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.

Special Presentation: Forestry in Venezuela

Emilio VilanovaThis Wednesday morning, February 27, you are invited to a special presentation about forestry in Venezuela at 9 a.m. in Anderson 22.

Emilio Vilanova is a faculty member at Universidad de Los Andes, Mérida, Venezuela, and a prospective Ph.D. student who may join the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences next year. His lecture will cover the general nature of forestry in Venezuela, along with some information on his existing research program.

The talk is open to the public, so join us if you can!

Presentation slide © Emilio Vilanova.

Summer Forestry Internship

Hancock Forest Management

View of Mount Rainier from near the Kapowsin property site.

Looking to get some quality hands-on experience in the field this summer? Then check out this paid summer internship opportunity with Hancock Forest Management. The closing date for applications is March 29, so act quickly if you’re interested.

Position Available: Summer hire on property managed by Hancock Forest Management, a subsidiary of Hancock Natural Resource Group (HNRG).

Description: Harvest unit layout, road layout, forest road maintenance, silviculture and other duties as assigned.

Period of Employment: 8 to 12 weeks, depending on student’s school schedule; 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (variable).

Salary: $15/hour. Transportation to remote job sites provided. Employment will be contracted through a consulting forester (Full Scale Forestry).

Office Location: Kapowsin, Wash. Work will be on the Snoqualmie, White River and Kapowsin properties.

Prerequisites – Candidate must:

  1. Be currently enrolled in a two- or four-year college program with an emphasis in natural resources, engineering or a closely related field.
  2. Be committed to safety.
  3. Have a good work ethic.
  4. Have a valid driver’s license, personal vehicle insurance and a good driving record.
  5. Come equipped with caulked boots and rain gear.
  6. Be willing to spend all day in the outdoors.
  7. Be capable of hiking up and down steep, uneven forested terrain, and be able to lift 50 pounds.
  8. Have transportation to and from the office in Kapowsin or other carpool pick-up location in town.
  9. Some knowledge of GPS systems, compasses, ArcView and maps is preferred.
  10. Be able to provide three (3) references upon request.

To apply, send a cover letter, resume and unofficial transcript to:

Attn: Sean Greif
Hancock Forest Management
31716 Camp 1 Road
Orting, WA 98360

Photo © Hancock Forest Management.

SEFS Seminar Series: Week 8 Preview

SEFS Seminar SeriesYou’re in for a real treat this Wednesday with a SEFS Seminar Series doubleheader!

First, from 3 to 4 p.m.—an hour earlier than usual—we’re welcoming Dr. Anna Schoettle, a research plant ecophysiologist with the U.S. Forest Service. She is traveling all the way from the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Colorado to give her talk, “Managing for resilience: Sustaining mountain-top ecosystems in the presence of white pine blister rust,” so don’t miss this special opportunity!

Then, from 4 to 5 p.m., stay glued to your seats for Professor Jerry Franklin, who will follow with his talk, “Chaos in federal forest policy in the Pacific Northwest: The situation and a proposal.”

It’s an exciting line-up, so come to both if you can—and then join us afterward for a reception in the Forest Room from 5 to 6:30 p.m.!

NOTE: There will be no seminar next week on March 6, but the series will resume the following Wednesday, March 13, with Professor Sándor Toth for his talk, “Modeling green‐up constraints in spatial forest planning.”

REMINDER: Power Outage This Weekend

To complete the second phase of urgent maintenance, all power will be out in Anderson, Bloedel and Winkenwerder halls for roughly 36 hours this weekend from 5 a.m. on Saturday to 5. p.m. on Sunday. During this time, your Outlook email will still be operable, but all network files and the primary SEFS website will not be accessible. The buildings will be dark and completely without power.

Also, although the official start time is 5 p.m. tomorrow morning, you should expect preliminary work to have systems unavailable as early as 10 p.m. tonight, Feb. 22., and they might not return before Sunday night. So please plan your work schedules accordingly.

Check here or at the SEFS Facebook page—which will not be affected—for any updates or plan changes. All systems and building power should resume in time for normal operating hours on Monday, Feb. 25.

Pack Forest Spring Planting: Sign Up Today!

Pack Forest Spring PlantingFor more than 75 years, students have been putting down roots at Pack Forest, helping to shape it for future generations. This Spring Break, you can leave your own mark by taking part in the annual spring planting, March 24-30!

While staying at Pack Forest, you’ll roll up your sleeves and work on forest establishment, including planting, regeneration surveys and survey reports. Your housing (and some food) will be covered, there’s a kitchen at your disposal, and you’ll even earn a $200 stipend.

Contact Professor Greg Ettl for more details or to sign up. Registration closes on Monday, February 25, so act fast!

SEFS Seminar Series: Week 7 Preview

“A sustainable way to keep the Emerald City green, even in the summertime…”

“Letting it all seep in…”

“Every flush you make …”

“Engineers and ecologists—working together…”

Sally Brown

Professor Sally Brown

No matter how you spin it, the next seminar topic is bound to whet your intellectual appetite! So let your curiosity steer you to Anderson 223 this Wednesday, February 20, when Professor Sally Brown presents in Week 7 of the SEFS Seminar Series, “Reintroducing the water cycle in urban areas.”

Also, next week—February 27—is a seminar doubleheader!

First up, from 3 to 4 p.m., Anna Schoettle will be in town to give her talk, “Managing for resilience: Sustaining mountaintop ecosystems in the presence of white pine blister rust.” (She had originally been scheduled for March 13, but a conflict pushed her up a week).

Then, from 4 to 5 p.m., Professor Jerry Franklin will follow with his talk, “Chaos in federal forest policy in PNW: The situation and a proposal.”

Make sure to mark the change on your calendars, and come to both if you can!

The seminars are held in Anderson 223 and are open to all faculty, staff and students. Check out the rest of the seminar schedule for the Winter Quarter, and join us each week for a reception in the Forest Room from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Photo © Sally Brown.

Student Spotlight: Peter Gill

Peter Gill

Peter Gill, in his Carleton t-shirt, during a training session on tree nurseries in rural Senegal.

In Seattle and throughout the Pacific Northwest, it can be easy to think of forestry in terms of towering evergreens, and mountainsides carpeted with conifers. But for Peter Gill, who spent the last two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in a tiny village in Senegal, he worked with trees on a much smaller scale—on the margins of farmland, planted not for lumber but for sustenance, as erosion control or for fencing.

The son of two former Peace Corps volunteers, Gill grew up in Nepal and later attended school at Carleton College in Minnesota. He moved to Seattle and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) in 2009 as part of the Peace Corps Masters International (PCMI) Program, which prepares students with three quarters of course work before heading off on their Peace Corps assignment. After two years abroad, PCMI students then return to SEFS to complete their thesis and earn a Master of Forest Resources degree.

Gill just completed his two years in Africa and has returned to Seattle. He’s working with Professor Ivan Eastin, his faculty adviser, to finish his final research paper—which, like his work in Senegal, focused on deforestation and agroforestry.

Peter Gill

Gill works with a women’s garden to plant an intensive strip of moringa as erosion control.

Living in his village of 600 people, Gill worked with 24 local farmers and two women’s groups on projects to integrate various tree species with their crops and gardens. His goal was to create a better environment for agriculture in a way that also provided direct, sustainable use of the trees. That work could include growing nitrogen-fixing trees as a windbreak, or addressing erosion control by planting native moringa trees, whose leaves are nutritious and are made into a sauce eaten with millet.

Planting intensive rows of trees or other edible shrubs has another advantage. In the largely open countryside of rural Senegal, fencing is crucial because it allows farmers to grow year-round crops such as cassava—rather than farming only in the rainy season—by protecting their crops from cattle, goats, sheep and other livestock passing through with nomadic herders.

Yet most local farmers can’t afford metal fencing, says Gill, and adding wooden posts would mean cutting down more trees and further contributing to deforestation. A good way to solve both problems cheaply and sustainably is to plant “live fences” of thorny hedges, which can potentially serve double duty as a food source.

Gill often worked side by side with farmers and their families, and he was thoroughly immersed in his village. “I enjoyed it a lot,” he says. “It was a great learning experience and very challenging, but overall I think there’s not a better way to learn than getting your hands dirty—and I certainly got my hands very dirty.”

Peter Gill

Gill with his host family in Senegal.

Far from discouraging Gill, the challenges in Senegal helped cement his long-term plans. “I feel like it provided me with more of a sense of what I want to do after school,” he says. “I’m really excited about working in forestry and conservation in developing countries, and specifically agroforestry.”

Now that he’s back at SEFS this quarter to complete his thesis, Gill is also participating in another important aspect of the PCMI program: mentoring the incoming class of PCMI students and helping them prepare for their own experiences.

So far, he’s attended a few Q&A sessions, which cover everything from the process of applying to the Peace Corps to living conditions in developing countries. Every situation is different, of course, and the next class of PCMI students won’t necessarily end up in Senegal. Yet Gill says there are definitely some general lessons and philosophies for Peace Corps volunteers to keep in mind—including being highly adaptable to new situations, and learning as much as possible about a place before trying to change it.

“A good place to start when you’re looking to get involved in your community is to ask people about their strengths,” he says. “You can really get them engaged and build their confidence, which is really what development should be about. That’s a better recipe for successful work.”


Carrie Hessler-Radelet

Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler Radelet, front right, with Ivan Eastin and past and current PCMI students at SEFS.

PCMI is a professional degree program designed to allow students to complement a rigorous program of academic study with intense hands-on experience during their overseas Peace Corps assignment. Students generally complete one year of academic coursework prior to beginning their 27-month Peace Corps assignment. Following the conclusion of their Peace Corps duty, PCMI students generally return to their university to complete their degree requirements for graduation.

The SEFS PCMI program is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. So far, 18 students have been admitted into the program, and SEFS students have served in Tanzania, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Senegal and Paraguay.This year, as well, the University of Washington ranked #1 among larger universities for alumni currently serving in the Peace Corps, and Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet visited SEFS on February 5 to recognize PCMI students for their service and contributions.

Learn more about the PCMI program today!

Photos from Senegal © Peter Gill; photo of Carrie Hessler-Radelet © SEFS.

SEFS Seminar Series: Week 6 Preview

Biofuels Slide

Lignocellulose, or dry plant matter, is the most abundantly available raw material for the production of biofuels. But how can we improve the production of fuels and chemicals from lignocellulosic biomass? And how do we deal with heterogeneous biomass?

Join Professor Renata Bura this Wednesday, February 13, as she tackles these questions in Week 6 of the SEFS Seminar Series!

The seminars, held in Anderson 223 on Wednesdays from 4 to 5 p.m., are open to all faculty, staff and students. Check out the rest of the seminar schedule for the Winter Quarter, and join us each week for a reception in the Forest Room from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Additional Background:
Professor Bura is part of the Biofuels and Bioproducts Laboratory (BBL), which includes Shannon Ewanick, Brian Marquardt, Rick Gustafson, Erik Budsberg and Jordan Crawford. Here’s what she says about the lab’s work and her seminar presentation:

Improvements in individual processes (pretreatment, saccharification and fermentation) have been ongoing, but few researchers have considered the effect that the incoming heterogeneous raw biomass can have on the process. Even within the same species, biomass is physically and chemically very heterogeneous due to the agronomy practices, water and nutrients management, weed control, harvest and storage, seasonal changes, and age. Rather than designing a biorefinery around an ideal source of a given feedstock, it is preferable to understand how we can process heterogeneous feedstock. How can we alter the heterogeneous biomass to provide the maximum yield of hydrolysable and fermentable sugars from whatever is available?

In this presentation we discuss how by preconditioning of biomass, online reaction control, techno-economic and life cycle analysis we can deal with heterogeneous biomass such as switchgrass, sugarcane bagasse and hybrid poplar. We will present that by improving the uniformity of heterogeneous biomass in terms of moisture content, we could improve sugar yields by 28 percent. Another means of dealing with heterogeneous biomass is to improve overall process control by increasing the level of data collection. We will show how Raman spectroscopy could provide early detection of feedstock heterogeneity, leading to increased real-time awareness. Finally, when processing heterogeneous biomass, overall results of the techno-economic analysis have to be incorporated into life cycle assessment work to estimate life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from mixed lignocellulosics.

Join us on tomorrow to learn more!

BBL Graphic © Renata Bura. 

Wildlife Seminar Today: Barred Owls!

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

For Week 5 of the Wildlife Science Seminar, Robin Bowen of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland, Ore., will be presenting on the conservation challenges surrounding barred and spotted owls: “Killing one species to save another: Biology, ecology, ethics and the case of the barred owl.”

Hosted by Professor Ken Raedeke, the Wildlife Seminar is open to the public and meets from 3:30 to 4:40 p.m. in Kane Hall, Room 130. All are welcome, so come if you can!

Also, after today, only two more seminars are left in the Winter Quarter, so mark your calendars:

February 25
“Implementation of the wolf management plan in Washington State.”
Steve Pozzanghera, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Wash.

March 4
“Forecasting the impacts of land use and climate change at regional and continental scales.”
Josh Lawler, Wildlife Science Group, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences