The hardest professional decision I’ve ever faced came last spring when I accepted an offer to take over as dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana. I struggled enormously with knowing how much I loved my job here, yet also feeling an irresistible pull to return to the University of Montana—to be closer to family, closer to where I started my career, and closer to the mountains I learned to call home. I still feel, without contradiction or cliché, the tremendous fortune of moving from one dream job to another, and as I look back on my four years here, I can hardly process all of the incredible experiences with students, faculty, staff and friends. As I prepare to leave next week, I’ve tried to pinpoint a few poignant memories, and I’ve realized how many of them involve field trips—precisely the hands-on experiences that make this school and our programs so special.
Three trips in particular stand out in my mind. They capture what I’ve enjoyed so much about my time at SEFS, and also what I hope to accomplish at Montana.
During my second year here, I asked Professor Susan Bolton to take over as the sole instructor for ESRM 201 (our intro ecosystems course), and in return I offered to help with the soils sections and the weekend field trip. For that excursion, we headed out over Snoqualmie Pass in a caravan of six Suburbans, stopping at several locations along the way to highlight the diversity, sensitivity and complexity of everything from wet coniferous forests to desert. The students were responsive and engaged, and I’ll never forget the power of the natural laboratory we have here in the Pacific Northwest. It gives our students a nearly infinite range of ecosystems to study and explore, as well as the practical experiences—and inspiration—to continue on in their research and careers. I also never forgot that we had grad students and even undergrads drive some of the vehicles, which sparked my crusade to find a safer, more effective and sustainable way to get our students to the field. (The result, of course, was a small fleet of 30-passenger buses, each with a huge ‘W’ on the back and driven by professional drivers!).
The next year, in the autumn of 2014, I got to participate in a Yakama field course with Professor Emeritus Tom Hinckley and Professor Ernesto Alvarado. During this trip, we visited the Yakama Nation and were generously hosted by our friends and alumni on the reservation, including brothers Phil and Steve Rigdon. It was an amazing experience. The students explored some of the knowledge and traditions of Yakama tribal members, and they got a sense of their deep commitment to sustainable resource management—built on a combination of practical savvy, traditional knowledge and cultural devotion. I was struck by the close relationships between our faculty and tribal members, and the depth of knowledge, willingness to share, and the importance of such exposure to our students. I hope to create similar relationships with the many tribes that populate the inland Northwest, and to provide similar opportunities for students at UM.
Then, in 2015 I spent a day touring forest management sites at Pack Forest and with our friends at Port Blakely tree farms. At Pack, we focused on some of the alternative silvicultural practices that Professor Greg Ettl and his students were studying. We also spent time talking with John Hayes about the Mount Rainier Institute, and the crucial work they are doing to cultivate a love of science and the natural world in underrepresented middle school students across Washington. Court Stanley and his colleagues at Port Blakely proudly explained some of the innovative work they were doing on their lands, and the importance of planning 100 years ahead for when their kids’ kids might benefit from the efforts they implemented today. The goal of the trip had simply been to update one another and share ongoing efforts in sustainable forest management, yet I was again overwhelmed by the positive and supportive relationships between our faculty and our partners in industry. I left that day with a profound sense of optimism and pride in the work we were doing, and in our role training the next generation of environmental leaders and stewards. That feeling has thoroughly defined my time at SEFS.
So it’s been hard to take full stock of what I’m leaving behind, and I know many of my experiences at SEFS will continue to shape and influence me for the rest of my life. I’ve been hugely proud to be part of this school, from the Arboretum and Center for Urban Horticulture, to Pack Forest and the Olympic Natural Resources Center, to all of our wonderful students, alumni, staff and faculty, and everyone I’ve had the the privilege of meeting and working with since I arrived. To all of you, please know I’ll never forget my time in Washington, and that you will always have a friend in Montana.
Tom DeLuca School of Environmental and Forest Sciences