Ecological Reflections: Interview with Fred Swanson

By Andrew C. Gottlieb

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About Earth Scientist Fred Swanson

fred swanson field talking
Fred Swanson.
Photo courtesy Fred Swanson.
Fred Swanson is an emeritus scientist with the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service, a senior fellow with the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word, and professor (courtesy) in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. As an earth scientist with a long history of research on physical processes in forest and stream ecosystems, he’s been attentive to long-term changes in the land and our relationship with the land. This work is built on interdisciplinary experience: first in collaborations of earth and life scientists; then with forest land managers; with social scientists especially in the context of conflict over the future of public forest lands; and, for the past decade, with the humanities and creative writer communities. Much of this has taken place at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Oregon Cascades and at Mount St. Helens. The Andrews Forest’s membership in the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program sponsored by the National Science Foundation since 1980 has provided a blueprint for development of other long-term ecological reflections programs. Long-Term Ecological Reflections is a major component of the Spring Creek Project, which has worked diligently to include arts and humanities in these ecological reflections.

In the Blast ZoneSwanson has played many roles in research and outreach programs at Andrews Forest and Mount St. Helens over several decades, often teaming up with forest and stream ecologist colleagues, like Jerry Franklin, Jim Sedell, and Stan Gregory. They, along with many other colleagues, helped bring science findings from these two landscapes to a keenly interested global public. And they worked together in the Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team commissioned in 1993 by President Clinton to lay the foundation for the Northwest Forest Plan, a landmark conservation strategy for the Pacific Northwest. Swanson was principal investigator for the Andrews Forest LTER program for a decade, a central figure in the research-management partnership linking land managers and the science community, and a co-founder of the Long-Term Ecological Reflections Program.

The scope and evolution of Swanson’s interests are reflected in titles of books he has co-authored or co-edited: Sediment Budgets and Routing in Forested Catchments (1982, USDA Forest Service), Bioregional Assessments: Science at the Crossroads of Management and Policy (1999, Island Press), Road Ecology: Science and Solutions (2002, Island Press), Ecological Responses to the Eruption of Mount St. Helens (2005, Springer), and In the Blast Zone: Catastrophe and Renewal on Mount St. Helens (2008, Oregon State University Press).



You’re a geologist by training. How did you find your way to the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest?

I trace my whole career in interdisciplinary work back 50 years to an undergraduate experience in a course concerning geology-ecology interactions in shallow marine environments conducted at the Bermuda Biological Station. It’s pretty amazing if you can get paid to do intellectually stimulating work with interesting people in beautiful places. Later, during studies that included geology and botany on lava flows in the Galapagos, I met several plant ecologists who later worked at the Andrews Forest where the International Biological Program of highly interdisciplinary work was just cranking up in 1972. I happened on the chance to map the geology of the experimental forest, but you can’t see much of it because of all the damn trees, so my work gradually morphed into the obscure field of forest geomorphology—the study of landforms and land-forming processes in forest landscapes. It seemed so natural—and important—to learn about the interactions of physical processes (“disturbances” in ecology lingo) with forest and stream ecosystems in natural landscapes and in areas affected by roads and forestry operations.

Mount St. Helens
Vegetation returns to the Mount St. Helens landscape, 2010.
Photo by Simmons B. Buntin.

Forest science and our understanding of it have changed remarkably over the past 40 years. How has the H.J. Andrews Forest played a crucial part in developing New Forestry, or Ecoforestry?

The Andrews Forest is much more than a place—it’s a piece of property managed by the U.S. Forest Service (both the Pacific Northwest Research Station and Willamette National Forest) in collaboration with Oregon State University. The Andrews Forest program is a highly interactive, interdisciplinary team with a strong research-management partnership (the community of academic and Forest Service scientists and land managers of the Willamette National Forest) where the work runs the full gamut from basic science funded by the National Science Foundation to applied studies to innovative practices implemented by the National Forest. Since the 1970s this group has fostered public discussions of the future of forestry and offered some innovative approaches. In this setting and stimulated by science findings from Andrews Forest and the stunning abundance of organisms surviving after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, around 1990 Jerry Franklin put forth the idea of New Forestry as an alternative to clearcutting. The idea is to retain a significant abundance of living trees and standing and down dead wood to sustain their many ecological functions, such as habitat for other organisms and ecosystem processes. Over the past 25 years both the ideas and the terminology have evolved, leading to the term “ecological forestry” used today. Jerry remains the primary designer, public advocate, and communicator for ecological forestry. The Andrews Forest program conducts relevant research and nearby areas of the Willamette National Forest have examples of these practices where public discussion continues.

The H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest was one of the first Long-Term Ecological Research sites (LTER.) How have LTER’s changed the way we study and think of science?

The National Science Foundation began funding Long-Term Ecological Research sites in 1980, and Andrews Forest was one of the first of a handful of sites. The network has grown to 25 sites that run from the North Slope of Alaska to McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica, and including urban ecosystems of Baltimore and Phoenix. In 1980 the standard mode of NSF funding was single-investigator, curiosity-driven projects of only two-year duration, so it was very radical of NSF at that time to support research by interdisciplinary teams working on a six-year funding cycle. An important motivation was that many of the ecological processes of importance to science and to society occur on long time scales. Since 1980, tremendous change has occurred over the history of LTER both within the program and in the larger world of science. NSF foisted and fostered network science on the sites that had competed individually to get their LTER grants, and now we have a highly interactive LTER community of several thousand scientists and students working in a culture of sharing ideas and data and undertaking collaborative projects.

The interdisciplinary scope has increased dramatically, notably with an increased engagement of social scientists, artists, creative writers, and philosophers. Seeing the value, excitement, and productivity of LTER (and possibly the chance to get more funding), scientists in about 40 other countries have started such programs. The success of the LTER network has been also an impetus for NSF’s recent development of other research and observatory networks, such as the National Ecological Observatory Network and Critical Zone Observatories network. I believe the greatest contribution of LTER has been creation of an open culture of sharing rather than a culture of competition, which makes possible a great deal of broad-scale science and a great environment for bringing up the next generation of scientists.

Fred Swanson at 2010 Science Pulse
Fred Swanson discusses pyroclastic flow with writers and other artists at the 2010 Mount St. Helens Science Pulse.
Photo by Simmons B. Buntin.

Landslides, floods, and other large-scale geologic events have directly impacted our understanding of how forests live, grow, and die. How has the H.J. Andrews Forest contributed to this understanding?

I grew up on the East Coast where the mountains are old and worn, and maybe a little boring. For a forest geomorphologist, it’s so interesting to live and work on the West Coast with its steep slopes, weak rocks, abundant rainfall, big forests, big fires, and volcanoes, which make for a very dynamic landscape. Tree rings record a history of fire and forest development extending back more than 800 years. Landslides, bark beetle outbreaks, and wind storms have left their marks in the Pacific Northwest landscape, including the Andrews Forest. Several Andrews Forest scientists indulged in the major flood in 1996 over the course of several days, and followed up with studies of the geophysical processes and ecological responses. For example, this experience amped up our interest in road hydrology (roles of roads in routing of rainfall and snowmelt through the landscape), and the resulting studies influenced later policy and management decisions. We now have a much clearer picture of the roles of native disturbance processes in native landscapes and how they compare with the effects of past, present, and prospective future land management actions. We have carried this “disturbance ecology” thinking to the point of developing landscape management plans intending to emulate the historic frequency, severity, and geographic pattern of wildfires on the premise that native species and processes existed and operated in the context of the historic disturbance regime, especially wildfire.

You were among the first ecosystem scientists to visit the Mount St. Helens blast site after the eruption. How does it feel to have been part of the research there with its many interesting findings, and do you see future discoveries coming that are as significant?

I was a bit of a volcano nut even before Mount St. Helens blew, but to experience something like Mount St. Helens over the past 33 years has been simply unimaginable. Our Andrews Forest ecosystem team had spent nearly a decade developing an interdisciplinary view of the vibrantly green, living native forests of the Pacific Northwest, so we were ready to tackle the incredibly altered, gray landscape Mount St. Helens created when she erupted in 1980. The discipline of disturbance ecology has taken shape since that eruption and lessons from Mount St. Helens have contributed to that development. As a subfield of disturbance ecology, a multi-faceted field of volcano ecology is emerging, providing a disciplinary home for topics ranging from extreme biology of black smokers at deep-sea spreading centers to the major extinction events in earth history triggered in part by massive outpourings of flood basalts. At Mount St. Helens ecologists have been able to track establishment of plants and animals and their interactions continuously and in many environments, including ash-covered forest, surfaces of pyroclastic flow and mudflow deposits, the blast zone, and even hot streams and fumaroles emanating from the new dome. Forest, meadows, streams, and lakes have all been profoundly affected. The Mount St. Helens landscape and the community of scientists working there have become the greatest single contributor to the global literature on volcano ecology, yielding lessons significant in basic ecological sciences and also applied fields such as restoration ecology.

Two interesting offshoots of the Mount St. Helens experience have influenced thinking about forest management in the region and beyond. The living plants poking up through the new deposits of blasted mountain top in the stark, gray landscape struck ecologist Jerry Franklin as important legacies of the pre-eruption ecosystem and critical players in initial ecological response to the eruption. He carried this idea into recommendations for management of live forests. New Forestry, as he termed it, involved logging some trees from a site, while retaining some living trees and dead wood for ecological objectives—a compromise between clearcut and no cut. This New Forestry thinking in the early 1990s and field tours to demonstration cuttings associated with Andrews Forest were critical in some management prescriptions in the Northwest Forest Plan guiding management of 24 million acres of federal land in the range of the Northern spotted owl along the Pacific coast from San Francisco to Canada. The second realization prompted by the stark Mount St. Helens landscape was the important complexity and biological diversity of early-seral habitats: areas where a patch of forest had been recently disturbed and the next forest has not yet developed. Complex communities of shrubs, herbs, and tree seedlings typically support very diverse communities of organisms, such as moths and butterflies, which in turn support complex food webs, including charismatic fauna like birds, bears, and elk. Our forest management practices of fire suppression, minimal logging on federal lands, and rapid establishment of conifer forest cover on logged private lands may be diminishing the extent of early-seral habitat in the region. Discussions of land management implications are underway.

In summary, Mount St. Helens has been a wonderful teacher and the lessons we’re learning are as surprising as the eruption itself. I fully expect Mount St. Helens to give us new, surprising lessons in the future, if we pay attention to her.

Students at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest
Students at the H.J. Andrew Experimental Forest.
Photo courtesy Oregon State University.

Forestry officials used to clear out fallen logs and forest “debris” in order to help manage forests and give them “room to grow”? What has the H.J. Andrews Forest taught us about the process of fallen logs rotting on the forest floor?

The story of dead wood is a fascinating view into the history for forestry in the Pacific Northwest. Around 1900, logging of old-growth forests on private land produced huge volumes of dead wood because only the primo logs were removed, transportation was limited, and the native forest contained material judged “unmerchantable”. Early in the post-WWII timber era on federal forest lands (1950s to 1970s) dead wood in cutting units (termed “slash” and “residue”) was viewed as a fire risk and an impediment to planting the next crop of trees, so it was commonly “broadcast” burned (prescribed fire across entire 40- to 50-acre cutting units). But gradually that practice fell into disfavor because of concerns about air quality and public health, and also loss of nitrogen, hence soil productivity, as that vital nutrient literally went up in smoke. Meanwhile, scientists were learning about the many ecological functions played by dead wood on land and in streams, such as serving as habitat within, on the surface of, and adjacent to big pieces of wood. This led ecologist Mark Harmon, who has championed the 200-year log decomposition experiment at Andrews Forest, to coin the term “morticulture” to refer to the science and practice of management of dead work in forest ecosystems. Note that this is a counter point and complement to “silviculture’, the science and practice of managing the live tree part of a forest. Similarly, dead wood in streams was once treated as a problem to be removed, especially when it was in the form of abundant slash, which can be mobilized by floods, potentially damaging stream and riparian habitat and engineered structures downstream. Beginning in the early 1970s Andrews Forest ecologists, such as Jim Sedell and Stan Gregory, examined the roles of big (and small) wood in natural and managed streams and fueled public discussion of its many ecological values. So, now we recognize dead wood as a critical component of forest and stream ecosystems, when once the science community ignored it because it was outside our science concepts and vocabulary, despite ripping our pants as we climbed over those massive, downed logs. In fact, addressing dead wood scientifically became a critical catalyst for interdisciplinary work uniting forest and stream ecologists and geomorphologists in the Andrews Forest program—and one of our strongest examples of basic science finding relevance to management and policy.

Tell us about the Spring Creek Project, and how it came to life.

The Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word is a wonderful program with the challenging mission, “To bring together the practical wisdom of the environmental sciences, the clarity of philosophical analysis, and the creative, expressive power of the written word, to find new ways to understand and re-imagine our relation to the natural world.” It was created by (now-retired) Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and writer Kathleen Dean Moore. Now based in the School of Religion, Philosophy, and History at Oregon State University, the privately-endowed Spring Creek Project hosts visiting speakers on campus and writers and artists at a mountain cabin, and conducts public programs concerning our relation with the natural world. Spring Creek also partners with the Andrews Forest program through the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program, funded substantially by the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. More than 70 writers have been in residence at Andrews Forest and our related program at Mount St. Helens. We also conduct “field symposia” that become gatherings of around 20 people who bring a wide range of views to symposium themes such as “The Meaning of Watershed Health,” “New Metaphors for Restoration of Forests and Watersheds,” and in the Mount St. Helens context “Destruction and Renewal in Geological, Ecological, and Human Dimensions.” The rich body of provocative works emerging from this decade-long endeavor is available online and in the book In the Blast Zone. Previous Mount St. Helens field pulse data has also appeared in About two dozen other long-term, place-based programs around the country are doing various forms of science-arts-humanities intersection—check it out at

Fred Swanson and writers
Fred Swanson leads a discussion with writers and other artists at Mount St. Helen’s Spirit Lake.
Photo by Simmons B. Buntin.

What are the benefits of bringing writers and artists to a forest like the H.J. Andrews?

Facilitating the engagement of writers and artists with the Andrews Forest and Mount St. Helens over the past dozen years has been a wonderful experience. The motivations are many: enhance the telling of science-inspired stories, learn how such creative minds in the humanities and arts perceive these amazing landscapes, gather “cultural data” on society’s relationship with the natural world, and just for the pleasure of it, to name a few objectives. The research branch of the Forest Service research has supported this work in part to fulfill its responsibility to promote learning on these special public lands, such as Experimental Forests and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which are dedicated to inquiry. In 2000, I got a taste for the potential of a Reflections-like program while accompanying Gary Snyder as he did poetry fieldwork at Mount St. Helens. The mountain had been a mentor for Gary, a mountain poet, during his early teens in the 1940s. Another thread of inspiration came from working in the ecosystem team at Andrews Forest in the 1970s as we did our irrelevant (actually pre-relevant) studies in old growth, which became hyper-relevant more than a decade later in the convulsive changes in federal land forestry. So, just as we built capacity in science, community, and storytelling about native forests in the 1970s, we may be building capacity in the form of an expanded community whose members are inquiring about the natural world, a capacity that may become exceedingly relevant if and when society again re-imagines its relationship with federal forest lands.

What do you envision coming for the future of forest science, LTERs like the H.J. Andrews Forest, and their role for the general public?

I have great hope that long-term, place-based programs like that at the Andrews Forest will continue to provide significant scientific and cultural leadership in their home bioregions long into the future, even as the biophysical and social environments experience gradual and abrupt change. This requires a careful balance of persistence in long-term research and monitoring while being attentive to ever-changing current issues. The Andrews Forest science program has done this in part through its research-management partnership with the Willamette National Forest and also through formal and informal participation in planning processes, such as the one leading to the Northwest Forest Plan. We’ve had many opportunities to host public discussions of the future of forests and watersheds; we need to do more of that.

I envision that, in the future, social sciences, humanities, and arts will be thoroughly integrated with the biophysical sciences and the Andrews Forest program will operate in robust networks with relevant institutions and community members. This configuration would permit the program to contribute to both the empirical knowledge generated through the practice of science and contribute to knowledge and expression of human values through efforts in the arts and humanities. Several other LTER sites are on this path too, notably Harvard Forest with its strong basic science, development, and implementation of a regional forest conservation strategy (Wildlands and Woodlands), and arts and humanities work, such as scholarship about Thoreau’s role as scientist and ethicist. In sum, I hope we manage these sites of long-term work as seedbeds for discovery about the natural world and our place in it.

Fred Swanson
Fred Swanson at Chaitén, an active volcanic caldera in the Andes Mountains of Chile, January 2010.
Photo courtesy Fred Swanson.

What’s next for Fred Swanson?

I recently retired, so I have chosen to honor the places that have been so important in my personal and professional lives: Andrews Forest and Mount St. Helens. One aspect of this “work” is to promote humanities and arts engagements with these incredible places and also to document lessons learned there. These powerful landscapes have been such great teachers and we’ve only begun the learning, so it’s important to assist discovery by others. It’s heartening to see widespread enthusiasm for arts/humanities/science collaborations at several dozen sites of long-term (see Two additional projects are writing—papers about volcano ecology (the interactions of forest ecosystems and volcanic eruptions)—and helping create a collection of material documenting the history of the Andrews Forest research program and its interactions with land management and policy. This collection will be in the Oregon State University Archives and available for use by scholars in the future. Oh, and then there is biking the agricultural lands of the central Willamette Valley, family, cooking, and disc golf.


Andrew C. Gottlieb is the reviews editor for His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook Halflives (New Michigan Press). Find him at is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.