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.
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.
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.”
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.