Fourteen students in an interdisciplinary team-taught study away course spent the spring three-week term “Taking to the Trees,” traveling 2,500 miles of highways, country roads and forest trails from Seattle to Los Angeles. The study-away trip, offered by Associate Professor of Political Science Douglas Brattebo and Professor of Biology Denny Taylor, was the follow-on field experience to the “Ancient Forests and Great Trees” course that the students completed during the spring 12-week term.
With about 98 percent of the world’s old-growth forests already destroyed, the professors sought to instill in students a sense of wonder for these remarkable ecosystems. Although many Americans tend to associate ancient forests and rainforests with other quarters of the globe such as the Amazon in South America, the United States has been graced with some of the world’s greatest old-growth forests.
“We are hopeful that by seeing these incredible forests and trees firsthand, students will become vested in conveying these crown jewels of the Earth to future generations,” Brattebo said.
The preparatory course focused on three main subjects: old-growth forests’ evolution into stable biological systems; the varied uses Americans found for trees of many kinds as they built the country’s economy following the European settlement of North America; and the often conflictual relationship between the U.S. timber industry and various nonprofit organizations seeking to preserve remaining old growth forests.
The study-away group toured a major mountaintop logging operation outside Forks, Wash. This experience offered a window into the technology used in the modern timber industry, and also an opportunity to learn about the web of federal and state laws within which logging companies must operate.
“I was struck by both the huge capital investment in the machinery and also the rapid pace at which large tracts of timber can be removed,” said Bishop Sanders ’17.
Taylor used the experience to discuss with students the crucial role that tree cover plays in ensuring the correct temperature and related stream conditions necessary for salmon and other fish species to spawn. A tour of a salmon hatchery underscored this dynamic.
Throughout the journey, the group took in forests from very different perspectives. In southern Oregon, the travelers spent three nights in treehouses, looking down through the green canopy to the forest floor. A whitewater rafting trip through old-growth forest, on the nearby Rogue River, afforded a view of the interface between water and land. A subsequent morning spent at the Monterey Bay Aquarium shed light on the indispensable role that phytoplankton, like trees, play in providing the oxygen on which so much of Earth’s life depends. And a ride aboard a steam train in Northern California propelled the explorers through the redwoods.
Long forest treks provided students with ample opportunity to appreciate up-close the three main species of ancient trees they had studied before arriving in Seattle – the Douglas-fir, the Coast Redwood, and the Giant Sequoia. The Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, showcased a unique ecosystem that receives well over 10 feet of rainfall annually. Day hikes in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (nearly six miles) and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (nearly 12 miles) in northern California familiarized the students with some of the largest Coast Redwoods – “titans” that have been standing since the heyday of ancient Greek civilization. Nicole Fletcher ’18 was determined to complete the hike, noting, “Nothing was going to deter me from experiencing everything I had read about. The fact that the halfway point for the hike at Jedediah was beautiful undeveloped oceanfront provided an extra incentive.”
In Kings Canyon and Giant Sequoia National Parks in central California, students communed with Giant Sequoias, including General Sherman, the largest single-stem tree, by volume, on Earth. Madison Proctor ’19 summed up the sense of wonder that rippled throughout the group that day: “I keep thinking of the miraculous natural history that made it possible for these living pillars to rise. And more than anything, I feel a sense of responsibility to make sure that humanity does not cause their downfall.”