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.

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.

Alumni Spotlight: Jennifer Perkins

Jennifer Perkins

Jennifer Perkins suits up for a lift on the Wind River Canopy Crane.

“What was your favorite class?”

For graduates of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), few questions draw a more mischievous smile. It’s no wonder when your courses included tracking wolves in Yellowstone or rock-scrambling through the Cascades.

Yet in addition to the memories (and possibly a few shenanigans), these courses cultivate a variety of skills and passions that often lead to unexpected careers—sometimes even within a few steps of SEFS. For Jennifer Perkins, who graduated in 2011, she found a great opportunity as the program coordinator for the University of Washington Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability Office.

Perkins is a fountain of energy and ideas about sustainability, and she credits much of that enthusiasm to her time at SEFS. “It’s funny, where I’m working now doesn’t directly relate to what I studied,” she says. “But I don’t think I’d be as passionate about sustainability if I didn’t have a background and understanding of ecosystems—how it’s all a big cycle that we need to protect.”

As an environmental science and resource management (ESRM) major, Perkins especially enjoyed the hands-on field trips. “I loved being able to walk around campus or out in the woods and know what I’m looking at when I see different trees and plants.”

Jennifer Perkins

Perkins with her hands full at Yellowstone National Park.

Several professors stand out in her memory, yet Jerry Franklin was her favorite. “He’s very passionate and knowledgeable, and he always made class fun,” she says. “I had several courses with him, and my favorite was when we went to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks for two weeks. In Glacier, a wolf ran across the road in front of us and then stopped, looked back at us and howled. We went back later and measured the paw prints.”

On a different excursion for “Spring Comes to the Cascades,” Perkins recalls a few rough-and-tumble experiences. “My raincoat took a beating in that class,” she says. “My ski pole went through my hood while sliding down a hill in the snow.”

These scrapes hardly discouraged her, and Perkins was happy not to leave her memories at SEFS too far behind at her new job.

Perkins had initially started as a student volunteer at the Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability Office in April 2010, and then after graduation joined the office full-time. In her first year and a half, she’s been able to implement a host of new sustainability projects around campus—and with a growing team of support. “It’s been really cool. When I started there, we had 1.5 full-time staff. We now have 3.5 full-time staff, and anywhere from five to 12 students working with us during any quarter.”

One of the most exciting initiatives they’re working on, she says, is the Green Office Certification program, which rates buildings and departments around the school for how sustainably they’re operating. Criteria include such categories as whether printers are set to double-sided print, or if there’s a compost bin in the kitchen. To participate, offices can fill out the survey online and can get certified at bronze, silver or gold. The program has been under way for about a year now, and recognition includes a certificate and letter, a profile on their website, and promotion in their newsletter and social media (and of course all the benefits of a sustainable office operation!).

The early success of the Green Office Certification program helped sprout a similar concept for laboratories, which Perkins says they hope to launch in January or February 2013.

Another project in the works is creating a sustainability map for campus. Inspired in part by frequent questions about where to find compost bins, the map will additionally highlight recycling outlets, bike-repair stations and bike parking, and a variety of other sustainability resources and facilities—all in one handy location. The plan is to have the map ready in April, first in a digital form, and perhaps later with print options.

At the heart of each of these projects is student involvement, says Perkins. “A lot of our programs give students the opportunity to learn about our campus and get some experience to use in their professional careers.”

Perkins

Field work on the Olympic Peninsula.

Harnessing student power has helped Perkins and her office greatly expand their coverage and connections. “There’s so much sustainability work going on here,” she says, “but there hasn’t been a centralized place to find information. That’s the role our office trying to fill.”

And if you are looking to get involved, Perkins says the best first step is to come in and talk to their team and learn about what’s already going on around the university, and where there might be good opportunities waiting for willing hands. “If we can’t get you started doing something in our office, we can probably connect you with the right resources on campus.”

You can also visit their newly redesigned website, which is loaded with useful resources and links. Check out the Campus Sustainability Fund, which is run by students—and for students—to support and encourage a variety of sustainability activities, from building green walls to screening environmental films. Browse the “Sustainability Snapshots” to learn about more interesting projects going on around the school (or submit your own for others to read about and emulate). Or sign up to follow their office on Facebook or Twitter and see different departments and fun facts highlighted each week.

Options abound, so learn more and get involved today!

Photos © Jennifer Perkins.