Carl Stoltenberg is Rolling Over in His Grave: Part 1

Carl Stoltenberg is Rolling Over in His Grave: Part 1

I got a telephone call one morning in April 1987 that was to change my professional life.

The caller was a man I’d never met: Carl Stoltenberg, the venerable Dean of the Oregon State University College of Forestry. He’d just finished thumbing through the first edition of Evergreen Magazine and was impressed with what I’d written.

I no longer have a copy of the first edition and I don’t remember its content, but I do remember the sound of Dean Stoltenberg’s warm voice.

“I want you to come up here when you have the time so I can introduce you to our faculty and you can get to know them.”

Our First Meeting

I drove from Grants Pass to Corvallis two days later. Carl greeted me at the entrance to the old Peavy Hall and walked me upstairs to a long hallway lined with offices on both sides.

“Most of our teachers and researchers are on this floor,” he explained. “I’m giving you the keys, figuratively of course, but stay as long as you want. Come see me if you need anything.”

I could hardly believe my luck. In the world of forestry schools, this was Mount Olympus. Some of the most respected forest scientists on earth occupied small offices down this hallway – and I didn’t know any of them but I was acquainted with their unparalleled research.

Carl Stoltenberg had a gift for attracting top talent and he had begun to do so in 1967, the year he was hired as Dean, the year I drove from Moscow, Idaho to Kalispell, Montana to accept a job as county government reporter with the Daily Interlake. The Forest Service, National Park Service, Corps of Engineers and the old Soil Conservation Service were mine – and I loved it.

I headed down the hallway looking for an open door. The sign on it said Mike Newton and, there he was, a strapping six-foot-four man with a vise-like handshake and a PhD in botany. In the coming years, we would become good friends and he would join our Evergreen Foundation Board of Directors.

“What happens here,” I asked.

“We teach aspiring foresters how to grow trees and protect them from a lot of bad things that can happen before they get established.”

In reply, I explained that I’d learned a few things in Montana by hanging around with Forest Service foresters and some real forestry wizards from the old J. Neils Lumber Company.

“You would have,” he said as he reached for some books on a nearby shelf. “I’m loaning these to you so you can learn a few things about Douglas fir. Then we can talk more and I’ll take you to the woods so you can see how we grow it.”

In the Woods with Mike

I have no idea how many times Mike and I went to the woods but we toured his marvelous Tree Farm west of Corvallis on our last trek. He had turned it into a laboratory for his students – a place where they could study everything from seedlings to old growth fir. There was even an old hemlock down in a draw that was more than 700 years old. Mike didn’t have the heart to cut it down, so he left it as a reminder that in pre-settlement times – when Indians routinely burned most of western Oregon – there were many more hemlock, spruce and cedar trees than there are now because Indian fire kept Douglas fir from gaining the stronghold it has today.

“Have you met Con Schallau yet,” Mike asked.

“I have not,” I said. “I know him by reputation but we’ve never met.”

“We’ll walk over to  his office in the PNW research building. I think you’ll be impressed."

Con was a PhD forest economist with the Forest Service and a legend in his academic circle. He and Wilbur Maki, another PhD legend in the same circle, were at the top of their game. Con at the PNW lab in Corvallis and Wilbur at the University of Minnesota.

Con had played the oboe in the Iowa State University orchestra – a demanding instrument that looks a bit like a clarinet but has two wooden reeds and no mouthpiece. Oboe players make their own reeds, so the instrument matched his meticulous attention to detail. It fit him perfectly because he was dead serious about the accuracy and integrity of his research.

I regret never hearing Con play his oboe but I’ve read every report he ever wrote or co-wrote with Wilbur including the peer-reviewed stuff that comes with barely decipherable equations involving differential calculus, linear algebra and non-lineal program. I barely understand it but Con had the patience of Job and he wanted me to see that his work had a practical application. A decade later, I asked him to join our Evergreen Board and he graciously accepted. He was a great teacher.

“Have you met Morrell yet,” he asked as we finished our first conversation.

“I haven’t,” I replied as he filled my outstretched arms with reports. My assigned reading.

“I’ll take you to his lab so you can begin to understand how these pieces fit.”

We walked back to Peavy and into Jeff Morrell’s lab. The smell of wood and glue filled the air. Jeff was sitting on a stool hunched over a big table littered with small pieces of wood. He was new to Corvallis, a 1986 PhD graduate of the State College of New York at Syracuse.

I motioned to the wood samples and asked what riddle he was trying to solve.

“We think we can build an airframe stronger and lighter than aluminum by blending polymers into a composite material,” he said. His matter-of-fact answer told me that Mike Newton’s office two floors above us was light years away.

Polymer research in flight began at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in the 1940s but here was a serious young man telling me that what had been theoretical for a long time was about to become real.

“Wow,” I said. “Who is funding your research?”

“Mainly Boeing,” he replied.

Boeing. In Seattle. Of course. The old logger and lumberman from Hoquiam, Washington who made his fortune in timber, then got interested in wooden boats and seaplanes and founded Boeing in 1916, just in time to make his second fortune building airplanes during World War I.

Boeing's Legacy

And now here was young Jeff Morrell tinkering with natural polymers: cellulose and carbon, the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium and oxygen. The list of natural polymers is long: silk, wood, hemp, amber, bone, cotton and cellulose, the most abundant organic polymer on earth. The cellular walls of all plants including Mike Newton’s beloved Douglas fir trees; insoluble, biodegradable and, in many ways, stronger than steel.

The polymers that Jeff and many others were researching are now commonly used in military and commercial aircraft. Viewed under an electron microscope, polymers reveal complex shapes that are stacked in ways that give them strength properties that linear metals don’t have. This same stacking principle is used in the manufacture of mass panel plywood and cross laminated timbers that are all the rage in the architectural world. Imagine skyscrapers engineered from wood.

Oregon State’s forestry school became a world leader in forestry and wood science largely because of  Carl Stoltenberg’s pursuit of academic excellence. We visited many times after he handed me the keys to Peavy Hall. He was always a charming and gracious host and an engaging and gifted peacemaker – a skill he honed daily after his armored infantry unit liberated 32,000 Jewish prisoners from Dachau in April 1945. Almost as many died there during the war.

Thousands flourished under Carl’s artful leadership. Professors and students alike. Mike Newton, Con Schallau, Jeff Morrell and many others I got to know who worked in reforestation, forest genetics, soils, water, fish and wildlife and forest ecology. The new Peavy Hall - aka the Oregon Forest Science Complex and the A.A. “Red” Emmerson Advanced Wood Products Laboratory – is one of the most beautiful examples of engineered wood design and technology application in the world.

I wish I could add Tom Deluca to my list of forest scientists I admire, but I can’t. Deluca, who holds a PhD in soil science from Iowa State University – Con Schallau’s alma mater – now sits in the Dean’s chair at Oregon State’s College of Forestry, the same chair that Carl Stoltenberg occupied from 1967 until his retirement in 1990.

I’ve never met DeLuca but his storied academic career tells me he’s a very smart guy. Regrettable then that he has allowed himself to get sucked into a dubious, politically inspired effort to turn the Elliott State Forest into a state-funded research forest.

Never mind the fact that the Elliott is one of the most productive Douglas fir forests on earth or that it was a major revenue source for Oregon’s Common School Fund for decades. I’m not even sure this is legal, but it damn well violates everything that Land Grant Colleges have stood for since President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862.

The Act’s was the brainchild of Justin Smith Morrill, a five-term Vermont congressman who believed strongly in the idea that the federal government ought to provide land for the formation of agricultural and engineering schools. The first to apply was Iowa’s State Agricultural College and Model Farm, today Iowa State University, DeLuca’s PhD alma mater. Land grant colleges got 30,000 acres each.

Oregon and Oregon State

Oregon State University is a year older that Oregon. The Masonic Lodge in Corvallis incorporated Corvallis Academy in 1858. Statehood came in 1859 and its land grant came in October 1862, three months after Lincoln signed the Morrill Act. Corvallis Academy became Corvallis College in 1868, then Oregon Agricultural College in 1888, Oregon State College in 1937 and Oregon State University in 1961. The late Mark Hatfield, a U.S. Senate giant, was then Oregon governor.

Colleges established on donated land predate the Morrill Act: Rutgers University in 1766 and the University of Georgia in 1784. Both formally became Land Grant Colleges after Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862. Today, there are 112 Land Grant Colleges in the United States, including 19 historically black colleges and 33 tribal colleges. OSU is the only Land Grant College in Oregon. The University of California at Berkeley, Washington State University, the University of Idaho and Montana State University are the only Land Grant schools in their respective states.

It means something to be a Land Grant College. It connotes a learning emphasis on agriculture, forestry, science and engineering. Ideally, it means that academic leadership should have the good sense to stay the hell out of the political fever swamps. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case today. The list of college deans and professors willing to bastardize science in the name of academic freedom is long.

Don’t get me wrong. Debate among qualified scientists who look at their disciplines through different prisms is fine. Better science should be the result. I love the quotation most often attributed to Mark Twain: It ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know that just ain’t so.

What’s happening in the Oregon State University College of Forestry has nothing to do with rigorous scientific debate. This is about a proposal developed by some DeLuca faculty members at the behest of the State Board of Forestry to justify hijacking Elliott State Forest from the Common School Fund under the guise of transforming the Elliott into a research forest managed by the College of Forestry. It stinks to high heaven – and in a few days I’ll explain why I believe Carl Stoltenberg is rolling over in his grave and Tom DeLuca should run screaming from the room.

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