthur Foundation Chair appointment will help Holl and her network of collaborators communicate important messages like these. Some of the funding will support undergraduate and graduate students in producing short videos and research summaries to share restoration science lessons with key decision-makers and the general public. 

The funding will also support Holl and her graduate students in continuing their research on forest restoration strategies with partners in Costa Rica, Columbia, Ecuador, and Brazil. Graduate students will also work with undergraduates to document global best practices by analyzing case studies of prior forest restoration projects.  

“I’m really excited for all aspects of this project,” Holl said. “Graduate students are so critical to our work, so to have funding for them to go to Latin America and enable those interactions and that exchange of learning with our collaborators is exciting. The outreach skills and networking opportunities they will gain through this project are important, since many of my students go on to work with conservation organizations.”

Holl will be UC Santa Cruz’s second recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Chair award, and she’ll be the first winner from the Social Sciences Division. The MacArthur Foundation originally established an endowment in 1981 to support a chair position that would rotate among the University of California campuses. That endowment has since generated seven systemwide chairs that rotate among the UC campuses in five-year increments. UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive awarded Holl the chair position on behalf of the university.