Mount Rainier Institute Welcomes First Students

This past October, after a year of planning and preparation, the Mount Rainier Institute successfully conducted its first two pilot programs down at Pack Forest!

The idea first germinated with Professor Greg Ettl and the National Park Service several years ago. Since those early meetings, one of the driving forces behind the program has been John Hayes, environmental education program manager at Pack Forest. Working in close partnership with the park service and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, Hayes has been drawing up the blueprint for a residential environmental learning center that uses the natural and cultural resources of Mount Rainier National Park and Pack Forest to nurture the next generation of environmental stewards and leaders.

Kevin Bacher/NPS

Students from Sequoyah Middle School in Federal Way conduct forest surveys around Pack Forest.

The program would invite school students from all backgrounds—and especially from diverse communities with limited access to parks and other natural spaces—to spend three nights at Pack Forest.

With hands-on experiments and projects within Pack and at Mount Rainier, the goal would be for students to explore science and nature, build confidence in being outdoors, generate interest in careers involving resource management, and generally cultivate a greater appreciation for resource management, national parks and the environment.

Taking Root
After so much work getting the curriculum ready for a test run, Hayes and other project partners were especially excited to welcome the first pilot group from First Creek Middle School in Tacoma—22 students, mostly 7th and 8th graders, and their teachers, Donna Chang and Deb Sanford—for a three-night stay at Pack Forest.

They arrived on October 14, and because of the government shutdown at the time, they were not allowed to visit Mount Rainier until their final morning. But the students had plenty to keep them busy in and around Pack Forest. They visited Alder Dam on the Nisqually River to see hydroelectric power in action, practiced taking photos in the forest, wrote poems, did other journaling and cultural projects, and also conducted a few forest ecology experiments. One group, for instance, looked at plant diversity in old growth compared to younger forests, while another compared wildlife between the two forest types, including doing bird surveys.

“What was special about that is they really went through the scientific process,” says Hayes. “They were given a question in the morning, developed a hypothesis, came up with some methods, collected and analyzed data, and then gave a presentation at the end of the day. They had a great time with it!”

Kevin Bacher/NPS

With three overnights at Pack Forest, each group got to spend plenty of time around the campfire.

And that was just while the sun was shining. In the evenings, in addition to enjoying campfires and songs, students learned about the history of the region, from the park service to local tribes and other historical figures, like Fay Fuller, who in 1890 became the first woman to summit Mount Rainier. On the second night, they presented their research findings at the science symposium, and on their final night they went for a night hike to explore adaptations of nocturnal animals—and also how humans react to low visibility. “It was really exciting for a lot of them to be out in the woods without flashlights,” says Hayes.

A week later, the second group, led by teachers Dan Borst and Amy Heritage, arrived from Sequoyah Middle School in Federal Way. Their experience was similar to the first group, except this time Mount Rainier National Park was fully open again, so students got to talk to park staff, visit Paradise and experience much more of the mountain. “For many of them, it was the first time they’d been to the park, and that was a pretty amazing experience,” says Hayes.

Greatly enhancing that experience were several folks from Mount Rainier National Park, starting with Park Superintendent Randy King, who has been a strong supporter from the beginning. “Our National Park Service partners were working along with us shoulder to shoulder throughout the program,” says Hayes, including education specialist Brandi Stewart, education program manager Fawn Bauer, and volunteer program manager Kevin Bacher (who took the wonderful photos featured in this story!), as well as Casey Overturf and Maureen McLean.

Another important component of the curriculum was teaching the kids about different ecosystem services nature provides, from forest products to recreation, building houses and providing jobs, cultural, spiritual and other aesthetic functions. One of the most poignant demonstrations to that effect involved doing a timber cruise and calculating the value of a stand of timber. “That was a real eye-opener for a lot of them,” says Hayes. “They never thought about how valuable forest products are to people, and how much, in a practical sense, it’s worth to cut down and harvest timber. That was contrasted throughout the week with other choices we make in managing our resources.”

Kevin Bacher/NPS

Students didn’t just get to conduct experiments in the forest. On the second night, they got to present their findings at a science symposium.

Early Returns
“Given that it was pilot, nothing was perfect,” says Hayes. “We actually only did about a quarter of what we had planned to do, and there are a lot of things we will change and refine in the future. But the teachers were very positive about the experience, and many of them are already trying to organize a trip to come back next year, which is what we’re hoping for.”

Yet for a program designed to train and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards, perhaps the most promising result of the pilots was the enthusiastic reaction from the students. By the end of their few days at Pack Forest, many were openly wishing they could stay longer or come back in the summer. And in interviews with students afterwards, a number of them expressed—nearly verbatim—the messages planners hoped they’d take home.

As one student said of the overall experience: “Now that I have done this Sequoyah to Mount Rainier Institute test run thing, I won’t look at the mountain the same. I used to just look at the mountain like it was just there, and it didn’t like mean anything. But now that I’ve like actually been there and done this, I’ll like always remember the things I’ve done and that I also want to come back here, but I don’t think I can because I’m going into high school. But I want to go back to Mount Rainier someday, and I actually want to climb to the top.”

Kevin Bacher/NPS

For many students, this was their first visit to Mount Rainier, and they had a great time exploring the mountain (and having snowball fights, of course).

Or as another student reflected on the science projects they completed and presented at the symposium: “I liked that we put purpose to what we did. We didn’t just do it and forget about it. We like actually did something when we got back, so it wasn’t like we were just doing it, we did something with it.”

That kind of feedback has Hayes and the rest of the institute team fired up to get the program fully up and running. They’re hoping to kick off the first full season in the fall of 2014, with the target of reaching about 1,000 students in that first year.

“It’s a daunting goal,” says Hayes, “but one we’re going to push hard to try to make happen!”

Want to learn more or get involved? Contact Hayes today!

All photos © Kevin Bacher/NPS.

Photy by Kevin Bacher/NPS

Faculty Spotlight: Jim Agee

Jim Agee

Agee and a foxtail pine in the Klamath Mountains.

Jim Agee, professor emeritus with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, could tell quite a few stories from his time in the field with students and other faculty—and, as it happens, they have a couple of him, too.

Professor Steve West, who co-taught wildlife field techniques with Agee for several years, recalls an overnight trip to Babcock Bench, overlooking the Columbia River. After a day of setting traps for small mammals and some vegetation work, Agee retired early to his tent. West and several students headed out on a night drive to spy reptiles and amphibians that had come out to soak up the last heat from the road. They came across a dead two-foot rattlesnake that had been run over yet looked very alive. A couple students brought the snake back to camp and coiled it right outside Agee’s tent. The next morning when he poked his head out, Agee was not impressed. “He was really teed off, but it was hilarious,” says West. “We got him for at least 10 seconds.”

“What clued me in on the snake was that it was coiled up backwards,” says Agee, “but I still had to think about it—and on a full bladder!”

When he wasn’t rubbing surprise from his eyes, Agee spent three distinguished decades as a scientist with the National Park Service and a professor with the University of Washington. “Most people would call me a fire ecologist,” says Agee, and his career spanned a great many more fields along the way.

Jim Agee

Agee with Catalonian fire scientists in Spain, where he taught a short course and consulted with them on fire management strategies.

Agee, who lives with his wife in Woodinville, Wash., grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, which was close enough for him to bus home on the weekends. “I was thinking about going to Humboldt State, but my mom said if I got into UC Berkeley, I was going. So that’s where I went, and it was a good choice.”

It was certainly a fateful choice in terms of his career direction. “I took a course called ‘Range Management,’” says Agee, “and the guy teaching it was one of the pioneers in fire ecology, Harold Biswell.”

Biswell was one of the first scientists to talk about fires as a normal, even healthy part of forest ecosystems and management. Agee liked the idea and was hooked. He went on to earn a degree in forest management and then stayed on at Berkeley to study with Biswell for a Master’s in Range Management.

At the time, forest fires made for a controversial subject. Biswell had long studied the use of controlled burns to manage grasslands, which was a widely accepted practice. Yet when he turned his theory on forests, Biswell drew fierce professional criticism, says Agee, as he butted against a powerful assumption that forests and fire were simply not compatible. People tried to get him fired. Even the dean warned him to cool it with his forest fire talk.

Despite the pressure and attacks, Biswell continued to advocate for the use of fire in dry forests, and in the end his views became accepted by the majority. By the time Agee earned his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1973—as Biswell’s last graduate student, in fact—fire had finally become an accepted tool of forest management, for the most part. “Fire is still not used at the scale it should be or historically was,” says Agee, “but Biswell was one of the pioneers to get people thinking differently about it. And by the time I got a Ph.D., he was kind of a hero.”

After he graduated from Berkeley, Agee taught one quarter of a fire management course and then left to work for the National Park Service (NPS) in San Francisco. Agee stayed there for five years until he got a call about a park service job in Seattle with what was then known as the Cooperative Park Studies Unit. The program allowed the NPS to station scientists at universities and have access to labs and—especially important at the time—computers and other technology. In return, you would act like a regular faculty member and teach, advise students, go on field trips, and generally participate in the academic world of the school.

Jim Agee

Agee in Mexico with Ernesto Alvarado, left, at the site of an active wildfire.

For Agee, that meant placement in 1978 at the University of Washington, where he worked his way up the professor ladder for the next decade. He felt a great spirit of collaboration, and he says his colleagues greatly helped advance his career as a scientist. Yet since he was still an NPS employee, he wasn’t eligible for tenure. So when the opportunity came, Agee officially transferred over to the university and became chair of the forest resources management division, which eventually morphed into ecosystem science and conservation.

In 1993, he stepped down as chair to become a “regular old professor” again. That was also the year he published Fire Ecology: Pacific Northwest Forests. Agee considers the book one of his proudest academic achievements, and the text remains popular in the field today.

In the classroom, Agee taught a wide range of courses, including fire management, forest protection, some silviculture, forest ecology and wildlife field techniques. One of his favorites, naturally, was a course in fire ecology. “We’d go over to eastern Washington and look at areas that had burned with prescribed fires or wildfires, and compare the two, and look at the response of animals and plants,” he says. “We’d involve field managers over there, and it was a great introduction to what the students were learning in the classroom.”

Elk in Hoh Rainforest

Agee took this shot of a Roosevelt elk on a wildlife field trip to the Hoh Rainforest; a herd walked right through their group.

Among his preferred test grounds was nearby Fort Lewis. It used to be an artillery range, and the fort wanted to make sure their prairie land wasn’t going to catch fire from ordnance going off—so Agee would head over with a troop of students. “We’d go down and help them ignite prescribed fires, and then watch it burn and see what would happen to the various plants. It was a nice laboratory for us, and only about an hour away from campus.”

Agee says field trips were a part of almost every class, and he spent some 20 to 30 days a year in the field. “We had a lot of fun doing those things,” he says.

Yet after 30 years of teaching undergraduates and graduates—and organizing countless field excursions—Agee decided to retire in 2007. Though he’s not hauling students across the state anymore, he’s far from idle. He’s taken on several research projects and keeps plenty busy as editor of the journal Fire Ecology. “The time I spend on for the journal is just perfect,” he says. “Fills my time and keeps me active.”

It also spares him from waking up next to rattlesnakes, which has to be quite a relief.

Photos courtesy of Jim Agee.