Category Archives: natural history

In the news: Sword fern die-off

Our work on sword fern die-off was picked up by several news agencies this summer including King 5 News and the Associated Press. KUOW’s Eilis O’Neill did a nice radio piece which included the voices of my kids on a hike through the die-off zone (see photo below). Sierra Magazine also did a nice piece highlighting the role of citizen naturalists as “canaries in the coal mine” for ecosystem health and degradation.  In this context, my students and I, along with a number of dedicated citizen scientists, have been following up on crucial observations made by a neighborhood naturalist, Catherine Alexander, in 2013. The upshot of this media coverage is that many concerned folks have come out of the woodwork to inform us of other sword fern die-off locales around the region. My students and I will follow up on some of these new sites, setting up sampling and monitoring protocols in those locations, while continuing the work in Seward Park.

For summaries of the sword fern die-off problem, see my earlier posts.

A photo taken by Eilis O’Neal (courtesy of KUOW) during our radio interview in the fern die-off zone.


ENVIR 280 BioBlitz at SkyRoot Farm!

Here, finally, is a summary of our ENVIR 280 spring field trip (May 7, 2016) to Beth Wheat’s SkyRoot Farm on Whidbey Island. This was a unique field trip for us because, unlike our other trips to more “pristine” habitats, this foray explicitly sought to describe the natural history of an actively managed landscape. Given that the number one reason for loss of natural habitats across the globe is the development of human agriculture, understanding the effects of agriculture on nature and ecosystem function is critical.

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Beth gives the grand tour to get us started. We were also accompanied by former PoE director, Johnny Palka.

We surveyed the farm,  from the intensively managed farm fields to the surrounding meadows and forest fragments which buffer the property. While we only spent a few hours on the farm, we were surprised by what we found in this working organic farming landscape.  Hopefully our report can serve as a baseline as Beth grows her farm, restores the surrounding habitats, and generally seeks to make her farm more ecologically integrated into the natural landscape.  Here’s our report:

Whidbey Island is famous for its glacial geomorphology. SkyRoot Farm sits at the base of a drumlin. Forests on the edge of the farm creep just up the base of the drumlin. Soils in this section are sandy, and resemble the advance glacial outwash (Esperance sand) so prevalent in Seattle.


SkyRoot Farm is located on the west side of the eroding drumlin which is crossed by French Road.

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Sandy soils in the forest on the slope of the drumlin. These are glacial outwash sediments from the advance of the Vashon icesheet.

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The farm is on a flat clay soil area on the west side of the drumlin. Clays were deposited in slow moving waters early in the advance of the Vashon icesheet. A creek originating from the porous soils of the drumlin, flows across this flat area, unable to percolate through the clay layer. Large cedar stumps (cedar trees being tolerant of wet soils), such as the one in this picture, remnants of the original oldgrowth forest, are visible on the landscape, sometimes overgrown, in places that were never intensively farmed. The meadows on this clay layer are naturally very wet, owing to the fact that water percolating through the drumlin is forced to flow outward along the impermeable clay layer. They are dominated by rushes (Juncaceae).

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The riparian habitat running through the farm is home to a variety of native wetland plants, including Tolmiea menziesii (pictured here), Rubus spectabilis, sedges (Carex sp.), Alnus rubra, Sambucus racemosa, common horsetails, lady ferns, Tellima grandiflora, and Lysichiton americanus (skunk cabbage). Licorice fern grew on big leaf maples, along with a variety of common pollution tolerant lichens. such as Evernia prunastris (antlered perfume), Usnea sp. (perhaps blood spattered beard), various dust lichens, and “forking bone” lichen.

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We identified this Ribes divaricatum, one of many gooseberry species in WA, (spines in clusters of 3 being diagnostic) along the creek.

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Coyotes are active in the riparian strip, a sheltered habitat for mammals to move through the agricultural landscape in secret. We will place camera traps here in the fall to confirm this identification.

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Banana slugs in the riparian strip: Denizens of the surrounding conifer forest fragments, they make their way into the farm landscape via the riparian corridor. This native species is absent in most of Seattle’s forest fragments, replaced there by a European species that probably has some negative consequences for the health of our forests.

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Amphipods were abundant in the creek.

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Red legged frogs were abundant in the riparian strip. This species has experienced significant declines in Oregon and California due to habitat loss, introduced bullfrogs, UV and more. It will be important to continue monitoring for this species. Tree frogs are also abundant on the farm. We recently found some on our fall trip to set up camera traps.

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Trientalis borealis ssp. latifolia (Starflower, Primulaceae) is a common flower of the floor of conifer forests from sea level into the mountains.

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Red legged frog, again.

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The red admiral, a common butterfly of open areas. Larvae feed on nettle. Adults feed on nectar.

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This Douglas fir stump is healing itself. Is it connected to living trees via mycorrhyzae? Sword fern is adjacent, with dull Oregon grape behind. Red huckleberry was also abundant in the woods. There is much potential on the farm for harvest of native perennial “crops”. In this second growth forest, the canopy is still fairly closed, and the forest floor is fairly devoid of plants. The forest has already gone through its self-thinning phase, however, and is beginning to show some more diverse structures. On our fall trip to set camera traps, we found a Barred Owl in this forest. We also noticed the invasive English Holly and endeavored to pull it out whenever we could.

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The goldenrod spider on a vetch. This gorgeous spider is sitting in wait of its prey, perhaps a bee that would otherwise pollinate this flower (I have seen this species take bees before!).

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Hannah holds a song sparrow, a common bird of forest edges.

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One of the many insects we found on the farm (Carabus granulatus). This ground-dwelling beetle, found in both forest and field, is generally thought to be useful in controlling pests. Invertebrates are its main food in both larval and adult stages. We also found another invertebrate predator, the blue-eyed darner dragonfly, engaged in its amazing copulation flight. The fact that Beth’s farm is organic serves these predators well. The Carabus is particularly sensitive to pesticides.

Here’s our complete bird list (not bad for a few hours, and indicative of the variety of habitats available at SkyRoot, from conifer forest, to alder forest, to riparian, to open meadow):

Barn Swallow
House Sparrow
Song Sparrow
European Starling
American Robin
American Goldfinch
Black-headed Grosbeak
White-crowned Sparrow
Violet-green Swallow
Hutton’s Vireo
Common Yellowthroat
Steller’s Jay
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Northern Flicker
Bewick’s Wren
Common Raven
Purple Finch
Anna’s Hummingbird
Dark-eyed Junco
Spotted Towhee
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Pileated Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Osprey (flying by)
Turkey Vulture (flying by)
Red-tailed Hawk (flying by)
Bald Eagle (flying by)
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Western Wood-Peewee

Add: Barred Owl in fall, and in later spring/early summer, Red-Winged blackbirds, Townsend’s Warbler, and Western Tanager. Undoubtedly there are many more birds that use or pass through the farmscape throughout the year.

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The Puget Sound Region loses two giants in natural history: Art Kruckeberg and Bob Paine

With a new quarter in ENVIR 280 (Natural History of the Puget Sound Region) upon us, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the lives of two giants in the natural history of our region, Bob Paine and Art Kruckeberg, both of whom passed away earlier this year while I was busy teaching the spring version of ENVIR 280. I will not attempt full obituaries here since there are many excellent obituaries available on the internet by people who knew them better than I. Instead I will briefly describe their connection to ENVIR 280 and what my brief interactions with them have meant to me.

Art Kruckeberg:

I will start with Art Kruckeberg, whom I unfortunately never had the chance to converse with, but whom I had the pleasure to hear from in a graduate student seminar at the University of Washington, probably 15 years ago now. He, of course, waxed poetically about serpentine plants, but I believe the topic of his seminar had more to do with his work on Achillea with the famous botanical triumverate of Clausen, Keck, and Hiesey. I was completely enthralled, not only to learn more about the importance of their seminal study on Achillea ecotypes (work I often talk about now when in the field with students), but to learn more about the logistics, places, and personalities involved; and  to hear about it directly from someone who was there (especially from someone who is a legend in his own right) felt like I was immersed in the history of science–a heady experience for a beginning graduate student such as myself.

But my present career has benefited from Art’s legacy in some more tangible ways. It was Art who taught the original “Natural History of the Puget Sound Region” course at the University of Washington. It may have been taught under a slightly different title at the time (and I’m guessing was probably biased towards geo-botany, a field that Art popularized), but when Josh Tewksbury re-invented the course in 2012, it had probably not been taught for over 20 years because the UW (like most major universities) had lost its appetite for general natural history courses. I occasionally meet older folks who were students in UW Botany back in the day, and they rave about their time in the field with Art in this class. The class apparently had field trips to far-flung parts of Washington every weekend (unfortunately our budget and changing times limit us to only three weekend field trips). So, I feel in some way teaching ENVIR 280 today, that I am carrying on a legacy begun by Art. Art’s book, “Natural History of Puget Sound Country”, upon which the curriculum of our course is partially based, is unparalleled in the depth and breadth of its approach to the natural history of this region (ranging from geology, botany, and zoology, to the ecology of first peoples). Indeed, I don’t think there are many regions of the U.S. or world that have a tome quite like Art’s to describe their own natural history.  Art, and his commitment to making the general natural history of this region accessible to a wide audience, will be missed. Thankfully he left many students who are carrying on the tradition (including the entire Washington Native Plant Society, which Art helped to found). And I look forward to visiting the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, another legacy left by him and his wife.

A familiar photo of Art in the field–the same photo that graces the back cover of his famous book, “Natural History of Puget Sound Country”. Photo courtesy of


Bob Paine:

The second giant I want to talk about is Bob Paine, a scientist and naturalist whom I had the pleasure of getting to know later in his life, as a fellow participant in the Natural History Network’s workshop on Natural History Education at UW’s Pack Forest (in which he candidly discussed creating an environment in which his children could get dirty and freely explore nature–in this case the creeks and ponds of the UW Aboretum–an idea that I have heeded now that I am a parent myself), and through his participation in ENVIR 280 as a guest lecturer. The photo below, by Benj Drummond, is from the Natural History Network workshop.  One of the best outcomes of that workshop was the Natural Histories Project, in which Bob’s voice is immortalized as he holds forth on the longevity of sea anemones:

Bob Paine, at the Natural History Network’s education workshop. Photo by Benj Drummond.

As a graduate student in UW Biology, I passed Bob’s emeritus office space (more like a small room by the backdoor of the building) almost daily. His door was always open in invitation to students to drop in at any time, even as he worked tirelessly on manuscripts and lectures. He was also a frequent participant in the weekly graduate ecology seminar, which he started long before he retired, and which he attended long into retirement (apparently even emailing his thoughts into the seminar during his final days when he was too sick to attend). Bob was one of those people who seemed “anemone-like” (in reference to the recording linked above). I fully expected him to be in that office forever, holding forth on any manner of ecological or natural history topics with whomever might stop by. For a man of his age, he maintained excellent physical health, and his mind remained as sharp as ever even as his body aged. I was shocked to learn that Bob had been dealing with cancer and that he had passed away relatively suddenly this spring.

It wasn’t until after the Natural History Network workshop that I felt more comfortable just dropping by and chatting with Bob, and I got to know him much better in the process. True, he was a giant in the field of ecology, as many of his obituaries demonstrate, but he was easy to talk to, extremely self-effacing, and willing to mentor anyone (from undergraduate to postdoc) who might wander into his office, with incisive and insightful advice. As an example of his modesty, a student in one of my natural history classes asked him after an engaging guest lecture on his ingenious studies of intertidal ecosystems, whether he had received any accolades for his work. Bob sheepishly replied that he had received a few, but quickly returned the subject to natural history.

As a naturalist, Bob got his start studying birds. At the Natural History Network workshop, I recall the fish biologist, Mary Powers, saying that Bob was able to double her house bird list, just by sitting on her front porch and listening to the songs of birds calling from the vegetation nearby. But, as a biologist, Bob wanted a study system that he could more easily manipulate. At the University of Washington, he settled on the ecology of invertebrates in the rocky intertidal zone of Washington’s outer coast, also the subject of his guest lectures in my class–usually to prepare us for our big spring field trip to rocky intertidal ecosystems.

In the first few iterations, Bob’s guest lectures were done with an old- fashioned slide projector (although I think in the last iteration, he had scanned his old slides into a PPT), as he took us (the audience) on a virtual tour of his beloved Tatoosh Island. Bob was convinced that advances in biology came from careful observation of nature, rather than reading books or papers. More importantly, he taught my class that the best naturalists turn their observations into questions, and then answer those questions by devising simple experiments. He walked us through his thought process on Tatoosh, starting with basic observation of the natural history of common organisms, and then asking questions about what controls their distribution and abundance in the intertidal zone. He encouraged us to always ask ourselves in the field which ecological force(s) (disturbance, predation, herbivory, competition, facilitation, uncertainty or randomness) best accounted for patterns we might be seeing at any given time. He showed us “before and after” photos of winter storm wave action on Tatoosh. He showed us coralline algae growing over a sponge, competing for space. One of my personal favorites was his image of an algae garden maintained indirectly by a black oyster-catcher preying on limpets and other algae grazers–an example of a trophic cascade. And of course, no Paine lecture would be complete without a discussion of ochre sea stars as a keystone species (a term he essentially coined), and its ability to structure and maintain diversity in the system. He described how he tested his ideas using simple, yet ingenious experiments, using supplies from hardware stores and marine supply stores to either enclose or exclude organisms on the rocks, in addition to simple removal experiments. He brought in a veritable museum of beat-up experimental detritus left over from these experiments, explaining that all of these things were acquired cheaply and easily, the only tricky part being finding items that could withstand wave action day in and day out.  The takehome message was that these experiments could have been done by anyone who was willing to observe and think–money was not the limiting factor. Of course, being the first person to do the “observe and think” part, was no small task. Perhaps this is just another example of Bob’s humbleness.

In later iterations of Bob’s guest lecture to my class, he became increasingly concerned about human-induced stressors on ecosystems and he was convinced that natural history and experimental ecology might be used to predict future ecosystem structure. For example, if humans over-harvest algae, or grazers such as abalone, an understanding of the effects of herbivory and competition in a given system would be crucial to predicting how the system might react. He had also become increasingly concerned with Seastar Wasting Disease (which is actually probably not directly human induced), which, as a result of his own experimental work, might arguably cause mussels to become more common in their place. But he was quick to point out another new human-induced stressor, ocean acidification, which may simultaneously negatively effect mussels (by inhibiting their ability to grow byssal fibers), particularly in cold waters at higher latitudes.

Bob was convinced that intensive study at one site (in his case, Tatoosh Island) is essential for field ecologists to undertake. While some might criticize the ability to generalize results from only one site to other sites, the depth of knowledge one can obtain by studying a single site for a long period of time is simply unmatched by short studies across many sites. Using one site for a long period of time, one can tease apart complex interactions by really getting to understand the ecology (starting with basic natural history) of many of the players in the system through time. And it is the time component that is most important. Organisms that you think are the major players ecologically in the system today, may not have been in the past, and they may not be in the future. A long time-base allows you to understand natural variation in the system, and it is the only way that you can begin to tease apart natural variation in the system from the many human-induced variations that systems are likely to incur in the future.

For as proud of his experimental ecology work as Bob was, in one of my last interactions with him, he loaned me a book with a section entitled: Food recognition and predation on opistobranchs by Navanax inermis (1963). In this section he essentially follows a single sea slug around the intertidal zone for what must have been days on end recording a careful diary of where it went and what it ate for as long as he could stay with it. This, to me, demonstrates Bob’s dedication to not only experimental natural history and ecological process, but to the most basic kind of natural history observation. This is the kind of work that ordinarily would never make it into a publication in today’s scientific arena, and is thought of as old-fashioned, or even a death-knell to anyone who wants a career in modern biology. In this chapter, Bob unabashedly provided simple documentation of the life of an organism that most people have never heard of, let alone care about, but that deserves to be paid attention to every bit as much as any other organism on the planet.

Bob will be much missed, but his enormous scientific and teaching legacy will live on. I hope that I can do justice to this legacy as I strive to pass on his ideas and wisdom to my students.

Seward Park’s Sword Fern Die-off: the problem is getting worse

Note: For an update on this issue, see this new post.

This post documents a research project I have been heading, with the help of University of Washington undergraduates, and a group of concerned citizens from the Seward Park neighborhood.

Seward Park is one of Seattle’s flagship parks, and one of only 2 parks I know of in Seattle that has any substantial remaining old-growth forest. In 2013, Catherine Alexander, a local citizen naturalist and daily user of Seward Park, noticed that Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum) were mysteriously dying in the understory of Seward Park’s old-growth. A frequent park user myself, having recently moved into the neighborhood, Catherine p0inted out the problem to me in the winter of 2014/15. I was convinced the ferns would make a comeback in the spring, but I was surprised when nature proved me wrong. While several other local citizen naturalists sensed the problem was worsening, no one had actually taken the time to quantify the extent of the damage and spread of damage, let alone address the causes. In 2015, Paul Shannon, a leader of a citizen group called  “Friends of Seward Park”, enlisted me to help get a handle on the problem.

With the help of two excellent undergraduates from the University of Washington, Kramer Canup and Tristan O’Mara, we began to consider experimental designs for monitoring the current extent of damage and change in damage over time. While we considered a gridded plot system which would cover areas inside and well outside the die-off zone, as well as a protocol for fine scale transects crossing the perimeter of the die-off area (to detect expansion of die-off), limited time, funding, and human power caused us to settle on more minimalist protocols.  To map the perimeter of the damaged area (interestingly, the damage seems to be worst at central point, and is spreading radially from that point, rather than patchily throughout the forest), we used GPS and GIS to mark and connect points at which 50% of the individual ferns in a given area exhibited at least 30% dead fronds (Figure 1). To better understand the dynamics of the die-off over time, we randomly placed 20 plots inside and just outside the perimeter of the damage zone (Figure 1). Within each of these plots, we mapped every fern and counted fern stems categorizing them as living (if they had any amount of green coloration at all) or dead (if they had no amount of green coloration). Adjacent to each plot, we also sampled for fungal pathogens on fern roots in collaboration with the Washington State University extension program. All plots were surveyed in November 2015 and again in May 2016 (see results below). We hope to repeat all of these protocols again in November 2016 and again in 2017.

We randomly placed 20 5m x 5m plots throughout the region of fern damage in Seward Park. The red line polygon encloses the area of worst damage, approximately 100% die-off, first noted in 2013. The black polygon marks the outer edge of fern die-off according to a protocol we developed. Blue plots are plots that gained fern stems between November 2015 and May 2016, and red plots are plots that lost fern stems over the same period.

Figure 1. We randomly placed 20 5m x 5m plots throughout the region of fern damage in Seward Park. The red line polygon encloses the area of worst damage, nearly 100% death of all sword ferns, the area in which die-off was first noted in 2013. The black polygon marks the outer edge of fern die-off according to a protocol we developed. Blue plots are plots that gained fern stems between November 2015 and May 2016, and red plots are plots that lost fern stems over the same period.

Tristan Kramer counting healthy ferns

Tristan O’Mara and Kramer Canup (UW undergrads) surveying ferns in November 2015, in a healthy sword fern understory.

Tristan KRamer ground zero

Tristan O’Mara and Kramer Canup surveying ferns in a plot at the center of the die-off zone. Nearly 100% death of the ferns is observed here. Prior to 2013, the understory in this area looked much like the understory in the image above. The density of dead fern fronds in this area rivals the density of live fronds in the area pictured above.

laying out plot at ground zero

Laying out the plots, and staking the corners. November 2015.

After the resurvey of the 20 plots in May 2016, some initial results are in. The punch-line is that some plots/ferns gained green stems (not surprising in the spring-time), but most plots/ferns lost green stems (surprising given that it was spring). On average, there was an 18% loss of green stems (p<.002) across all of the ferns across all of the plots (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The average number of live stems per fern declined by 18% from November 2015 to May 2016. This is especially surprising given that our 2016 resurvey was in the spring. One would expect a brief uptick in green stems in spring, prior to the typical summer drought.

Figure 2. The average number of live stems per fern declined by 18% from November 2015 to May 2016. This is especially surprising given that our 2016 resurvey was in the spring. One would expect a brief uptick in green stems in spring, following typical summer die-back in the previous growing season.

Mountain Beaver ferns

Figure 3. Sword ferns neatly snipped and stacked at the entrance to a mountain beaver burrow in Seward Park.

While documenting the status of the die-off has been an important first step, there are many possible reasons for the die-off.  Unfortunately, we have very little insight into the reasons. 2015 was an unusually hot and dry year, but the problem began under normal weather conditions in 2013. Still, we may see some recovery following this summer (yet another reason to continue monitoring).  Testing for pathogens in the soil and root systems has yielded negative results. There are some pathogens there in small quantities, but not in quantities expected if they were the sole cause of the die-off. Die-off seems to be worst on an east-facing slope that is riddled with mountain beaver (Aplodontia rufa) burrows. Sword fern is one of their favorite foods, as evidenced by the photo above (taken in an area of healthy fronds neighboring the die-off zone)(Figure 3). I hypothesize that mountain beavers (largely unchecked by predators in Seward Park) may be part of the issue here. I have found other areas in the park that show evidence of historical sword fern die-off, and my sense is that predators such as coyotes, which come and go from the park over time, may cause ups and downs in the beaver populations. Currently, there are no coyotes known to be using the park.

Future work: With the help of Patrick Tobin (UW College of Forest Resources) and graduate students, we will expand the plot system we have already established, monitoring and mapping ferns and overstory trees.  We plan to take a detailed look at soil arthropod communities inside and outside the die-off zone. We will monitor soil nutrients and soil moisture in a methodical way inside and outside the die-off zone. We will continue sampling for pathogens. And most importantly, we will begin a sword fern planting experiment, using a paired design (in which each treatment is paired with a control), with possible treatments including mountain beaver exclosures and fungicide application.

I believe that systematic monitoring and experimentation are an important step forward for understanding the ecology of Seattle parks. Amazingly, there is very little of this going on in Seattle’s parks, given the value of these natural spaces to the city. Volunteers donate countless hours to restoration projects and general stewardship, but we need to keep track in a quantifiable way, of how successful these efforts are, in order to get a better handle on the health of our natural spaces. With respect to the sword fern die-off, at this point in time we simply don’t know enough to justify gathering a restoration crew and re-planting the area with sword ferns. Due to lack of systematic monitoring across Seattle parks, we don’t even know if this sort of die-off is occurring in other Seattle parks (although as far as we know it is not).

Going forward, we will need help in the form of human power (undergrads, grad students, citizens?) and funding. Contact me at timbillo (at) if you’d like to help



In the news: Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times, covers ENVIR 495C

Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times recently covered my summer course with this excellent article and video.

The group poses on Grand Peak (photo by Steve Ringman of the Seattle Times)

The group poses on Grand Peak (photo by Steve Ringman of the Seattle Times)

Or paste this link into your browswer:

9 days in the Olympic Mountains with ENVIR 495C 2016, “Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest”

I recently returned from my annual pilgrimmage to the Olympic Mountains with ENVIR 495C, “Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest”. The title of the course doesn’t entirely do justice to what this interdisciplinary course is about.  Below I will paste in some text I wrote from the introduction to our course blog ( The rest of the entries in the course blog are prepared by students, and include documentation of the trip, daily discussion summaries, and reflections on the “primeval” landscape.

Again, to give you a sense of the course, below is the introduction to the blog which is linked above:

The group poses on Sentinel Peak, >20 trail miles from any road, with Mount Anderson in the background. From our high perch here in the inner core of the Olympic mountains, we looked down on soaring ravens, saw swallowtail butterflies rising and twirling together along the adjacent cliff face, found an alpine flower species endemic to the Olympic Mountains (isolated on high ridges by past climate changes), looked across the now free-flowing Elwha River and that valley's swathe of unbroken lowland forests, and contemplated the effects of anthropogenic climate change on Anderson's Eel Glacier and surrounding ecosystems. We would also take time here to individually think and write about the value of large ecosystem preserves (such as Olympic National Park), and the kind of remote wilderness recreation experience they afford as humanity enters the Anthropocene, and as nearby Seattle prepares to take on another 1.5 million people over the next 25 years. Photo Credit: Tim Billo

The group poses on Sentinel Peak, >20 trail miles from any road, with Mount Anderson in the background. From our high perch here in the inner core of the Olympic mountains, we looked down on soaring ravens, saw swallowtail butterflies rising and twirling together along the adjacent cliff face, found an alpine flower species endemic to the Olympic Mountains (isolated on high ridges by past climate changes), looked across the now free-flowing Elwha River and that valley’s swathe of unbroken lowland forests, and contemplated the effects of anthropogenic climate change on Anderson’s Eel Glacier and surrounding ecosystems. We would also take time here to individually think and write about the value of large ecosystem preserves (such as Olympic National Park), and the kind of remote wilderness recreation experience they afford as humanity enters the Anthropocene, and as nearby Seattle prepares to take on another 1.5 million people over the next 25 years. Photo Credit: Tim Billo

This blog documents the fourth annual offering (click here and  here for previous years’ blogs, especially to compare to last year’s unusual heat and drought conditions) of the interdisciplinary summer field course, ENVIR 495C/HONORS 220B: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest, offered by the University of Washington Environmental Studies Program and Interdisciplinary Honors Program. The course, taught primarily through the lens of a nine-day backpacking trip (July 9-17, 2016) in Olympic National Park, explores changes in the regional landscape in the distant (back to the last ice age) and recent (the last 150 years of European settlement and industrialization) past, and what these recent human-induced changes mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. In short, the course uses the Olympic Peninsula’s over one million contiguous acres of roadless land, as a “baseline” for understanding global change in the Anthropocene, and thinking about where we are headed as a species at this critical juncture in Earth’s history. This year, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, we were especially interested in exploring the history of wilderness preservation in national parks, and how the concept of “wilderness” (which I’ll talk about in the next paragraph), especially in high profile national parks, has shaped the American conservation movement (often to the exclusion of historically marginalized groups) and psyche–particularly our relationship to nature. We also explored challenges the National Park Service is facing now and likely to face over the next 100 years.
It is worth noting that before beginning our hiking journey, we visited the Jamestown S’Klallam reservation near Sequim to learn about S’Klallam history and culture—especially their cultural and ecological relationships to the local landscape—and to acknowledge that we would be spending the next 9 days traveling through the homelands of the S’Klallam people. We would also continue wrestling with contentious discussion topic of  “wilderness” as a received concept (rather than a true place or state of nature) which makes sense only in the context of European occupation of the landscape, beginning in earnest some 200 years ago here in the northwest with Captain Vancouver’s detailed descriptions of the “pristine” landscapes of the Puget Sound (effectively refusing to acknowledge the real impact that Native Americans had in shaping much of what he was seeing—still I think we can grant him that by the standard of what was to come only 100 years later, or even what he was used to seeing in England at the time, the landscape was quite pristine). While wilderness parks such as Olympic represent a huge victory for society in the face of a culture that viewed the landscape as one giant “land-grab” by and for private interests, the result of viewing our wilderness national parks as “pristine” has been the creation of preserves that for the most part hold people as “unnatural”. One tragic consequence has been the barring of Native Americans from their traditional homelands, including traditional food sources and sometimes even an entire way of life. Meanwhile these homelands were maintained as a recreational outlet for all, although in reality mainly for a new class of wealthy urbanites seeking to test their mettle in an industrial era bereft of physical challenge and nature experience. In its most perverse extreme, some argue that the creation of absolute wilderness preserves has led to an excuse for the reckless management of matrix lands outside of the preserves, in our case right up to the boundary of Olympic National Park, with devastating consequences for some species, such as the Northern Spotted Owl. The point of our journey, however, was to explore these ideas for ourselves, and ask what the relevance of wilderness–the place and the concept– is in today’s world, a world where wilderness is seeing more visitors than ever before, but far fewer visitors per capita than ever before.

Because most students work full-time summer jobs, the only required in-person meeting for the course was the 9 day backpacking trip, from Saturday through to the Sunday on the following weekend—so students effectively had to get one week off from work. The academic portion of the course, however, included 3 weeks of online work prior to the trip, and several online reflective/research assignments following the trip. The course began with a series of four brief reading assignments and online discussions designed to introduce students to relevant course topics: 1) historical literature of wilderness (think Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and some other classic texts), 2) Post-modern critiques of wilderness including William Cronon’s famous essay “The Trouble with Wilderness”, and more recently a 2011 essay by Seattle resident and Nature Conservancy scientist, Peter Kareiva: “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility”, 3) reasons, ramifications, and solutions to the lack of cultural/ethnic diversity in national park visitation and national park employment, spurred in part by Seattle writer/activist Glenn Nelson’s editorial “Why Are Our Parks so White?”, and 4) literature of the Olympic Peninsula, including excerpts from William Dietrich’s interview with a Forks logger in his book, Final Forest, human history/culture of the Olympic Peninsula and Olympic National Park from Tim McNulty’s Olympic National Park: A Natural History, and excerpts from journals of early explorers (including John Muir, the Press Expedition, and Archibald Menzies). The students were also given access to a vast array of other relevant literature, including management plans for Olympic National Park, which they used as they planned discussions they would lead on the trip, and essays to be completed following the trip.
During the course, we spent our days studying natural history, and observing the effects of climate change (past and present) and various landscape management practices (past and present) on species and ecosystems. For reflective purposes, we also spent portions of some days alone; hiking, thinking, and writing in inspirational places along the hiking route. We spent our evenings in student-led discussions of topics chosen by the students themselves, often incorporating outside quotes and background studies as a way to introduce the topic and provide more fodder for discussion. Discussion topics this year included: 1) ecology of exotic, or debatedly exotic, species in Olympic National Park, such as Mountain Goats and Barred Owls respectively, and issues surrounding their management, 2) general philosophies governing human management of “wilderness”—which by literal interpretation of the Wilderness Act, should not be a managed space—including how to regulate human visitation rates and activities while managing for “enjoyment” for all—a mandate of the National Park Service, 3) the wilderness preservation movement and ramifications of the figurative (and sometimes literal) separation of man from nature, 4) nature and wilderness as an antidote to psychological health issues in the Anthropocene, 5) how to make wilderness national parks available and relevant to diverse populations broadly defined (including local and low-income communities, and people of color), 6) the use of gender stereotypes to personify nature and wilderness, and how these gender stereotypes have affected the exploitation or preservation of nature, as well as how gender stereotypes historically and currently affect the ability of women to recreate and work in wilderness, and 7) the Seattle 2035 plan and housing equality as a foundation for better conservation of non-wilderness spaces and a healthy regional landscape. Individual blog entries will further document the breadth and depth of daily discussions.
One of the joys of this course for me is to re-visit the same places year after year to understand the process of change on both short and long time scales. While last year was one of the driest years on record in the Olympics (not due to lack of winter precipitation, but due mainly to record warm temperatures causing winter precipitation to fall as rain) and hottest the world has ever experienced in recorded history, this year the terrain sported a healthy snowpack left over from the winter. Despite a warm spring, high north-facing basins still held plenty of snow and streams were flowing well. This year (again, unlike last year) there were no wildfires burning in the park (although as I write this, some small lightning caused fires have just started). One major theme of the course is climate change (past, present, and future), and we were excited to return this year to see, among other things, how a remnant glacier we discovered last year was faring after last year’s heat and drought. Ice worms, a direct legacy of the last ice age (explained later in the blog), and one of the animals most endangered by glacial recession in the Pacific Northwest, are one indication of the presence of glacial ice. We were stunned to find that where we had found hundreds of ice worms last year, we were hard pressed to find only 5 this year, indicating that this glacier had melted down to near nothing by the end of last summer–indicative of trends in loss of glacial ice all over the northwest, which should give us pause as we think about future ramifications for late summer streamflow for salmon, drinking water, and irrigation. I was also saddened to discover that a 700 year old tree that I had come to know along our route over the years, a relict of a previous climate regime, had finally come to its end and toppled across our trail. But I look forward to future years of watching it gradually return to the soil.
The Olympic Mountains are an especially rewarding place for a biologist. Separated from the Cascades and Rockies by a water barrier today, and historically by ice sheets flowing through the Puget Trough and Strait of Juan de Fuca as recently as only 16,500 years ago (sounds like a long time ago, but really a geologic “eye-blink” and not that many generations ago for our longest lived trees!), the Olympic Mountains are like an evolutionary laboratory. During the last ice age, many of the highest ridges and some valley bottoms remained ice free, providing refugia for many local species, as well as arctic species that had moved south. Many of these species can still be found today in small relictual populations in the Olympic Mountains, and some have evolved in isolation to become distinct from their nearest relatives in the Cascades, Rockies, or Arctic. On this course, we have been able to study rare disjunct populations of Rocky Mountain Juniper, Engelmann Spruce, and Arctic Willow, as well as species that have evolved into forms endemic to the Olympic Mountains (including iconic alpine plant species such as the Piper’s Bellflower, Flett’s Violet, and Cotton’s Milkvetch, and iconic mammals such as the Olympic Marmot). Plant and animal species isolated on high ridges and in alpine terrain will be some of the first to go extinct given current projections for human-induced climate change, and land management agencies such as the Park Service will face an agonizing conundrum in the next 100 years whether or not to move species to places more climatically amenable (assuming they are incapable of dispersal themselves, and assuming that moving them doesn’t endanger other species that are native to the new location), or to let them go extinct one by one. In the meantime, many of these species are also threatened directly by the presence of non-native goats, and indirectly by the extermination of top predators such as the Gray Wolf. Whether we have a moral or ecological imperative eradicate, move, or re-introduce organisms to save them and/or the ecosystem, is a question which we explore on the course, especially in “wilderness” areas which are traditionally thought of as areas where nature can and should be left to take care of itself.
Between 1895 and 2015, the Seattle area grew from 40,000 people to over 4.2 million. In the next 25 years, Seattle will grow by another 1.5 million. Virtually every piece of accessible habitat in the lowlands of the Puget Trough has been severely impacted by humans at one time or another, and in some cases irrevocably. “Wilderness” controversies aside, it was by stroke of luck (due in part to the inaccessibility of the terrain in the early days), and a big dash of courage from some forward-thinking leaders around the turn of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, that Olympic National Park was saved from the ax and saw. Only 25 miles as the crow (or eagle) flies from Seattle, an international hub of high tech industry, one can begin a walk into the Olympic Mountains, a wilderness area of over 1 million contiguous acres (approximately 1600 sq miles), and (unlike the Cascade Range) not bisected by any roads. It is this short gradient from ultra-urban to wilderness, that makes the region such an appealing place to live, as well as a unique place to reflect on landscape change (past, present, and future), and ramifications of this change (namely, the loss of “wild” spaces) for society in the Anthropocene. Regardless of your feelings about the “wilderness” concept, we must recognize the value of the “untrammeled” spaces the National Park Service has preserved for all people from all walks of life to experience, and the opportunity that this has afforded us as a society to decide how we will use and value these spaces over the next 100 years or more. As you’ll see in this blog, every student, regardless of background or pre-conceived notion of what wilderness is about, came away profoundly changed, renewed, and empowered by this experience. There are not many outlets in today’s world that have the ability to affect that kind of change on a person. It is clear to me that wilderness remains relevant–at least to those lucky enough to experience it as per-capita wilderness visitation declines– and that one of the current and future challenges of the Park Service is in how to preserve the integrity of the wilderness resource/experience, while ensuring that our growing population, ever more in need of a wilderness outlet, can still freely access it and in such a way that it is not “loved to death”.
It was a pleasure hiking with and learning from the 10 inspirational students from a variety of majors, who embraced the physical, mental, and academic challenges of the course. Kramer Canup, a former student and teaching assistant on several of my courses, and recent UW Bothell Environmental Studies graduate, provided additional leadership, knowledge, and enthusiasm as a Teaching Assistant. Each student has written about one day of the trip, and offered additional personal thoughts on wilderness. I have spent at least 200 days traveling in the backcountry of Olympic National Park over the last 15 years, and always enjoy getting to know the landscape, its moods, its changes, and its species more intimately, while encouraging others to do the same. I also relish the opportunity for reflection on what our local wilderness areas teach me about myself and the greater landscape of “home”, as well as the many services our wildernesses offer society, from the ecological to the psychological. I especially enjoy introducing wild spaces to students who have not had the opportunity to experience them before. Extended wilderness travel offers us rare time and space (both of which are commodities in today’s world) to think deeply about how we might move forward as a society at this critical juncture in earth’s history, the beginning of the Anthropocene era. It is my hope that this blog conveys the power of the wilderness learning experience and its deep impact on the lives of those who are lucky enough to experience it. For those who do not have the opportunity to experience it, perhaps this blog will bring them a step closer.

If you have questions about this course, or anything you have seen here, feel free to contact me at timbillo (at)

Some stats from our trip:
Mileage Covered: ~45 miles
Number of Days in Wilderness: 9
Number of Person-Nights in Wilderness: (12 people x 8 nights) = 96 (for reference, 96 was our contribution to the astounding 40,000 person nights a year typically recorded in Olympic National Park’s backcountry!)
Number of people encountered on the trail excluding the first and last day of the trip: 4
Cumulative altitude gained: ~16,600 feet (about 15,900 feet were lost)
Highest altitude attained: ~6,700 feet
Number of bird species observed: 47
Number of bears observed: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2.
Number of mountain goats observed: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2.
Number of deer observed this year: >9
Number of golden eagles observed this year: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2
Number of bald eagles observed: 1 (at Cedar Lake, where one typically flies in daily to dine on introduced fish).
Number of tailed frogs: at least 10—a record high for us.
Number of salamanders of any kind: 0—a record low for us.

More detailed species lists will be posted at a later date.

Natural History Education in the News

Our paper (Tewksbury et al. 2014 BioScience) on the value of natural history to science and society, continues to generate discussion. Here are links to some thoughtful pieces that support our findings and opinion:

I’ve excerpted some of the most cogent points from the latter piece, written by Jonathan Foley. If you read nothing else, scroll down to the part I have highlighted where Foley describes his daughter’s experience in a biology department bereft of natural history:

This field of study is key to unlocking the secrets of how life on this planet works, and has made major contributions to solving a wide variety of problems in other fields, including human health, disease ecology, food security, environmental toxicology, and ecosystem conservation and management. Without natural history, we’re simply incapable of fully understanding our living world—and its future.

So you would think, given the paramount importance of understanding Earth’s organisms and ecosystems, and how they’re responding to the current environmental crisis, that natural history—and its associated expeditions, observations, and collections—would be thriving today.

But you’d be wrong.

Natural history has all but disappeared as a major discipline in biology. Expeditions are dwindling, and field observations of biology are increasingly dismissed as unimportant. And the support for building, maintaining, and studying natural history collections has declined significantly in recent years. Museums around the world, where much of this work has been done, have struggled to maintain support for their research, expeditions, and collections.

This is not because the museums lack interest in natural history. They simply lack funding. Collections, in particular, are expensive to maintain, and there is almost no outside funding for them. Unfortunately, in the U.S., federal science agencies have largely turned away from supporting natural history and collections-based research. Plus, there are no obvious corporate donors, and no major private foundation giving grants in this area. It’s a virtual funding desert, and it’s getting worse.”

Sadly, the decline of natural history is not just a funding crisis. It has a deeper and more insidious root—the increased reductionism in biological science.

This echoes my own experience as a university professor for over two decades. Hardly any biology students were taking courses focused on natural history, or even anything related to organisms, populations, or ecosystems. Instead, most students took numerous courses in biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics. They seemed to be headed to pharmaceutical research, biotech companies, or medical school. Few, if any, knew anything about the living organisms around them. In fact, I have to wonder how many biology majors today could name the species of birds and trees found in their region, or would understand the flows of water, carbon, and nutrients in their local ecosystem?

I have seen this unfold during my twenty-one years as a university professor. But this recently became even more real for me: My oldest daughter called me up, in tears, saying that she just recently dropped out of her college biology major. When I asked her why, she told me she hated it, and that in two years, she only studied chemistry and genetics, and hadn’t seen a single living thing. Thank goodness there are other, more interdisciplinary majors where she goes to school, like ecology, forestry, environmental science, and geography, which integrate different fields of knowledge, and where you can actually see and study living things. But it’s sad that a typical biology major does not. Biology majors are missing out on a major part of their education, and much of the science about how the natural world works.”