Editor’s note: This is the first in a continuing series of interviews with faculty members at the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources. We were honored to be included in the widely respected college’s 100th anniversary celebration last October.
The two-day event was a timely reminder that, despite the debilitating influences of political correctness, Idaho’s premier forestry school has managed to stay true to its Land Grant mission for an entire century. In this wide-ranging interview, the college’s Dean, Kurt Pregitzer, offers his insights and much more.
Kurt Pregitzer is an affable and unpretentious man, not what you’d expect from a PhD forest ecologist who ranks in the top one-half of one percent of the world’s most frequently cited authors. This according to the Thompson Institute of Scientific Information.
Pregitzer, a Michigan native, holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan [BS, 1975; MS, 1978; and PhD, 1981] Before joining CNR in 2010, he was a professor and chair of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Nevada, and director of the Michigan Technical University’s Ecosystem Science Center.
In 2002, he was the recipient of the Society of American Foresters Barrington Moore Memorial Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in the Advancement of Forest Biology. He has also served as a competitive program manager for both the Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he has written more than 200 refereed research papers during his long career in science.
EVERGREEN: Dr. Pregitzer, you bring an impressive pedigree to your post as Dean of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources. What drew you here?
PREGITZER: [Smiles] First, let’s dispense with the Dr. Pregitzer stuff. Most folks around here call me Kurt. What brought me here was the opportunity to lead one of the premier teaching and research programs in the world of forestry. I look forward to coming here every day. It’s challenging, and a lot of fun.
EVERGREEN: What are the big challenges?
PREGITZER: I don’t have to tell you about the social and environmental challenges that have engulfed the forest sciences over the last 30 years. As you know, lots of people, including our students, are asking some very challenging questions of those of us who teach and conduct forestry research.
EVERGREEN: Before we dig into their questions, tell us about the University of Idaho’s Land Grant mission, and how you’ve managed to stay true to it when many other universities in the West have not.
PREGITZER; Our Land Grant mission is spelled out in clear and concise terms in the Morrill Act of 1862, signed into law by President Lincoln. In exchange for the land on which the University of Idaho was built, we transfer knowledge to society at large and, specifically, the citizens of this state.
EVERGREEN: Knowledge pertaining to the management and conservation of our natural resources, correct?
PREGITZER: That’s correct. And to understand the relevance of our Land Grant mission, you need look no further than this room. Everything you see – the floor, walls, roof, desks, chairs, computers, and books and paper are products of the Earth, brought to us in part by the free, non-polluting energy of the Sun.
EVERGREEN: Many contemporary observers question the relevance of Morrill’s 156-year-old mission.
PREGITZER: Ours is an open society. All questions are welcome, but there is no denying our dependence on Earth’s natural resources for the everyday necessities of life. Our focus here in the College of Natural Resources is on the sustainability, productivity, utilization, conservation and management of this state’s many forest resources, principally soil nutrients, water quality and tree health and growth.
EVERGREEN: Easy to describe, hard to do.
PREGITZER: Easy concepts for foresters to understand, but terribly difficult for those we serve. People glaze over when you start talking about things like the time cost of money, sustained yield, discounted cash flow and life cycle analysis, to say nothing of the vast array of knowledge required to grow and harvest trees.
EVERGREEN: I want to read a quotation I’ve cited many times over the years, from Alan Houston, a PhD wildlife biologist I admire. We were walking together on the Cumberland Plateau in the fall of 1996 when he turned to me and said something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “When we leave forests to nature, as so many people today seem to want to do today, we get whatever nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating at times, but with forestry, we have options, and a degree of predictability not found in nature.”
PREGITZER: I could not have said it better.
EVERGREEN: With Alan’s observation in mind, where do the many sciences of forestry converge with sociology, with what I like to call society’s felt necessities?
PREGITZER: If sociology is the human side of this story – and I believe it is – then science and sociology converge in every corner of our daily lives, in all that we do and say. Our CNR contribution to society’s ongoing and ever-changing dialogue is to gather and disseminate the best information science has to offer. Only then can society satisfy the felt necessities you reference.
EVERGREEN: What in your mind are those necessities?
PREGITZER: Society’s emphasis on commodity outputs – mining, logging, drilling for oil and, to some extent, farming, have given way to a greater emphasis on more aesthetic, less tangible qualities: clean air, clean water, fish and wildlife, outdoor recreation and a generalized sense of well-being.
EVERGREEN: We see the same thing in our work with forest collaboratives, and we suppose that people who work in the policy arena have become important customers of the College of Natural Resources.
PREGITZER: They are for sure, but nothing moves successfully through the policy making process without the advice and consent of the public, so, where forestry is concerned, providing the public with the level of confidence it needs is equally important to us.
EVERGREEN: Would you agree that where science and sociology converge, there is a social contract?
PREGITZER: Absolutely. It is the essence of our Land Grant mission, and it is what drives our educational outreach, not just to students, but, again, to the citizens of Idaho and society at large.
EVERGREEN: We’ll hazard a guess that fulfilling your social contract leads to some lively discussions in CNR classrooms.
PREGITZER: Debate is a cornerstone of a free and open society, but so is respect for one another’s informed and sometimes uninformed opinions. We are a collaboration of students and teachers; no less dynamic than the forestry collaboratives you’ve written so much about in recent years.
EVERGREEN: Forestry was a new and generalized discipline in our nation when the University of Idaho College of Forestry was established in 1917. Now there are at least 50 very specialized disciplines. How has this evolution changed the way you disseminate knowledge?
PREGITZER: Good question. There are many more voices at the table today, all of them rightfully demanding to be heard and respected. Connecting the dots in ways that are scientifically and socially relevant is more challenging.
EVERGREEN: The social contract.
PREGITZER: The social contract.
EVERGREEN: What’s the risk of failure?
PREGITZER: Those who teach in universities today are under enormous pressure to publish in peer-reviewed journals. It is viewed as a right-of-passage. I don’t agree with it, but it’s there, and you can’t help but feel pressured by it.
EVERGREEN: Publish or perish.
PREGITZER: And the ability to attract research grants. Some members of our faculty are great researchers. Others are great teachers. If we trade one asset for the other, we set up a conflict in which our teachers don’t get to spend enough time with their students. Eventually, you fail your Land Grant teaching mission.
EVERGREEN: How do you get around it?
PREGITZER: The buck stops on my desk.
EVERGREEN: Well, at about six feet-five, I’d say you’re up to the task!
PREGITZER: [Laughs] Well, it probably helps that I am both a published scientist and, a good teacher. Furthermore, I’ve been in the rain with foresters debating management outcomes for almost 40 years, so I get the extension/outreach role we play. This aside, respect and transparency count for a lot today in the public arena.
EVERGREEN: You’ve used the word “respect” three times in this interview. Tell us about it.
PREGITZER: You and I both know that a great many controversies swirl about the forestry world today. Respect and transparency are vital, especially when you are talking with millennials. Today’s 18-year-olds are tomorrows scientists, educators, policy makers and voters. We want them to make informed decisions.
EVERGREEN: We certainly haven’t over the last 30-some years. What happened?
PREGITZER: That’s a question better suited to someone in our Department of Politics and Philosophy. We aren’t political problem solvers here in the College of Natural Resources, but we do strive to gather, explain and disseminate the highest quality scientific information available, both biophysical and social science.
EVERGREEN: We certainly don’t want to back you into a corner, but we’d say there has been far too little emphasis on the economic impacts of not managing forests in ways that keep them healthy and productive.
PREGITZER: “Healthy and productive” have unfortunately become value-laded words in today’s world, but I certainly agree with your frequent assertion that if Idaho loses its wood processing industries, it loses the ability to manage its forests for any of the economic or environmental amenities society values today.
EVERGREEN: We also believe millennials place a much higher value on working land – getting their hands dirty every day – than most older people realize. They are almost throwbacks to their grandparents and great grandparents, people for whom land and a sense of place were all there was.
PREGITZER: We see the same quality in many of our incoming students. There is a real hunger for knowledge about how things are connected and how they work, and a deeply-felt desire to escape the trappings and pace of life as we experience it today. Look at society’s growing preference for organic foods. I think it is part of a larger and not well understood back-to-the-land ideal. We want to live smaller, quieter and have greater control over our lives.
EVERGREEN: How do we harness this hunger before it disappears again?
PREGITZER: By telling millennials the truth.
EVERGREEN: And what is the truth?
PREGITZER: I think it goes something like this: Earth’s natural systems are dynamic, which is to say they are constantly changing and there isn’t much we can do about it except adapt. The climate change debate is a good example. We know the climate is changing, and we must learn to adapt. We can manage our forest resources in ways that alleviate many of the stresses brought on by mismanagement, drought, disease and wildfire. As a 2017 commentary in the July issue of the Journal of Forestry asserts, ecosystem and community resilience may be the new sustainability.
EVERGREEN: I certainly agree, but let’s go back to value-laden words for a moment. Isn’t the phrase “forest restoration” value-laden?
PREGITZER: It can be, but if forest restoration is defined as management to restore resiliency, which is the ability of a forest to right itself before diseases and insects become epidemics, I think we’re on solid scientific ground.
EVERGREEN: And we have the knowledge and tools necessary to restore natural resiliency in Idaho’s forests?
PREGITZER: We can never know all there is to know, but, yes, we know how to restore natural resiliency in Idaho’s forests, and thankfully, we still have some of the timber harvesting and wood processing infrastructure needed to make the job economically possible.
EVERGREEN: As opposed to the federal government’s preference for simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
PREGITZER: Land Grant college deans are obviously in no position to criticize the federal government, so I’d prefer to say that we have to stop moving the outhouse in hopes of getting away from the smell.
EVERGREEN: What we’re both saying, in a manner of speaking, is that doing nothing in Idaho’s overstocked and dying federal forests, which is what forestry’s skeptics and critics prefer, is, in and of itself, a management decision.
PREGITZER: That’s correct. Our social contract requires us to help the citizens of Idaho get their needs met. We are duty-bound to conduct the highest quality research, then explain and disseminate what we have learned in classrooms and public forums, bearing in mind that what we know today is subject to change because forest ecosystems and our knowledge of them is dynamic. To get our social and economic needs met, we must learn how we best fit in the big scheme. Finding the fit is our job.
EVERGREEN: How could we have strayed so far into the weeds when we are literally surrounded by on-the-ground evidence that good forestry is good for the environment? Something like 95 percent of the Frank Church Wilderness is now burnt black. What great social yearning has been met here?
PREGITZER: With our nation’s history as a guide, I can tell you that social discord is as old as our country. You need look no further than the shifting meaning of the word conservation. The earliest conservationists saw management as a way of slowing the uncontrolled resource exploitation that characterized the decades following the Civil War. I see no purpose in discouraging the debate between those who advocate for preservation, conservation and management, but our public decision-making skills need a good tune-up.