Professor Bob Edmonds: A World Apart

“Never a dull day, never boring,” says Bob Edmonds—that’s the life of a professor.

That certainly seems true of Edmonds’ career, which has spanned an incredible spectrum of fields within the forestry community. In 37 years of teaching and research, his studies have covered everything from forest pathology and aerobiology to soil ecology and microbiology. He’s delved into water and watersheds, including a long-term project investigating the effects of air pollution and acid rain on forests and aquatic ecosystems on the Olympic Peninsula. He’s also explored the influence of biosolids on forest soils, as well as the ecology and management of root diseases.

Bob EdmondsThrough all of his interests and inquiries, he says, runs a passion for forest health, and trying to understand and manage healthy forest ecosystems. “What am I?” he asks with a wistful smile. “I’d probably say I’m an ecosystem ecologist.”

Edmonds, professor emeritus with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), began his academic work the early 1960s. He grew up in Australia and earned a B.S. in Forestry from the University of Sydney in 1964. Two years later he moved to Seattle and enrolled at the University of Washington to study forest pathology. He earned his master’s in 1968, and then his Ph.D. in 1971. Initially, he figured he’d return to Australia afterwards, but when he met his future wife—who was from Juneau, Alaska, and also in school in Seattle—he decided to stick around.

A postdoctoral position at the University of Michigan soon had Edmonds studying aerobiology with the US/IBP (International Biological Program Aerobiology Program. “It was pretty interesting work,” he says, “because it involved a lot of international travel, lots of meetings, going to Washington, D.C., and serving on national committees.”

When the Michigan program ended three years later, he managed to secure a staff position back at the University of Washington, and then shortly after he became a member of the research faculty and associate director of the US/IBP Coniferous Forest Biome Program.

Some of that early biome research contributed greatly to the global understanding of how ecosystems function, and the importance of old-growth forests. Many of the practices they came up with—involving the management of wildlife and other elements of the forest ecosystem—are still respected standards today. “You can’t predict where you’re going with life, but it was very interesting to be involved in big science at the time.”

One of his first research projects at the College of Forest Resources in the 1970s involved some dirty work with soil science with fellow faculty member Professor Dale Cole: an experiment to figure out whether the city’s treated sewage sludge—now called biosolids—could be repurposed as fertilizer to improve forest soils. Using several stands in Pack Forest as test grounds, Edmonds and colleagues discovered that the sludge, which had a consistency like “chocolate cake mix,” worked marvelously with some plants and trees but was disastrous for others, like hemlock. (“Douglas-fir responds like crazy,” he says. The evidence is still on display at the front desk of Anderson 107, where you’ll find a cross-section of a young tree with rings that explode with growth after the introduction of sludge.)

Bob EdmondsAfter a few missteps, including an occasional mini-mudslide of sewage, their work led to the design of an ecologically safe, sustainable program for the disposal of large quantities of biosolids. “It was an example of how the work we do here [at SEFS] is used around the world. We were the first to use these biosolids in a forest environment. It was successful, and many of the people who run the program in Seattle today are grads from our program—and they’re still putting it in forests today.”

During his long career at the University of Washington, Edmonds says he had the privilege of working with 48 graduate students and teaching hundreds of others in his many courses. He is now officially retired, and while he doesn’t necessarily miss the big classes he taught (survey courses like “Forest and Society”), he absolutely loved the smaller groups. “The nicest classes to teach have about 20 students with a lab, and everyone wants to be there. They hang on every word you say, and then you have field trips where you can go show them what they’ve been learning in class. That’s really satisfying teaching.”

One of his regular field excursions involved a trip to the east side of the Cascades to examine forest health issues. “We’d explore stressed forests that had damage from insects, fire and disease,” he says. “You could actually show students what was happening on the ground.”

Another favorite trip, he recalls, was a tour along the Interstate 90 corridor. On a Saturday, he and his students would make seven stops to mark changes in the different forest ecosystems as they traveled east through urban, suburban and forest environments. “It was usually a big hit.”

Next up for Edmonds? He’s planning to tackle a new history of SEFS. He’ll draw from The Long Road Traveled, written by Henry Schmitz in 1973, yet Edmonds wants to expand the narrative to include more personal stories and anecdotes from the many talented people who’ve passed through the college and school since its founding in 1907.

“Things have changed over time,” says Edmonds, “but this place has had a very big influence on what’s going in forestry throughout the world.”

*If you want to see Edmonds in action, he’s giving a lecture tomorrow, January 15, as part of the Water Seminar series. His talk, “The Role of Trees in Modifying Water Chemistry,” starts at 8:30 a.m. in Anderson 223. It’s open to the public, no registration necessary, so come check it out!

Photos courtesy of Bob Edmonds.

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