Director’s Message: Winter 2015

Last weekend, I woke up early and pored over newspapers and websites looking for a place to ski with my sons. I was extremely disappointed to see rain again forecasted for Snoqualmie Pass, with more rain predicted in the next two days, all the way up to 6,000 feet. A few ski areas were open, but those that were had limited runs available, or the conditions were icy and ragged and threatened to tear up your skis. Another time of year, such a soggy forecast would be welcome news. But it was a grim outlook for the first weekend in January.

As an avid alpine and Nordic skier, I am acutely aware of the poor early-season snow conditions that have plagued the Pacific Northwest since my family moved here in 2012. As a natural scientist, I am also keenly aware of the complexities of regional weather patterns, and I have to resist the temptation to ascribe all poor ski conditions to a warming climate. At the same time, climate change is predicted to bring warmer, wetter winters to the region, and the existing conditions at Snoqualmie Pass are bearing that out. I know some might chide me and argue that a shortened ski season is hardly cause for global panic. Yet the effects of our warmer winters will eventually ripple throughout the natural resources sector, threatening forest productivity, widespread insect outbreaks, stand-replacing fires, mudslides and all sorts of critical wildlife habitat, including salmon-spawning streams.

UW Climate Change Video Contest
In our first-ever Climate Change Video Contest, we are asking high school and undergraduate students in the state of Washington: What does climate change mean to you?

I couldn’t sleep later that night, and I found myself thinking about personal responsibility and how we can inspire collective action. Scientists have long understood and attempted to communicate the risks of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, and the links between our behavior and climate change are very real and well-documented. Yet after decades of trying to build awareness, we have largely failed to move the voting public or our elected leaders to take determined action. During the holidays, I even read several reports that the recent downturn in gasoline prices has spurred higher sales of larger, fuel-consumptive vehicles. This type of short-term thinking reflects the gulf between what we’re constantly warned about climate change, and how we actually react as citizens.

The most frustrating part for me is wondering why these warnings won’t stick, so maybe we need to rethink our approach. Maybe we need to change the message. Or maybe we just need to change who is delivering the message and give prominent voice to younger generations—the future leaders who will inherit and confront the greatest impacts of climate change.

With that goal in mind, this year we are trying a new approach to addressing the climate issue. Rather than asking our scientists to tell a story of modeled predictions of a warming climate, we are hosting a video contest that challenges high school and college students in the state of Washington with a simple prompt: What does climate change mean to you? In the space of three minutes or less, they can approach the issue through virtually any artistic style. How to make this climate message resonate on a personal and actionable level, after all, is all that matters at this point.

So I’m really looking forward to seeing how students frame this issue. I’m excited to see what inspiration and ideas we can draw from them in communicating—and solving—the enormous environmental challenges ahead of us.

I’ll keep eyeing the forecast and hoping for more snow, of course, but always in the much broader context of achieving a sustainable balance with a changing climate and world.

Happy trails,

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Autumn 2014

Last month, we marked the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law on September 3, 1964. In defining wilderness and ultimately protecting more than 109 million acres of federal land, the act was a brilliant and far-reaching piece of legislation. It designated huge tracts of land where the American public could experience nature with minimal human presence or interference, where “… the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain … without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”

Sawtooth Wilderness
Sawtooth Wilderness Area in Idaho.

For me, “wilderness” has always been one of the most beautiful and charged words in our language. It carries so much meaning and mystique, from our primeval roots to the allure of undiscovered wilds. To be in wilderness brings a deep sense of humility, something we experience too infrequently in our constructed landscapes, reminding us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves—and that we fit into this complex puzzle of ecology and evolution.

Yet one of the great hallmarks of our wilderness areas—their seclusion and reduced access—has also proven to be one of their greatest vulnerabilities. Visitor numbers have steadily declined in the past few decades, and while nearly everybody can name or locate a national park, far fewer can point out a wilderness area, or have ever been to one. Moreover, while the boundaries of our wilderness areas have remained mostly intact, human development has pressed in on the semi-natural, less protected lands that surround them. Large tracts of what was wild half a century ago are now a neighborhood or a suburb, and the very idea of wilderness has become increasingly distant and abstract.

You could argue, of course, that light use of our nation’s wilderness areas is a good thing. These lands do not need crowds to be successful, as fewer visitors generally means fewer impacts, and thus retention of an untrammeled landscape. Yet low foot traffic also means low visibility, to the point that the importance of wilderness starts losing its foothold in cultural and political discourse. Lack of use too-easily implies lack of economic value, and lack of economic value often yields a lack of congressional support, which threatens not only the wilderness, but the retention of any natural and semi-natural landscapes that also provide forest and non-forest products.

Yet wilderness doesn’t—and shouldn’t—need to generate paychecks or ticket stubs to prove its worth. As our footsteps and fingerprints have touched nearly every corner of the planet, I would argue the value of protected lands has become almost incalculable, especially from an educational and management perspective.

Wilderness areas, after all, aren’t idle spaces. They are living laboratories, offering windows to our ecological past and clues to future changes and adaptations. They provide crucial environmental baselines and test grounds for understanding how healthy ecosystems operate. Most important, especially at zones of convergence with human development, they can help provide blueprints for designing sustainable land-management strategies that provide for our needs without destroying the very systems that sustain our well-being.

So as we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, I hope we can restore the promise and purpose of our wilderness areas, and make sure the next 50 years of wilderness management prove equally farsighted.

Tom DeLuca
Director, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Summer 2014

As I’m writing this message, I’m looking out my office windows at another brilliant summer afternoon. This time of year in the Seattle and the Pacific Northwest—clear skies, mountains on every horizon, sails carving up every lake and channel—is especially distracting, and we’re lucky that Summer Quarter is our quietest. Half of every class would be dreamily gazing outside and clamoring for an escape.

Tom DeLuca
Director Tom DeLuca on a recent backpacking trip with his sons in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

It often feels like a reflex or instinct, this yearning to be outdoors, reveling in the infinite variety and beauty of nature. But I have to remind myself that I grew up in a family that had me out skiing all winter, and on extended backpack trips in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Northern Michigan in the summer. We spent countless hours building fence lines, cutting firewood and enjoying every autumn and spring on land we owned and managed in western Wisconsin, or simply playing in the woods by our house on a daily basis.

Not everyone has that same access to parks, open lands or wilderness, or the same opportunities to take advantage of them. Similar to developing a taste for unique foods, our understanding and appreciation of the ‘outdoors’ often starts with exposure to nature on a regular basis, ideally starting at a young age. Without a daily diet of nature, many people never develop an overarching respect for the natural world, and the immense value of its resources. There’s nothing automatic or universal about developing that respect. It’s often the result of years of experience and exploration, honed throughout our lives like so many of our philosophies and passions.

That’s why our role at SEFS is so important. We invest a significant portion of our effort toward instilling our students with a deep sense of respect and value for natural and semi-natural places, with a special emphasis on forests. Our hope is that our students leave here with a sturdy land and conservation ethic, derived from a scientific understanding of how ecosystems function, and how we might best manage lands for the enduring integrity and benefit of humans and all living species alike.

However, as I’ve learned, the taste for nature is best developed young, so we’ve recently launched a number of programs with the goal of capturing the imaginations of young minds much earlier.

Mount Rainier Institute
After a day of field experiments, students relax around a campfire during one of the first pilots of the Mount Rainier Institute.

This past October, we successfully completed the first pilots of the Mount Rainier Institute (MRI), and this fall we’ll be welcoming the first full season of students. A partnership between Mount Rainier National Park and SEFS, MRI is a residential environmental learning center designed to nurture the next generation of environmental stewards and leaders. The program invites middle school students from all backgrounds—and especially from diverse communities with limited access to parks and other natural spaces—to spend four days and three nights at Pack Forest and Mount Rainier National Park. They learn science by doing science, testing skills like observation, inquiry, analysis, supporting claims with evidence, and presenting their findings. Through these hands-on experiments, along with other fun activities like night hikes and campfires, they build confidence in being outdoors and, we hope, form the beginnings of their own land ethic.

Around the same time last year, we also kicked off a program at the UW Botanic Gardens that targets an even younger audience. The Fiddleheads Forest School immerses preschool-aged children in the natural world, introducing them to their relationships with trees, herbs, insects and mammals. It’s casual and playful, and these young students get to spend time in the beautiful outdoors classroom of the Washington Park Arboretum—an easy place to begin a lifelong love of nature.

Programs like these have me brimming with enthusiasm and confidence in the next generation of environmental leaders and resource managers. Because even if we can’t all grow up with regular access and exposure to nature, we can all grow into responsible stewards and ensure the long-term preservation of the landscapes we value so much.

Tom DeLuca
Director, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Photo of Tom DeLuca © Tom DeLuca; photo of Mount Rainier Institute © Kevin Bacher/NPS.

Director’s Message: Spring 2014

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in the dedication of the new solar arrays that are being installed on the top of one of the Mercer Court buildings. Quite a few students, faculty and administrators attended, as well as guest speakers Governor Jay Inslee and Denis Hayes of the Bullitt Foundation—both big proponents of solar power.

Known as UW-Solar, the project involves installing 178 panels on the roof, and monitors will then publish real-time and historical energy production and savings data online. It’s an impressive and exciting undertaking, and nothing struck me more than learning the effort was completely spearheaded by University of Washington students.

UW SolarI was told the Mercer Court dorms were built with the foresight to include infrastructure for solar panels, but the cost was apparently prohibitive at the time. It took the drive and determination of a group of students—including one of our SEFS graduate students, Allison McGrath, who is earning a joint master’s with the Evans School of Public Affairs—to spark this huge commitment to solar energy. In the end, these enterprising young leaders managed to raise $174,900 to help build the solar array.

Those students could have shied away from the sheer magnitude of raising that much money. They could have balked at the enormity of confronting the social and economic challenges associated with climate change. Instead, they’re celebrating the payoff of more than a year of planning, prodding and organizing, and their perseverance—their fearlessness in pursuing their passions—gave me a huge pulse of pride in our students.

You can find that same enthusiasm and initiative in other students throughout the School, College and University. In so many ways, they recognize the gravity of the challenges ahead, and they’re anxious to get involved and find solutions. At a time when so many of us feel precariously pressed for free minutes, these students are finding ways to stretch their hours almost miraculously (do they sleep?). On top of their course schedules, they’re taking on multiple projects and commitments, forming clubs and groups and partnerships, and they’re doing it all with uncompromised optimism and energy.

We have students spending their spring breaks down at Pack Forest to plant seedlings as part of a 75-plus-year tradition in sustainable forest management. They’ll never get to see these trees fully mature, yet they’re proudly investing in forests for future generations to use and enjoy. We also have freshmen organizing eco-fashion shows on campus, raising money and awareness for endangered species around the planet. Then we have other students leading divestment campaigns, creatively rallying support for sustainability through everything from campus forums to poetry slams. And all of these activities also build lasting friendships, connections and social networks that might otherwise be limited to class and dorm room interactions.

You can take so many lessons from these students. Most of all, I’m inspired by their action and ideas. Learning at a university is and must be a two-way street, and here the students are teaching us that there’s more to a minute than we might think, and that you can never be too busy to help others and to make a difference.

Photo © UW Solar.

Director’s Message: Winter 2014

As we pass through the darkest days of the year, I often marvel at the capacity of living organisms to adapt, both seasonally and over a lifetime. Sites where we held field trips this past autumn are now covered in snow and exposed to freezing temperatures, giving us a false sense that everything outdoors is asleep, dead or dormant. Yet even in this dark, frozen season—with its ecological limitations, stresses and strains—opportunities abound for life in the forest.

On the east side of the Cascades, at elevations above 3,000 feet where most of the year’s precipitation falls as snow, winter affords certain capacities you won’t find in the summer. Growth during those warm months, or during the “growing season,” can actually be limited by a distinct and prolonged lack of rainfall. In the winter months, moisture is far more prevalent, and there is less competition for that invaluable resource as trees and shrubs have greatly shut down transpiration for the winter. This opening creates opportunity for decomposers to do their work while other components of the ecosystem sleep. Beneath that blanket of snow, the forest floor and its fresh deposit of litter—leaves, bark, twigs—is kept warm by the insulating blanket of snow, and kept moist by the slow melting of snow and reduced evaporation rate.

Snow Mold
Fungal hyphae, or snow mold, exposed from melting snow (courtesy of Utah State Extension)

If you are lucky enough to be outside in the woods in the spring, just as the snow is retreating and the forest floor is slowly exposed, you will see white mats of fungal hyphae, or snow mold, carpeting the litter layer. As the litter dries, the fungal mat disappears without a trace within a day or two, hiding the fact that this period of dormancy was actually a period of extreme productivity and rejuvenation for the decomposer community. Nutrients deposited in the litter during the autumn are now available for plants to take up and use. It’s a powerful reminder that there’s no downtime in nature. No hours are wasted, nothing ever truly discarded—and even in the quietest moments, life is reloading and pressing forward.

I believe the same lesson holds for our students. While the holiday break and first days of a new quarter often feel like a period of dormancy and sluggishness, those hours without coursework and lectures are hardly idle or fruitless. In that seeming downtime—the snow cover of holiday festivities and social time—the fresh litter of knowledge from the previous quarter finally has a chance to be fully absorbed and processed and converted to a form that can be accessed and used. We can’t simply digest new information all the time; we depend on those invaluable moments of rest and reflection to recharge.

For some of us, the holiday fungal mat might not disappear without a trace, at least not within a day or two, but the law of the forest still applies: As students find themselves back in the classroom this winter, we expect them to return rejuvenated and ready to take on the next season of growth and learning!

Tom DeLuca
Director, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Photo © Utah State Extension

Director’s Message: Autumn 2013

Paul BunyanAs a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I had a pretty romantic view of forests, mountains, park rangers and foresters. I was too young to recognize some of the depleted woodlands to the north, but I definitely saw burly, 30-foot Paul Bunyan statues proudly displayed in towns across the state, and I equated the life of a forester with being outdoors and being a conservationist. And why not? Some of the greatest minds in conservation were initially foresters, including Aldo Leopold and John Muir, who both have deep connections in Wisconsin and in forest management—even though today these icons of land conservation are rarely described as foresters.

Muir was born in Scotland but grew up in Wisconsin. After he completed degrees in botany at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he went to work as a forester and as a sawyer at a lumber mill in Indiana before heading west to ultimately promote land preservation. Leopold was born in Iowa but worked much of his life as a forester. He eventually joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, and through his observations in the woods created the notion of practical conservation and described the land ethic that lives on in many of us today.

So as I look out at our students in the halls this fall, I wonder about their connection to the land, and how they reflect on terms such as wilderness, conservation, forests, forestry and foresters. I wonder if they grew up in neighborhoods where they could escape to stroll through the woods and peacefully observe natural ecosystems at work. I also wonder, in this age of reality television and social media, if the concept of sustainable forest management can even compete with their screens—or if all that breaks through the stream of split-second updates are visions of clear-cutting, or an ESPN highlight of lumberjacks sawing for sport.

A Sand County Almanac
A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, is the collection of essays in which Aldo Leopold described his “land ethic.”

After all, our population in the United States is increasingly urban, with current estimates that 80 percent of us now live in or around cities. That figure is growing by 1.2 percent every year, and the burgeoning Greater Puget Sound area alone could absorb 60 percent growth in the next 50 years. With this increasing urbanization often comes a dwindling understanding of both natural and working landscapes, and the role these lands play in our overall wellbeing.

That’s why we have such an important responsibility with conservation and forestry education here in this urban setting of Seattle. We are uniquely positioned to strengthen environmental values our students bring with them, and to cultivate new ties to the land. As professors and researchers and mentors, our mission is to teach our students about the value of forests and forest products in creating a sustainable society. Most importantly, it’s our job to train a workforce that can effectively manage these lands in a manner that simultaneously protects biodiversity and clean water and delivers an enduring supply of renewable building materials and other alternative forest products.

During the next 10 years, I hope to see forestry once again broadly equated with conservation and a strong ethic for the land. Developing that relationship, of course, is a lifelong process, and we now have programs in place at Pack Forest and the UW Botanic Gardens with the specific goal of getting kids out into the woods, and to initiate a relationship with the natural world at an early age. I’m excited to see that education nourished from preschool through high school, and to capture those budding foresters and conservationists in our undergraduate and graduate programs. With each class we reach, I can’t help but feel optimistic about the future of forestry—and our role in making sure forests and forest products play in central role in building a sustainable future for generations to come.

Director’s Message: Summer 2013

Last December, Forbes magazine published an article on the 10 “worst” college degrees, and a sister article on the 15 “most valuable” college degrees. Even though I immediately disagreed with the reduction of “value” to a dollar figure—and noted that “most valuable” is not a direct antonym for “worst”—the message to readers was unmistakable: A college degree is valued by the employment potential and the starting wages for recent grads.

I sighed in relief as I paged through the article and didn’t find natural resource and forest management or environmental science among the ranks of their list. That said, I was surprised and dismayed to see anthropology (the study of humankind) at the top, and subjects like art, philosophy and history also considered “worst” among our college offerings.

Jennifer Perkins
Jennifer Perkins, a 2011 graduate from SEFS, now works at the UW Office of Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability.

Not long after I read the Forbes piece, a similar story on LinkedIn again pinned the value of a college degree squarely on employment and entry pay. Without question, a college education should lead to a marketable skillset and a living wage. But I couldn’t help thinking that lost in these calculations of “value” is that students might not just want to make a living—they might want to love their living.

When I think about our own programs at SEFS, it’s impossible to miss that during the last six years, our Environmental Science and Resources Management (ESRM) major and Bioresource Science and Engineering (BSE) degrees have seen steady growth. For the past few years, moreover, our BSE graduates have had a 100-percent success rate landing jobs as soon as they’re finished with school, and in many cases long before graduation.

Take Megan James, a senior BSE major who is about to graduate this June. She’s been actively involved in papermaking at SEFS, and last summer she completed an internship with Procter & Gamble. That experience led to a job offer to continue on full-time after graduation as a process engineer at a brand-new paper plant in Bear River City, Utah.

Or consider Jennifer Perkins, who graduated as an ESRM major in 2011. Shortly after she finished school, she landed a position just up the road as the program coordinator for the University of Washington Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability Office. She’s loving her job promoting sustainability projects around campus, and she credits much of her enthusiasm and environmental expertise with her time at SEFS.

I also think of Dr. Brian Kertson, a SEFS alumnus who now works with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. He came through all levels of our program, earning his B.S. in forest resources (wildlife science) in 2001, then an M.S. and then a Ph.D.—and now he has a dream job working with large carnivores, and especially cougars, in the state.

Megan James
Megan James, left, and other members of the student TAPPI chapter during their annual holiday papermaking project.

The list goes on and on, and the more I think about it, the more I see how flawed the metrics are in the Forbes and LinkedIn stories. Nowhere in these articles or analyses is there consideration of “quality of life,” or deep interest or devotion to the topic or craft that might become the focus of the majority of our waking hours. Reflecting on my own degrees in soil science, I know I didn’t enroll in the major for the employment opportunities or high salary potential. Rather, I pursued the natural resources because of my desire to work on something real and tangible, my love for the outdoors, love of science, my awe at the complexity of ecosystems and particularly soils, and for so many creative possibilities of study and exploration.

Passion will carry you a long way toward success, and that starts, in many cases, with enjoying the job in front of you. So as our undergraduate and graduate students head out into the world, I am confident we have not only improved their employability, but perhaps more important, we have enhanced their environmental and conservation literacy, sharpened their critical thinking skills, and prepared them for a lifetime of growth and career satisfaction. They’ll have to chance to do what they know, and in fields they love. I’m not convinced there’s a more “valuable” outcome you can hope to achieve from an education.

Photo of Jennifer Perkins © Jennifer Perkins; photo of Megan James © Megan James.

Director’s Message, Spring 2013

A couple weeks ago in Nature, researchers reported that a probe from the Mars Rover had collected sediments indicating the presence of water and sediments, at some point long ago, that would have been ‘sufficiently benign’ to support microbial life. I’ve always been inspired by space exploration and consider it a worthy pursuit (and the soil scientist in me felt a rush of pride that “sediment” could command such international attention). Yet I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony, or at least the oddness, of scouring the soil of a planet millions of miles away for hints of life, when we have the greatest test ground for life right here on Earth—and where there’s plenty of work left to do to reach a sustainable balance with our own natural world.

MarsWe live on a planet where water is abundant and temperatures are uniquely hospitable. Solar radiation is tempered by a thick atmosphere of nitrogen and oxygen, and minerals in the soil support plant life and other conditions crucial to our existence. In the Pacific Northwest, in particular, we have the perfect combination of light, warmth and precipitation to grow trees tall and wide. And although most natural resources are not currently at a crisis point (at least for human uses), our historical patterns of population growth and consumption—coupled with emerging challenges associated with climate change—could soon oblige us to face an age of natural resource scarcity.

So while some call space the “final frontier,” I would argue our next true frontier is finding a sustainable balance of natural resource management and use on our own planet. There’s real ground for exploration and discovery here, for ambitious science and imaginative thinking, and I’m proud that our research at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) is at the leading edge of this field—and on multiple coordinated fronts.

Our mission at SEFS highlights sustainable landscape management with the hope that our land-use practices today will provide fiber, forests, clean water, wildlife habitat and human wellness for generations to come. Our students press into this frontier of sustainability by acquiring knowledge of current and past approaches to land management, a clear understanding of human dependence on managed landscapes, and a deep and fundamental appreciation of how natural ecosystems function. With these tools, our students are encouraged to envision how managed ecosystems of the future can simultaneously function in harmony with natural landscapes, while also providing timber and non-timber resources for regional and global applications.

The key is finding an enduring balance, and as always our students provide me with hope for the future. So let’s keep our eyes on the sky and expand our knowledge of space—but let’s also tend the soil in our own backyard forests and fields, and keep investing in this planet’s fitness and future.

Director’s Message, Autumn 2012

Late autumn is a special time of year. For many of us, the season stirs the reflection and anticipation mirrored in the natural cycles that surround us. Leaves once engaged in photosynthesis and the creation of wood mass are shriveling and falling to the earth. The autumn senescence of leaves and life represents the end of one journey and the beginning of another, resulting in the release of nutrients, energy and the building of humus—the rich, black organic matter of surface soils and the wisdom of living landscapes. In nature, loss yields opportunity.

Traveling the state and seeing the extent of beetle, budworm and fire-killed trees, coupled with our slow climb out of recession, I’m struck by the significant and mounting environmental, economic and societal challenges we’ll face in the coming years. However, I am given to hope when I see the enthusiasm in our students, and when I reflect on the depth and diversity of what is taught and learned in our school. Not only will our students understand the intrinsic value of wildfire-killed trees in a fire-maintained forest, they will also see opportunities where others see ecological catastrophes. The careful and sustainable management of beetle- and fire-killed trees, after all, has the potential to yield durable living structures as well as the generation of fuels or other products from residues.

If our goal is to create sustainable living systems that are reflective of natural ecosystems, a key part of this learning process is the integration of our students with those from across the College of the Environment and the broader university community. We live in a connected world, and few issues can be solved—or opportunities maximized—without a holistic approach to research and educational development. Sustainable land and resource management requires an understanding of ecosystems, management skills, a deep conservation ethic, critical thinking skills and an ability to apply systems thinking to complex problems. Our students are instructed and immersed in precisely those skills and qualities, and their careers will help raise our capacity to address these challenges. Loss yields opportunity. As we shed talented graduates, the world churns with fresh energy and determined minds.

So, here is to autumn and the collective knowledge generated during the last quarter—and here is to humus!

Thomas H. DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences