Emeritus professor Robert Edmonds pens history of forestry science at the UW

Peter Kelley

In a new history of forestry science education and research at the University of Washington, Robert Edmonds covers the field from its early logging days to the preservation of old-growth forests and the current era of climate change.

In 1973, past UW president Henry Schmitz published a history titled “The Long Road Traveled,” tracing the then College of Forestry from 1907 to the mid-1960s.

Now Edmonds, professor emeritus in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, has updated that history with his own book, years in the making: “Saving Forest Ecosystems: A Century Plus of Research and Education at the University of Washington.” The book, bringing the history up to 2020, will be published in February by Archway Publications of Bloomington, Indiana.

Emeritus professor Robert Edmonds pens history of forestry science at the UWUW Notebook asked a few questions about the book and the task of capturing more than a century of UW forestry work.

Why did you take on this immense project?

Robert Edmonds: I wanted to capture the history of forestry research, teaching and outreach on campus since Schmitz’s book. However, to tell the whole story I needed to go back to the beginnings of forestry in Washington state in the 1850s, and the teaching of forestry at the UW in 1895. I used information from written works, historical photos, and personal interviews. The research and writing took me eight years, starting at the time of my retirement in 2012. More history was created since then, so I included this as well.

Eight years is a lot of time to work on a project. What kept you going?

R.E.: I felt I had an important story to tell UW forestry faculty, alumni and future students, the UW community, other forestry schools around the nation, professionals, the public and people in other countries. Nobody else was interested in doing this, so I was determined to finish it.

Can you tell a bit more about the research process for the book?

R.E.: As well as using historical sources I took a more personal approach, recounting stories about the faculty, students and staff. Sources included memories from my 54-year association with the College of Forestry and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences; the UW libraries forestry archives; theses and dissertations in the UW library, Seattle Times, and web sites such as Wikipedia, Wikimedia and HistoryLink; oral history recordings of alums and faculty, career stories from undergraduate and graduate alumni, books (including Schmitz’s), reports and journal articles.

You describe changing attitudes toward forests and the environment in the 1950s and 1960s, when “forests were beginning to be recognized as ecosystems.” How did this affect forestry education at the UW and beyond?  

R.E.: In the early days, forests were generally regarded solely as a source of lumber. In the 1950s and 1960s people began to realize that forests were not only trees, but ecosystems containing a myriad of interconnected organisms, which we knew little about. The functioning of these ecosystems, particularly the remaining old-growth forests, was poorly understood.

In the late 1960s a large-scale study of coniferous forest ecosystems called the Coniferous Forest Biome, or CFB, was established at the UW to study ecosystems as part of the International Biological Program. Concerns about forest management, especially clearcutting, were being raised, including its effects on streams and fish.

This and other research resulted in the curriculum being broadened to include ecosystem ecology, soils, wildlife, urban horticulture, interactions between humans and forests, and forest products other than lumber, such as biofuels. Graduate students who took academic positions after graduation introduced the ecosystem approach in their courses, contributing to the long-lasting legacy of the program. The concept of ecological forestry emerged from CFB research and has been adopted around the world.

Emeritus professor Robert Edmonds pens history of forestry science at the UW

Robert Edmonds

You mention concern about the loss of forests due to global warming. How does this happen, and how is it reflected in forestry education?  

R.E.: Forests are very sensitive to changes in climate, especially global warming, which is occurring rapidly. Species ranges are changing and trees at higher elevations and those in naturally moist environments are being threatened. Summer drought is increasingly making trees more susceptible to insects and diseases. Forest fires have increased, resulting in tree death, lower forest productivity and the demise of millions of birds and animals through habitat losses. Increased rain-on-snow events are affecting hydrological cycles and the water supply to cities. Many courses now include global warming impacts.

You conclude the book with thoughts on the future. Given ongoing environmental and political challenges, what do you think lies ahead for forest science? 

R.E.: Clashes among utilitarians, conservationists and preservationists have been the story of the use of forests though time. Although these groups have begun to work together, clashes no doubt will continue depending on the environmental and political challenges of future years. Wood products will always be needed and new ones will evolve, but forest management must be conducted in a sustainable and ecologically sound manner.

Climate change, forest fires and human-caused deforestation are the main threats to forest ecosystems worldwide. Healthy forests are needed to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Research, teaching and outreach will need to address these threats and keep pace with a rapidly changing world and a continuously changing job market.

For more information, contact Edmonds at [email protected]


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