Interim Director’s Welcome: Elizabeth Van Volkenburgh

On January 3, 2017, I began my nine-month appointment as interim director of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. It has been a dizzying—and infinitely fascinating—first month settling into my new role and office here in Anderson Hall, and I’m gradually feeling my way through the complex world of our school after more than 30 years as a professor of biology at the University of Washington. My calendar has been packed as I’ve tried to connect with as many folks as possible, but until I get a chance to meet everyone face to face, I wanted to share a little more about my background and what brought me to SEFS.

My family includes B Lippitt, an educator working at the Institute for Systems Biology, our daughter Alice, who teaches 2nd and 3rd grade in the Seattle Public Schools, and our son Will, who is a construction manager with Venture Construction, his partner Ashley and their brand-new baby Wiley. B and I live in south Seattle, where we raise vegetables, bees and other art forms on our property.

My family includes B Lippitt, an educator working at the Institute for Systems Biology, our daughter Alice, who teaches 2nd and 3rd grade in the Seattle Public Schools, and our son Will, who is a construction manager with Venture Construction, his partner Ashley and their brand-new baby Wiley. B and I live in south Seattle, where we raise vegetables, bees and other art forms on our property.

My interest in biology began in high school. I remember two remarkable teachers, in chemistry and in biology, and learning to pith a frog. Forevermore I was a plant biologist, interested in physiology and biochemical function.

I went on to earn a bachelor’s in botany from Duke University and a Ph.D. in plant physiology from the University of Washington. Following postdoctoral appointments at the University of Illinois and as a NATO Fellow at Lancaster University in England, I returned to the UW Botany Department and began postdoctoral/research faculty work, including with the poplar research program led by Professor Emeritus Reinhard Stettler from the College of Forest Resources (now our school). I worked closely then with Tom Hinckley and Toby Bradshaw (then a member of CFR, now chair of Biology), and soon I was hired as an assistant professor in botany in 1987. I continued my collaboration with CFR by joining graduate supervisory committees and serving on the Center for Urban Horticulture Advisory Committee with Professor Emeritus Harold Tukey, and later David Mabberly and Sarah Reichard.

In my own career as a plant biologist, my research has focused on the physiological regulation of leaf expansion in crop plants, including beans, corn, poplar and tomato. I am most known for my work on leaf growth with respect to photobiology and drought stress, and I have explored how genetic variation in activity of growth control affects yield. One of these projects was funded by Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company, a collaboration with Professor Emeritus David Ford on corn canopies. With poplar, it became clear that the rate of leaf expansion predicted stem volume at the end of a one-year growth season. Recent experiments show that the rate of bean leaf expansion predicts yield of bean plants grown in greenhouse conditions. Students currently working in my Plant Growth Lab are exploring how blue light controls the growth mechanism, what influence leaf shape has on function, and how drought tolerance develops in growing bean plants.

Greenhouse beans.

Greenhouse beans, part of an experiment in Liz’s Plant Growth Lab.

From the beginning, I’ve been interested in how plants work, focusing on physiology and adaptation. A little more than 10 years ago, I was invited to join an international group of researchers forming the Society for Plant Neurobiology. It seemed a natural progression, especially since leaf growth physiology has many similarities to neurophysiology. I became president of this society, which later changed its name to Plant Signaling and Behavior (to match its journal), and I’m also a longstanding member of the American Society of Plant Biology, Sigma Xi and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I am a AAAS Fellow.

Which brings me to this new chapter as interim director of SEFS. When I first considered this opportunity—after the surprise of being asked—I saw a tremendous opportunity to work with old colleagues and new partners on a mission that’s vitally important to the health of our global environment. The complexity of leading a school is new to me, but also appealing. So I look forward to understanding better the whole of the SEFS community, and getting to know all of the people and projects that make it work!

Sincerely,

Liz Van Volkenburgh
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Winter 2017

The hardest professional decision I’ve ever faced came last spring when I accepted an offer to take over as dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana. I struggled enormously with knowing how much I loved my job here, yet also feeling an irresistible pull to return to the University of Montana—to be closer to family, closer to where I started my career, and closer to the mountains I learned to call home. I still feel, without contradiction or cliché, the tremendous fortune of moving from one dream job to another, and as I look back on my four years here, I can hardly process all of the incredible experiences with students, faculty, staff and friends. As I prepare to leave next week, I’ve tried to pinpoint a few poignant memories, and I’ve realized how many of them involve field trips—precisely the hands-on experiences that make this school and our programs so special.

Three trips in particular stand out in my mind. They capture what I’ve enjoyed so much about my time at SEFS, and also what I hope to accomplish at Montana.

2016_12_tomdeluca_winter-2017During my second year here, I asked Professor Susan Bolton to take over as the sole instructor for ESRM 201 (our intro ecosystems course), and in return I offered to help with the soils sections and the weekend field trip.  For that excursion, we headed out over Snoqualmie Pass in a caravan of six Suburbans, stopping at several locations along the way to highlight the diversity, sensitivity and complexity of everything from wet coniferous forests to desert. The students were responsive and engaged, and I’ll never forget the power of the natural laboratory we have here in the Pacific Northwest. It gives our students a nearly infinite range of ecosystems to study and explore, as well as the practical experiences—and inspiration—to continue on in their research and careers. I also never forgot that we had grad students and even undergrads drive some of the vehicles, which sparked my crusade to find a safer, more effective and sustainable way to get our students to the field. (The result, of course, was a small fleet of 30-passenger buses, each with a huge ‘W’ on the back and driven by professional drivers!).

The next year, in the autumn of 2014, I got to participate in a Yakama field course with Professor Emeritus Tom Hinckley and Professor Ernesto Alvarado. During this trip, we visited the Yakama Nation and were generously hosted by our friends and alumni on the reservation, including brothers Phil and Steve Rigdon. It was an amazing experience. The students explored some of the knowledge and traditions of Yakama tribal members, and they got a sense of their deep commitment to sustainable resource management—built on a combination of practical savvy, traditional knowledge and cultural devotion. I was struck by the close relationships between our faculty and tribal members, and the depth of knowledge, willingness to share, and the importance of such exposure to our students. I hope to create similar relationships with the many tribes that populate the inland Northwest, and to provide similar opportunities for students at UM.

Then, in 2015 I spent a day touring forest management sites at Pack Forest and with our friends at Port Blakely tree farms. At Pack, we focused on some of the alternative silvicultural practices that Professor Greg Ettl and his students were studying. We also spent time talking with John Hayes about the Mount Rainier Institute, and the crucial work they are doing to cultivate a love of science and the natural world in underrepresented middle school students across Washington. Court Stanley and his colleagues at Port Blakely proudly explained some of the innovative work they were doing on their lands, and the importance of planning 100 years ahead for when their kids’ kids might benefit from the efforts they implemented today. The goal of the trip had simply been to update one another and share ongoing efforts in sustainable forest management, yet I was again overwhelmed by the positive and supportive relationships between our faculty and our partners in industry. I left that day with a profound sense of optimism and pride in the work we were doing, and in our role training the next generation of environmental leaders and stewards. That feeling has thoroughly defined my time at SEFS.

So it’s been hard to take full stock of what I’m leaving behind, and I know many of my experiences at SEFS will continue to shape and influence me for the rest of my life. I’ve been hugely proud to be part of this school, from the Arboretum and Center for Urban Horticulture, to Pack Forest and the Olympic Natural Resources Center, to all of our wonderful students, alumni, staff and faculty, and everyone I’ve had the the privilege of meeting and working with since I arrived. To all of you, please know I’ll never forget my time in Washington, and that you will always have a friend in Montana.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Summer 2016

Earlier this summer, I headed out to the field with one of my graduate students to conduct some initial soil sampling on a new set of plots in the San Juan Islands. With the assistance of our cooperators, the work went extremely smoothly, and we were able to catch the morning boat off Waldron Island.

Our good fortune on that trip reminded me of the short-term nature of graduate research programs, and how little room for error we often have with our projects. You generally have only two to five years to complete your whole master’s or doctoral program, which means your research efforts have to be meticulously planned and executed, with as little backtracking as possible. Yet these programs are often a student’s first or second serious research effort, so even with the guidance of a supervisor and graduate committee, errors, delays, missteps and revised study plans are the norm.

Tom collecting samples in Sweden.

Tom collecting samples in Sweden.

Research, especially at the graduate level, is a process of trial and error. It’s about generating a hypothesis based on observation or existing knowledge in the published literature, creating a reasonable set of experiments and experimental methodologies to test the hypothesis, and executing the work in the field, greenhouse or laboratory. This process can be excruciatingly slow for someone on a short timeline, and it requires graduate students to be exceptionally focused and nimble—and willing to absorb a fair amount of surprise—in order to nurture their work to completion.

With time and schedules so compressed, after all, our students don’t get to relax or head home for the summer; they head out into the field. Indeed these months, though deceptively quiet around campus, are often the peak season of research for graduate students. They have to maximize their production in the span of several weeks, knowing that even with the best-planned programs, data collection can go terribly wrong. Whether in the lab or far afield, students can be at the mercy of stochastic events, such as a wildfire (especially last year), animal intervention such as elk browsing on electrical wiring, or a simple human error, such as forgetting to start a data recorder.

For my own MS experience in Montana, I was investigating whether elemental sulfur inoculated with acidifying microbes could enhance soil phosphorus availability for plant uptake in alkaline soils. I used a combination of laboratory, greenhouse and field investigation to test my hypotheses. During my second summer (and only full field season), a farmhand plowed right across our carefully laid research plots, eliminating one out of my three field sites. I was fortunate that our missing data didn’t undermine my overall project, but I’ve never forgotten that my first publication included a table where dashes replaced numbers for that one site.

Still, for all the hang-ups and headaches, the stress of a graduate research program is hugely rewarding and beneficial. Our students learn how to be resourceful and innovative while maintaining the scientific integrity of the original project. They discover that no matter how tired, dirty and hungry you might be on those long field excursions, you can never sacrifice the rigor of your research. You might not have another chance to conduct the study, and you can’t predict how cutting corners will impact your findings. While the pressure can be exhausting in the moment, it breeds precisely the discipline that will make your future research and career successful.

So as I look at the travel request forms from our students this summer, I can’t help but muse about the effort and planning that went into preparing for this field season. Dozens of projects are well underway or just getting started, including programs exploring fire, earthworms and phosphorus cycling in northern Japan; fisher reintroduction in northern Washington; carbon cycling in the Columbia river basin; pollution influence on microarthropods of forest canopies of western Washington; epiphytes and canopy soil development on the Olympic Peninsula; influence of salvage logging on site recovery in eastern Washington; the displacement of passerines (songbirds) by various human activities in Denali National Park in Alaska; and numerous other fascinating projects.

The next couple months offer a precious window of research activity for these graduate students. They’ll be learning on the go, adapting to a host of hiccups and hardships, and shepherding their research through it all. That experience, from the development of their projects to their growth as people and scientists, will be priceless.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Spring 2016

We are all highly aware of the extreme polarization across all aspects of the political sphere in the United States, especially during this presidential election. Front and center in this tense landscape are issues surrounding the environment and the appropriate management of our public lands—with the recent Malheur occupation in Oregon reflecting some of this friction, and only amplifying the divide.

However, in this age of changing climate and declining forest health, I believe there’s an enormous opportunity to find common ground through sustainable forest management and mass timber products—specifically, through the emergence of cross-laminated timber (CLT).

Gifford Pinchot, the founding head of the U.S. Forest Service, envisioned foresters as conservationists and frontline stewards of the land. But from the 1950s to the 1980s, the practice of forestry on federal lands strayed from its conservation roots to an economically driven model of harvesting and replanting. The goal became maximum production rather than sustainable management, and the health of the federal forest system quickly declined.

As the impacts of these practices became clearer, the public began to equate forestry with extractive industries, such as mining and oil exploration. This shift in public perception fueled demand for greater conservation of public lands, and also helped drive major policy changes to federal forest management. The result was an abrupt reduction in forest harvest on federal lands from the mid-1990s to today (timber harvest on U.S. Forest Service land in Washington is now at 5 percent of what it had been in the ‘60s), leaving what were once heavily managed forests in a state of unmanaged regeneration. The impetus for these changes—preserving our forests—was noble and necessary. Yet wholly unmanaged regeneration, without the purifying and stochastic influences of fire or wind-throw, end up creating overstocked forest stands that are neither appropriate as wildlife habitat nor productive as forests.

So the question is, “How can forestry, something that was deeply embroiled in polarization in the Pacific Northwest, and an engineered wood product simultaneously help address ecological and social divides?”

Constructed from cross-laminated timber panels from the first floor up, nine-story Murray Grove—designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects—was the world's tallest modern timber residential building at the time of its completion in 2009.

Constructed with cross-laminated timber panels from the first floor up, nine-story Murray Grove—designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects—was the world’s tallest modern timber residential building at the time of its completion in 2009.

In the last decade, we’ve observed a revolution in wood building products that began in Europe and eventually spread to Canada and Australia. That revolution is the generation of mass timber products—extremely strong panels and beams created from the glue lamination of smaller boards—that can be used as structural components in large buildings. These CLT panels can be up to 40 feet in length by 10 feet tall and eight inches wide, and they can be used partially in place of steel and concrete in the production of wood-based tall buildings—allowing wood construction 10 to 20 stories tall (and reducing the impact of steel and concrete as major sources of CO2 emissions in the region). They create buildings that are structurally sound and fire-resilient, and they use materials that are fully renewable and that can be produced sustainably.

Since CLT is built from smaller boards, as well, I believe it could increase the value of small-diameter trees taken via thinning and restoration harvests. Targeting those trees could help improve the health and resilience of previously overstocked stands, restore wildlife habitat and reduce fire severity, and facilitate carbon storage in preserved mature trees and in CLT panels. Finally, building tall with wood represents a smart approach to urban densification, reducing pressure on rural landscapes and changing the way our cities and towns grow in the next 50 years.

There’s still more to learn about CLT and how best to build an industry that upholds and respects the values of so many interests. But the potential is real, and clearly gaining momentum.

During the last year, along with a number of faculty and staff in SEFS, I have been working with a group of researchers, agency personnel, environmental organizations, architects and private industry who have come together to plot the future of CLT in the state of Washington—and to do it right on all fronts. We see CLT as a catalyst for change in the built environment that is holistically integrated with sustainable land management, and we have organized events and testified in senate and house hearings on the development of CLT. Coming up on April 21, a well, we—SEFS, Forterra, the Washington Department of Commerce, and the Washington Forest Protection Association—will host renowned architect Andrew Waugh for a guest lecture on green building with mass timber products in Europe (RSVP to join us at the talk!).

Long-term, I have great hope for CLT development in the state, in large part because of the diverse cross-section of stakeholders invested in its success. We represent what might be considered disparate interests, yet we share a strong desire for a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future. That’s a powerful roadmap for overcoming polarization and political gridlock, and I look forward to our role in advancing this movement.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Photo of Murray Grove © Waugh Thistleton Architects.

 

Director’s Message: Winter 2016

While I was biking into work this past Monday, the air was incredibly cool and crisp, and the sky was actually somewhat blue for a change. I remember thinking, “What a perfect way to start another work week in January.” Then, as I walked into Anderson Hall I heard the sound of someone playing piano up in the Forest Club Room. Those notes reinforced my optimistic feeling for the week and made me think of our wonderful community at SEFS—and, in many ways, how much of it revolves around that room.

The 26-foot noble fir, brought up from Pack Forest for the SEFS Holiday Party this year, soars toward the ceiling of the Forest Club Room.

The 26-foot noble fir, brought up from Pack Forest for the SEFS Holiday Party this year, soars toward the ceiling of the Forest Club Room.

When Agnes Anderson donated the financial support to build Anderson Hall in the early 1920s, she stipulated that the large room on the second floor was to be known as the Forest Club Room, and that it would forever be dedicated to students within our School. Her intent was to create a reading room and a common space where students could gather, discuss, study, invent, reflect, forecast and celebrate. The room also happens to be visually impressive, as it has a vaulted gabled ceiling with chandelier lights, a balcony, a large fireplace that we use at annual events, and tall multi-paneled windows that create a cozy, naturally lit atmosphere. It has picked up a few other more eclectic features over the years—such as the elk head mounted on the balcony railing—yet is has remained a warm and inviting space.

For us, as well, it means so much more. Since coming to the University of Washington in 2012, I have emphasized the importance of community within the School, and the Forest Club Room plays a key role in uniting us as friends and colleagues. Sure, the couches are a bit tattered and the tables wobbly—and the carpet seems to attract a remarkable assortment of crumbs—but the room represents so much that is great about our programs, our history, our integrity, our enthusiasm and dedication to our science. It’s the staging ground for scores of meetings and social events, and a catalyst for interdisciplinary activities. Just in the past few months, the room has hosted receptions after SEFS graduate seminars; it was the site of the SEFS Holiday party, a Pecha Kucha night with the International Forestry Students’ Association, and a couple Dead Elk parties that echoed laughter through Anderson Hall late into the evening. In the next few months, the room will be home to a Natural Resources Career Fair, the Graduate Student Symposium and prospective graduate student weekend, a Capstone Poster Session to showcase undergraduate research, thesis and dissertation defenses, and so many other solo and group work sessions. The secret is out, too, as just last year the UW Daily ranked the room as one of the best study spots on campus.

Even as we plan for Anderson Hall to get a major refurbishment in the next several years, we will make sure the Forest Club Room remains almost exactly as it is today, just with updated lighting, insulation and windows. After all, the room is like so much of what we offer in our School—unpretentious, welcoming and enriching. On chilly and rainy winter days, especially, it is both a place of retreat and the platform for an advance. It is part of the very fabric that makes us such a special and cohesive program. So, as the piano softly plays in the Forest Club Room, I welcome you as students, colleagues, alumni and friends to come and enjoy this warm and wonderful space during the cold, dark months of winter—and any other time you find yourself in these halls.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Autumn 2015 (The Starcraft Enterprise)

Autumn is such a special time of year, and the first weeks of the season always remind me of my years as a professor of forest soils at the University of Montana. Much like in our courses here at SEFS, our students there spent part of every week out in the field experiencing soils firsthand—getting their hands dirty, quite literally, with scientific discovery. We also embraced the lessons of my predecessor in Missoula, Professor Tom Nimlos, who insisted that “you can’t know anything about soils if you don’t know your plants.” So my classes made weekly forays into the prairie, woodland and subalpine ecosystems around us, simultaneously learning soils, plant species and how plant communities reflect the soils below. We explored how soil moisture and chemistry determine what can and cannot grow in a given climatic zone, and how plant communities in turn help shape the morphological characteristics of the soil below. The class was difficult, yet our students loved being outside every week—even in rain and snow—learning soils in a holistic and applied framework.

Field excursions are crucial to the understanding of all the natural resource sciences, and we have an especially long and varied tradition at SEFS of leading student research throughout the Cascades, Olympics and beyond. Whether studying soils, wildlife, forest management, ecology, recreation or hydrology, lectures and labs can only take you so far; at some point you need to see, touch and interact with natural and managed landscapes in order to grasp exactly how they function. In many ways, these trips—and the applied nature of our degree programs—are what separate us from other programs, and what make our curriculum so effective at delivering a comprehensive education in natural resource and environmental sciences.

The Starcraft Enterprise

The Starcraft Enterprise (minus the SEFS wrap it will have for the start of fall courses).

That’s why I’m so excited to introduce a new upgrade to our field programs this fall: We’re leasing a 30-passenger bus, the Starcraft XL 32, to shuttle our students in larger groups. That might not sound revolutionary at first, but we’ve grappled for a long time with the challenge, especially for larger classes, of how to transport students safely and efficiently to distant sites. We’ve often had to reserve several Suburbans and travel in caravans, requiring multiple drivers and limiting the potential for using drive time productively as a class.

During the last year, though, we worked closely with UW Fleet Services to arrange the lease for this bus, which we’ve dubbed the “Starcraft Enterprise.” We had it outfitted with a few special features for us, including a PA system for on-the-road lectures, its own wireless network, USB and charging ports, a 36-inch overhead monitor for presentations, and even our school logo on the side to advertise our research trips. The bus is designed for muddy boots and wet gear, as well—easy to clean out after a soggy day of stream surveys, or trudging through Pack Forest after the first snow of the season (hopefully coming earlier than last year!). I think it’s going to be a major improvement, and our faculty have already booked the bus for just about the whole year.

Not every field trip will require the bus, of course, and it won’t be able to access some of the rougher roads across the state. But maintaining our field courses is fundamental to the success of our programs, and the Starcraft Enterprise gives us a real boost to keep costs sustainable—and also to keep our students moving safely. I can’t wait to hear the first reports from the field!

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Summer 2015

In mid-June, on a visit to the Olympic Natural Resources Center out in Forks, Wash., I had the opportunity to tour the Hoh River Trust lands on the Olympic Peninsula. The Trust purchased and set aside these lands, which cover about 7,000 acres, during the last 20 years. The goal was to preserve the beauty of the 56-mile Hoh River that runs through the heart of the property, and create a zone of ecological integrity along the watershed.

Much of the area had been heavily managed in the previous 80 years, passing from small landowners to timber companies and ultimately to the Trust, and the forest is still managed today. In general, timber is being harvested at a sustainable rate and in a manner that supports continuous cover and habitat between harvest entries—and with an eye toward long-term habitat restoration and improvement. You have to marvel at the sheer size of some of the older stumps, and while I know it will take many, many years to restore the forest to the grandeur of those historical stands, I also know that much of that potential hinges on how we manage the forest today.

2015_07_Summer_HohSo the forest isn’t ‘idle,’ and neither is the land. It is an intense and ever-changing ecosystem driven by the hydraulic power of the Hoh River and the forces of fire and wind. One of the original European homesteads on the land has been lost to bank erosion from the river shifting across the floodplain at an average rate of about 20 feet per year, drawing rocks, trees, house and soil into the river, and leaving behind fresh-cut bank with exposed roots and burrow holes—all to be washed away in the next large runoff event. Amazingly, a day before our tour, two fires had broken out in this wet part of Washington in June, and one was still burning more than 20 days later. The lesson: Landscapes are incredibly dynamic, whether they experience constant human intervention or none at all. Such dynamism is found everywhere in nature, and our ability to address and work with these forces requires us to explore and understand ecological systems in their entirety.

Rural communities, with their interdependency on nearby forests and links to regional cities and international markets, also display complex dynamism. In those environments, creating a more integrated ecological and community system adds an additional layer of complexity—and also risk. Matching timber maturity and harvest scheduling with ecological objectives, for instance, can lead to cash flow challenges that cripple an organization or a company.

But that’s what makes this human ecosystem along the Hoh such an ideal test ground, and why I’m excited for the opportunity to partner with the Hoh River Trust, as well as the neighboring Olympic Experimental State Forest and Olympic National Forest, to conduct research involving faculty and students from our School. Natural laboratories like these lands, which share elements of the wild and of human management, are essential to sustainable forestry and the forest products industry. They give us a chance to integrate research across multiple disciplines, combining the expertise of our foresters, social scientists, ecologists, microbiologists, engineers, hydrologists and economists, among others.

Using these lands as an open research laboratory would allow us to conduct long-term studies experimenting with new approaches to silviculture, timber harvest and wood utilization that emphasize habitat objectives and continuous cover—all while achieving a sustainable flow of timber and revenue that supports regional demand and community well-being. I can envision us developing alternative strategies for restoration and conservation along the Hoh that will help increase the resilience of our ecosystems, economies and social networks throughout the Pacific Northwest.

There’s so much potential in this dynamic environment, and I heartily welcome the opportunity for us to help study, understand, manage, restore and sustain these rural landscapes.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Spring 2015

While I was out running at 5 a.m. the other morning, I was thrilled to see the sky beginning to lighten on the horizon. Getting up and out the door at that hour is pretty brutal any time of year, but it’s particularly discouraging during the darkest, dampest months. So that faint glow offered a wonderful promise of lengthening days throughout April and into the summer.

We’re starting to see a similar horizon in our school, and it comes on the heels of an extended ‘winter’ of retirements. Each quarter, it seems, we’ve had to say goodbye to another round of great friends and colleagues, including some of our longest-tenured professors—from Dave Manuwal, Tom Hinckley and Bob Edmonds to Steve West, then David Ford and Kevin Hodgson, and now Frank Greulich, Bruce Bare and Gordon Bradley.

2015_04_Spring 2015These farewells have been sad and profound, and it’s hard to quantify just how much their absence will affect our community. The personality of a school or university, after all, is never static. It’s always shifting and evolving with the people who work here, and you can never exactly replace the experience—let alone the institutional memory and character—of one faculty member with another.

Yet these departures have also signaled a period of opportunity and new beginnings for the school. We’ve already added three new professors this year, and I’m excited to welcome their energy and ideas. Professor David Butman is a watershed biogeochemist who has joined us from Yale University as a joint appointment with Civil and Environmental Engineering. David studies carbon and nitrogen flux in whole watershed studies, and he provides our programs with an increasingly important perspective in freshwater ecosystems. Professor Patrick Tobin is our new disturbance ecologist who joined us from the U.S. Forest Service in Morgantown, W.Va. Patrick is an entomologist and forest health specialist who primarily focuses on large-scale insect infestations of forest ecosystems, and his work has broad applications for forest management. Through some internal shuffling, we were then able to hire Professor Peter Kahn in a half-time capacity. Peter is an eco-psychologist who works on evaluating the human relationship with nature, and he holds a joint appointment with the Department of Psychology.

As our new faculty members have gotten settled, we have also hosted several additional searches this winter and spring. We have now hired—or are in the process of hiring—three more professors, with the possibility of a fourth coming soon. On April 1, Dr. Bernard Bormann took over as the new director of our Olympic Natural Resources Center in Forks, Wash. Bernard joins us after 34 years with the Forest Service, and his research focuses on forest ecology and physiology. Dr. Anthony Dichiara is a chemical engineer who comes to us from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Anthony will join our bioresource science and engineering group this fall, providing new expertise in bioproducts. By then, we’ll also be welcoming at least one new quantitative wildlife ecologist, and it now looks like we’ll be able to hire two.

These faculty members bring a wealth of new strengths and capacities. They’ll greatly enhance our ability to address the complexities of land management, and the potential for new and dynamic products both here and abroad. And they give me hope for what we’ll be able to accomplish in the coming years—in the lab and in the classroom, and in all of the environments around us.

So while it would be easy to dwell on all we’re losing, I’ll also hold onto the feeling of that sunrise, and the promise of new beginnings.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Winter 2015

Last weekend, I woke up early and pored over newspapers and websites looking for a place to ski with my sons. I was extremely disappointed to see rain again forecasted for Snoqualmie Pass, with more rain predicted in the next two days, all the way up to 6,000 feet. A few ski areas were open, but those that were had limited runs available, or the conditions were icy and ragged and threatened to tear up your skis. Another time of year, such a soggy forecast would be welcome news. But it was a grim outlook for the first weekend in January.

As an avid alpine and Nordic skier, I am acutely aware of the poor early-season snow conditions that have plagued the Pacific Northwest since my family moved here in 2012. As a natural scientist, I am also keenly aware of the complexities of regional weather patterns, and I have to resist the temptation to ascribe all poor ski conditions to a warming climate. At the same time, climate change is predicted to bring warmer, wetter winters to the region, and the existing conditions at Snoqualmie Pass are bearing that out. I know some might chide me and argue that a shortened ski season is hardly cause for global panic. Yet the effects of our warmer winters will eventually ripple throughout the natural resources sector, threatening forest productivity, widespread insect outbreaks, stand-replacing fires, mudslides and all sorts of critical wildlife habitat, including salmon-spawning streams.

UW Climate Change Video Contest

In our first-ever Climate Change Video Contest, we are asking high school and undergraduate students in the state of Washington: What does climate change mean to you?

I couldn’t sleep later that night, and I found myself thinking about personal responsibility and how we can inspire collective action. Scientists have long understood and attempted to communicate the risks of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, and the links between our behavior and climate change are very real and well-documented. Yet after decades of trying to build awareness, we have largely failed to move the voting public or our elected leaders to take determined action. During the holidays, I even read several reports that the recent downturn in gasoline prices has spurred higher sales of larger, fuel-consumptive vehicles. This type of short-term thinking reflects the gulf between what we’re constantly warned about climate change, and how we actually react as citizens.

The most frustrating part for me is wondering why these warnings won’t stick, so maybe we need to rethink our approach. Maybe we need to change the message. Or maybe we just need to change who is delivering the message and give prominent voice to younger generations—the future leaders who will inherit and confront the greatest impacts of climate change.

With that goal in mind, this year we are trying a new approach to addressing the climate issue. Rather than asking our scientists to tell a story of modeled predictions of a warming climate, we are hosting a video contest that challenges high school and college students in the state of Washington with a simple prompt: What does climate change mean to you? In the space of three minutes or less, they can approach the issue through virtually any artistic style. How to make this climate message resonate on a personal and actionable level, after all, is all that matters at this point.

So I’m really looking forward to seeing how students frame this issue. I’m excited to see what inspiration and ideas we can draw from them in communicating—and solving—the enormous environmental challenges ahead of us.

I’ll keep eyeing the forecast and hoping for more snow, of course, but always in the much broader context of achieving a sustainable balance with a changing climate and world.

Happy trails,

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Autumn 2014

Last month, we marked the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law on September 3, 1964. In defining wilderness and ultimately protecting more than 109 million acres of federal land, the act was a brilliant and far-reaching piece of legislation. It designated huge tracts of land where the American public could experience nature with minimal human presence or interference, where “… the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain … without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”

Sawtooth Wilderness

Sawtooth Wilderness Area in Idaho.

For me, “wilderness” has always been one of the most beautiful and charged words in our language. It carries so much meaning and mystique, from our primeval roots to the allure of undiscovered wilds. To be in wilderness brings a deep sense of humility, something we experience too infrequently in our constructed landscapes, reminding us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves—and that we fit into this complex puzzle of ecology and evolution.

Yet one of the great hallmarks of our wilderness areas—their seclusion and reduced access—has also proven to be one of their greatest vulnerabilities. Visitor numbers have steadily declined in the past few decades, and while nearly everybody can name or locate a national park, far fewer can point out a wilderness area, or have ever been to one. Moreover, while the boundaries of our wilderness areas have remained mostly intact, human development has pressed in on the semi-natural, less protected lands that surround them. Large tracts of what was wild half a century ago are now a neighborhood or a suburb, and the very idea of wilderness has become increasingly distant and abstract.

You could argue, of course, that light use of our nation’s wilderness areas is a good thing. These lands do not need crowds to be successful, as fewer visitors generally means fewer impacts, and thus retention of an untrammeled landscape. Yet low foot traffic also means low visibility, to the point that the importance of wilderness starts losing its foothold in cultural and political discourse. Lack of use too-easily implies lack of economic value, and lack of economic value often yields a lack of congressional support, which threatens not only the wilderness, but the retention of any natural and semi-natural landscapes that also provide forest and non-forest products.

Yet wilderness doesn’t—and shouldn’t—need to generate paychecks or ticket stubs to prove its worth. As our footsteps and fingerprints have touched nearly every corner of the planet, I would argue the value of protected lands has become almost incalculable, especially from an educational and management perspective.

Wilderness areas, after all, aren’t idle spaces. They are living laboratories, offering windows to our ecological past and clues to future changes and adaptations. They provide crucial environmental baselines and test grounds for understanding how healthy ecosystems operate. Most important, especially at zones of convergence with human development, they can help provide blueprints for designing sustainable land-management strategies that provide for our needs without destroying the very systems that sustain our well-being.

So as we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, I hope we can restore the promise and purpose of our wilderness areas, and make sure the next 50 years of wilderness management prove equally farsighted.

Tom DeLuca
Director, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences