Alumni Spotlight: Cindy Dittbrenner

For the past year and a half, Cindy Dittbrenner (’07, M.S.) has committed several days a month, as well as three additional weeks for longer trips, to take part in the AgForestry Leadership Program. She’s been traveling to intensive, hands-on seminars in different cities and towns across Washington, tackling subjects from public policy to media relations and the criminal justice system—and culminating with her helping introduce an actual bill to the Washington State Legislature. It’s been an immersive, exciting 18 months.

Now, as she prepares to graduate from the program later this spring, Dittbrenner has started reflecting on what’s made it such an empowering experience.

Cindy Dittbrenner

Cindy Dittbrenner earned her master’s from SEFS in 2007, and her husband Ben is a current doctoral student here.

The Hook
Dittbrenner, whose husband Ben is a current doctoral student with SEFS, studied forest soils with Professor Rob Harrison and earned her master’s in 2007. After she graduated, she spent four years working with Snohomish County on watershed restoration. Dittbrenner then moved to her current position as natural resources program manager for the Snohomish Conservation District, where she works with private landowners to better steward their property to protect natural resources.

Each county in Washington has as conservation district, which operates like a unit of government but is not officially connected to the county. These districts were organized during the Dust Bowl era with the goal of soil conservation, and their missions have expanded to include a range of issues, from water quality to restoring salmon habitat to cleaning up storm water runoff in urban areas.

Part of what attracted Dittbrenner to the role was this broad spectrum of coverage areas, and also the potential for more leadership opportunities and growth. Six months into her job, in fact, she attended a statewide meeting of conservation districts in Cle Elum, where she met a farmer who had recently completed and strongly recommended the AgForestry Leadership Program.

The Washington Agriculture and Forestry Education Foundation was founded in 1977, and for the past 35-plus years its leadership program has supported adult professionals working within and connected to Washington State’s agriculture, forestry and fishing industries. The purpose of the program is to train and cultivate confident, well-rounded leaders—with versatile skills in communications, political savvy and issues management—who will work to maintain healthy farms, forests, near-shore environments and rural communities throughout the state.

Dittbrenner proposed the idea of signing up to her boss, who agreed to support her application and fund the $6,000 cost of participating. She was accepted into the 36th leadership class and began in October 2014.

Cindy Dittbrenner

Dittbrenner, who studied forest soils with Professor Rob Harrison, now works as the natural resources program manager for the Snohomish Conservation District.

The Program
As a leadership fellow, you continue your current job while participating in 12 three-day seminars held throughout the state, generally from Wednesday through Friday. The curriculum also includes two travel seminars, starting with a seven-day visit to Washington, D.C., to learn about the federal government, and then a two-week international trip. All told, the schedule involves about 53 training days.

One of the hallmarks of the AgForestry program, as well, is the variety of perspectives and backgrounds represented, and Dittbrenner’s group didn’t disappoint. “It’s a diverse group from all over Washington,” she says. “Ages range from mid-20s to mid-50s, and there are foresters, farmers, viticulturists, recreation specialists from DNR, shellfish growers—just about everyone.”

Those viewpoints get tossed together and tested at each of the seminars, which are thoroughly interactive, blending talks and discussions with practical lessons. One of Dittbrenner’s seminars, for instance, was held in Spokane and involved how to work with the media. While visiting a television station, the fellows had to practice giving on-air, unprepared comments, and the interviewers grilled them—in some cases using ‘dirt’ on social media to rattle their composure. “I did horrible,” says Dittbrenner. “Because I had liked the Humane Society on Facebook, they asked me if animals should be put in captivity and in feedlots, and it took me off guard. So I stumbled over some lame answer about wanting to help pets that were stranded during Hurricane Katrina.”

Another seminar concentrated on public speaking, and one project involved developing a five-minute persuasive talk. Each member was videotaped and got to see how he or she looked—and then had professionals critique them unsparingly (to the point that a couple of Dittbrenner’s colleagues started crying). “One by one, they tore us up,” she says. “I learned so much about things I do while talking, and there were definitely some things in the video that were frightening, including a little weird clicking noise my tongue was making.”

The next day, after seeing themselves and getting feedback, the fellows got another chance to give their talk—and on her second run, Dittbrenner nailed it. “I did awesome.”

Cindy Dittbrenner

Dittbrenner and other AgForestry fellows at Angkor Watt.

Later in the program, the group headed to Cambodia and Vietnam for the international component. The main goal is to learn about trade and some of the issues developing countries are facing, such as natural resource depletion and other impacts of urban growth and expansion. “But since you’re in another country for two weeks with 25 people, it becomes much more than that,” says Dittbrenner. “A lot of people had never traveled abroad before and had to get their passports for the first time.”

The class visited different agricultural areas, from rice patties to fisheries to a coconut processing plant, and met with staff at the U.S. Embassy to hear about the role and mission of the United States in the country. Much of their time was programmed, with activities starting around 7:30 or 8 in the morning and running through a reception that evening. Yet they also got to do some exploring, including a boat tour of the Mekong Delta and a memorable stop at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. “It was so, so beautiful,” says Dittbrenner.

The Project
Another central element of the AgForestry program is that fellows are divided into smaller groups of five to complete a public policy project together. Given the incredible range of social and political viewpoints in Dittbrenner’s group, though, the process of settling on an issue to champion was no small task.

“We first thought we wanted to do something related to agriculture or water or natural resources,” she says. “But for the first few months, we’d lob out ideas for the project, and someone would shoot them down. Finally—it was actually really interesting—we agreed on something I didn’t think we’d agree on: reintroducing ex-offenders successfully back into society.”

Cindy Dittbrenner

Dittbrenner on Cat Ba Island in northern Vietnam.

During an earlier seminar on crime and corrections, the fellows had visited a juvenile detention center and the state penitentiary. They’d met with inmates and learned how hard it can be for ex-offenders to get a stable job after getting released, and that one of the biggest hurdles involves the box on applications that asks whether someone has ever been convicted of a crime—a box that, if checked, often automatically disqualifies an applicant.

Researching how to approach this issue, Dittbrenner’s group worked with several nonprofits and settled on the “Ban the Box” movement, which aims to remove that question about previous convictions from applications. More than 10 states and 90 cities and counties have adopted some form of this policy, says Dittbrenner, and Seattle passed a version in 2013. Their policy project, the group decided, should be to draft a bill to make “Ban the Box” statewide law.

“One in three people released from prison in Washington ends up back in prison within three years,” says Dittbrenner, so this bill could have a huge impact on thousands of people and families in the state.

The Political Process
The fellows first collaborated with the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to draft the bill’s language. Then they started trying to generate support and corral enough potential votes in the Washington State Legislature to give the bill a chance.

In addition to tapping the extensive AgForestry alumni network, Dittbrenner sent out rounds of emails to classmates asking them to reach out to their Republican legislators. Bridging the partisan divide was an eye-opening and rewarding experience for her, and she ended up becoming close friends with some of the most conservative members of her leadership group. It’s a tremendous feeling to find accord despite vocal differences, she says, and reach a solution that could help so many people.

Cindy Dittbrenner

The international trip was particularly special for Dittbrenner, who headed over two weeks early with her husband Ben to get more travel time in Southeast Asia.

Their legwork started paying off. The “Ban the Box” bill got introduced in the state senate and house last month, and Dittbrenner’s group secured committee hearings in Olympia on Friday, February 13, to lobby for their bill. That was an achievement on its own, as not every group was able to get far enough on a project to have a bill written and introduced—and Dittbrenner felt confident they had generated solid bipartisan support.

After passing out of the House Labor Committee, the bill then made it out of the Rules Committee. But it fell just short of getting a vote on the floor, which would have sent it back to the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee for round two—and a real chance of becoming law. Undeterred, Dittbrenner says the bill is still very much alive. “We’ll try again next year!”

Even with the disappointing result of the vote, Dittbrenner says the experience has been deeply satisfying and empowering. Before she started this program, she had found the legislative process largely opaque, even intimidating. Yet patiently and determinedly pushing the “Ban the Box” bill—with all of its myriad iterations and steps and votes—has transformed her understanding of public policy. “I’m not afraid to talk to my legislators,” she says, “and I feel like I can be instrumental in making change happen.”

Part of reaching that point has been learning how to be a better listener and more open-minded, says Dittbrenner. That’s a powerful takeaway from this leadership program, and she knows it will serve her throughout her career. “I’ve been able to broaden my perspective and understanding of where people are coming from, and how we can focus on our similarities to get a lot of work done.”

Photos © Cindy Dittbrenner.

Cindy Dittbrenner

Dittbrenner planting rice in Ben Tre, Vietnam, as part of the AgForestry international trip.


SEFS Seminar Series: Fall Schedule Announced!

If you’ve been pining for the sound of stirring voices and enthralled audiences, you’ll be excited to know the SEFS Seminar Series is booting up for the fall on Wednesday, September 24!

SEFS Seminar Schedule: Fall 2014We’ve lined up 10 weeks of fantastic talks, including presentations from two new faculty members—Professors Patrick Tobin and David Butman—as well as visiting speakers from CalPoly, Portland State University and other units on campus. Also, the final seminar will feature an alumni speaker, Stephen Hopley, to talk about his life and career in paper science and engineering.

Once again, we’re partnering with the Dead Elk Society to host a casual reception in the Forest Club Room following the seminar on November 5. Two other seminars will coincide with annual school-wide events, starting with the Salmon BBQ on October 1, and then the SEFS Holiday Party on December 3.

The seminars will be held on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. in Anderson 223. (Students can enroll for credit under SEFS 529B; contact Michelle Trudeau for more information.)

So check out the full line-up below, and get ready for 10 weeks of terrific talks!

Week 1: September 24
Professor Patrick Tobin
“Allee effects and biological invasions: Exploiting an Achilles’ Heel in management strategies”

Week 2: October 1
Professor Rob Harrison
“The ‘hidden half’ of PNW forests: Understanding why our trees grow so fast”
* Salmon BBQ to follow in Anderson Hall courtyard

Week 3: October 8
Research Scientist Vane Kane
“Biophysical controls on forest structure and disturbance across landscapes”

Week 4: October 15
Professor Rebecca Neumann, Civil and Environmental Engineering
“Climate change and arsenic uptake by rice: Impact of elevated soil temperature on rhizosphere oxygen dynamics and arsenic concentrations in rice tissue”

Week 5: October 22
Professor Christian Torgersen
“The Fourth Paradigm and data-driven discovery in riverine science”

Week 6: October 29
Professor David Butman
“Fitting freshwater ecosystems into the boreal and arctic carbon cycles”

Week 7: November 5
Professor Vince Gallucci, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (and SEFS)
“Biodiversity of Arctic Ocean fauna as related to indigenous populations and climate change”
* Reception to follow in Forest Club Room

Week 8: November 12
Professor Sarah Bisbing, CalPoly
“Landscape influence on gene flow and connectivity across the range of Pinus contorta”

Week 9: November 19
Professor Todd Rosenstiel, Portland State University
“Canopies of change: Reconsidering bryophytes, biofuels and brown clouds in the PNW”

Week 10: December 3
Stephen M. Hopley, Alumni Speaker
“My life story as a paper science and engineering graduate”

Grad Student Spotlight: Matt Norton

While Michelle Trudeau has been on maternity leave this quarter, we’ve had a few friends helping out Amanda Davis and Lisa Nordlund in the Office of Student and Academic Services. One of the cheerful folks you’ve probably seen, whether in person or as a name in your inbox, is Matt Norton, who began his master’s program at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) this past fall. We’ve been hearing a few tantalizing rumors of his past exploits—from driving airboats to having a day named after him in Florida’s Volusia County (February 8, 2001)—so we sat down with him last week to learn a little more of his story!

Matt Norton

Matt Norton steers through the Everglades on an airboat.

Turns out the rumors are true, though Norton is exceedingly modest when relating the colorful experiences that brought him to SEFS. A six-generation Floridian from Ormond Beach, he moved to Seattle in 2012 when his wife Claire was placed in the Pathology Residency Program here at the University of Washington. He’s enjoyed the cross-country transition so far, especially getting to explore all the parks and mountains nearby. Plus, the cool, wet climate has been an enormous relief from those sweat-soaked days in Florida. “One thing I guess I didn’t inherit from my great-grandfather is that I still overheat!”

Back home as an undergrad at the New College of Florida, Norton majored in environmental studies. Some of his course work and research involved canopy ecology, and spring ecology and eutrophication of Florida’s spring systems. For his thesis he focused on beach sedimentology—specifically, looking at beach nourishment (adding sand to eroding shores), policies and practices surrounding it, and how it relates to sediment dynamics.

After school, from 2009 to 2012 he worked as a lab and field technician, and later became a project manager, under Dr. Todd Osborne in the Soil and Water Science department at the University of Florida. He helped to conduct and managed research on a number of projects: several investigating the soils and ecology of the Everglades, one involving restoration work in the Kissimmee River basin, and three others looking at various species of clams and their preference for soils in Cedar Key, Fla.

Part of Norton’s job was guiding students out to study sites in the Everglades by airboat (also known as a fanboat). “You can go over anything,” he says. “It’s got Kevlar® on the bottom and a 550-horsepower engine, so you can run it anywhere, even on dry land.”

Matt Norton

Navigation can be tricky in some parts of the Everglades, where the grass goes on forever and can get up to 15 feet high.

Yet aside from enabling you to access remote reaches of the expansive Everglades—and scaring away gators—airboats are also “hellishly” loud and dangerous. From the risk of your engine blowing up to breaking down in 115-degree heat to getting lost in the endless sea of grass, tree islands and gator holes, Norton has more than a few harrowing tales from his time as an airboat pilot. So for all the fun memories of cruising through beautiful waterways and seeing all sorts of wildlife, he wasn’t terribly sad to leave that task behind when he moved to Seattle.

He spent his first spring here volunteering and later working as a surveyor with the digital mapping project at the Washington Park Arboretum. Norton spent some of that time, as well, researching possible graduate programs. “I really want to do something related to being outside and trying to help the environment in some way,” he says. And since his wife’s work as a pathologist will keep them fairly close to a larger city, Norton started thinking how he could apply his experience with restoration ecology and soil science in an urban setting.

Norton’s search quickly led him to SEFS, where he’s now working with Professor Darlene Zabowski. He’s currently studying stump decomposition and creating a model for carbon related to tree farms and biofuels with Erin Burt under Professor Rob Harrison, and he has a separate project involving restoration work in Magnuson Park.

He’s had a hand in a great many other projects along the way, too, from his days as an Eagle Scout to interning at a nuke site, but we don’t want to spoil all of his stories. So stop into the advising office sometime to introduce yourself and learn a little more about Norton!

Photos of Norton on the airboat © Ben Loughran; photo of Norton in the grass © Justin Vogel.

Matt Norton

Thesis Defense: Colton Miller!

Colton Miller

Miller and one of his Douglas-fir seedlings.

This Thursday, May 23, at 10 a.m. in Winkenwerder 107, Colton Miller will be defending his Master’s Thesis: “Reforesting Surface Coal-Mined Land Using Douglas-fir Seedlings in Washington State.”

Land productivity can be substantially degraded by surface mining, which introduces such problems as erosion, landslides, floods and loss of habitat. Previous research has focused on methods for improving tree seedling establishment on surface mines in the Appalachian region. Miller’s research investigated modified treatments for improving seedling performance in the Pacific Northwest. He also quantified the response of seedling foliar nutrients to post-planting fertilization.

While you let these thoughts take root, go ahead and mark your calendar and come out and join Miller’s committee chair Darlene Zabowski and other committee members Rob Harrison, Eric Turnblom and Dan Vogt!

Refreshments will be served!

Photo © Colton Miller.

Thesis Defense: Betsy Vance!

Hackelia venusta

Is there a better way to kick off a Wednesday morning than by listening to one of your fellow graduate students present her original research? No way!

So come out to Anderson 22 at 9 a.m. this Wednesday, May 22, to hear Betsy Vance defend her Master’s Thesis: “Investigating the ecological requirements of Hackelia venusta: An examination of the soils and their potential influence on the limited distribution of one of Washington State’s most endangered species.”

Hackelia venusta (“Showy Stickseed”) is an endemic, endangered species restricted to a single population located on the eastern footslopes of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. Preservation of the current population, as well as the establishment of future populations, is contingent upon a better understanding of the plant’s specific ecological requirements. The purpose of this study was to characterize the physical and chemical properties of the soil and how these properties may be influencing the current extent of the population.

Professors Darlene Zabowski and Rob Harrison are co-chairs of Vance’s committee, and other members include Professors Sarah Reichard and Eric Turnblom.

She’ll have coffee, juice and some sort of food/snack on hand, so come kick-start your day with some caffeine and a healthy dose of intellectual stimulation!

Photo of Hackelia venusta © Betsy Vance.

Thesis Defense: Erika Knight!

Next week on Thursday, May 9, round up your friends and colleagues to come support Erika Knight as she defends her Master’s Thesis! Her talk begins at 1 p.m. in Anderson 22, so join us in commemorating her years of work and research at SEFS.

Treatment Plot

One of Knight’s treatment plots at the Fall River Long-term Soil Productivity study site in western Washington.

Increasing demand for timber, as well as current interest in the use of woody biomass for energy and chemical production, may result in higher quantities of organic matter removed from plantation forests than currently occurs during harvesting. Knight’s thesis focuses on the potential of two practices that can increase the yield of woody biomass from a harvest site to change soil carbon and nitrogen storage:

1. Application of herbicides to control competing vegetation and improve crop tree growth; and
2. Removal of branches and foliage (slash) in addition to the bole during harvest.

She conducted her research in a 12-year-old Douglas-fir plantation at the Fall River Long-term Soil Productivity site in western Washington. She is part of Professor Rob Harrison’s soils lab, and her other committee members are Professors Darlene Zabowski and Dan Vogt.

Photo © Erika Knight.

ESRM Students Volunteer at Beaver Pond

Beaver PondEarlier this quarter, students in Professor Rob Harrison’s “ESRM 100: Environmental Science” course volunteered at the Beaver Pond Natural Area in Seattle. Working with Ruth Williams, the volunteer organizer, the students removed invasive plants and planted some native species.

Most ESRM 100 students complete a volunteer project as part of the course requirements, which include writing up a summary of their work, including the species they worked with, why they did the work, any problems they encountered, solutions they employed, and environmental benefits of doing their particular project.

For many, says Professor Harrison, the project is the first time they’ve done anything like this kind of restoration work outside—and they enjoy it so much that it often leads to additional environmental service volunteering!

Photo © Rob Harrison.