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In Memory of Jim Sedell

Published On: 10/5/2012

Colleagues remember Jim Sedell

James R. Sedell July 5, 1944 – August 18, 2012

Jim Sedell–one of the most energetic and innovative stream ecologists of the last 40 years–died on August 18, 2012 shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Few scientists have influenced both basic and applied landscape ecology as profoundly as Jim. He graduated from Willamette University in philosophy in 1967 and received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh in ecology in 1971. Jim served as a faculty member at Oregon State University, leader of aquatic research at Weyerhaueser Company, research team leader in the Pacific Northwest Forest Experiment Station of the US Forest Service, director of water research for USFS in Washington D.C. , director of the Southwest Forest Experiment Station, and lead aquatic scientist for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation until his death. In his diverse career, he created a rich legacy of ecological concepts, aquatic management strategies, and creative interactions between science, managers, and the public.

Jim Sedell’s early research on organic matter budgets in streams led to his discovery of the role of large wood in stream ecosystems in the mid-1970s, which rapidly influenced fish ecology, fluvial geomorphology, forest ecology, and dynamics of nearshore marine systems. Facing resistance from both the scientific community and forest industry, he challenged opponents with compelling historical reconstructions of river systems, collaborative research, and insights that totally changed our understanding of the ecological roles of large wood in from the forest to the sea.

Jim Sedell was a co-author of the River Continuum Concept in 1980, leading the research in the McKenzie River in Oregon. In the debates of the River Continuum Concept that followed its publication, Jim energetically supported the conceptual basis of the RCC but reached out to international critics and colleagues to expand and strengthen the evolution of our understanding of river networks.

Jim left academia in 1977 to lead the aquatic research program of the Weyerhaeuser Company. He shook the industry with his innovative approaches for riparian protection on private industrial forests, saying that streams need the 3 Cs–cedar, sediment, and salmonids. Principles of riparian management and stream restoration that Jim championed in the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s have become the framework of modern land management on both public and private forest lands throughout the world.

When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, Jim assembled teams of scientists to capture this historical opportunity to understand the resilience of stream ecosystems to landscape disturbance. Sampling lakes with astronomically high bacterial abundances, Jim came down with symptoms that resembled Legionaire’s disease. But nothing could keep him down, and his efforts led to one of the most comprehensive studies of the effects of massive landscape disturbance on stream ecosystems.

National forest management faced numerous political and ecological challenges in the late early 1990s. Endangered species such as northern spotted owl and Pacific salmon created management challenges that could not be resolved simply with riparian buffers or refuges. Jim Sedell and Gordie Reeves designed the aquatic strategies for the Northwest Forest Plan, one of the largest landscape level conservation strategies for multiple use public lands in the world.

Jim’s leadership in the Pacific Northwest led to his appointment as Director of Wildlife, Fish, Water, and Air Research for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C. Even Washington could not dampen his legendary energy. Moving to the southwestern U.S., Jim teamed with government leaders to create an experimental forest reserve in Hawaii, which he considered one of his greater accomplishments. During this time, he also worked with Fred Swanson and Kathleen Dean Moore to create the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program, a creative synthesis involving scientists, writers, and artists sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

After retiring from the Forest Service, Jim became the aquatic science advisor for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. He incorporated a new business model into their approach for prioritizing aquatic conservation and restoration projects. Focusing on the need to make a difference for specific sites and species at risk, Jim rallied his colleagues and partners with his challenge to “make me care”. He worked tirelessly to identify action that could provide measurable outcomes over short time frames.

Many of us have had the privilege of working with Jim over the years. It is difficult to imagine this amazing spark of innovation and creativity has passed. His challenges and “Jimmyisms” have inspired us for decades: “Streams need merchantable timber!” “Streams need the three Cs---cedar, sediment, and salmon.” When faced with glacially moving agencies and bureaucracies, he would loudly exclaim “Jeezy peezy, are we buying or are we just kicking tires?” And when the field work seemed insurmountable or the management task seemed endless and spirits were flagging, you could count on Jim to yell “Drive, nuggets!”, pump his fists, and charge ahead with his seemingly endless energy. In research efforts or management decisions in the coming months and years, we will find ourselves remembering the beautiful creativity and energy that Jim shared so enthusiastically. His ability to share himself with everyone---from the young student to the seasoned colleague, from an artist or musician to weathered administrator, and his ever expanding circle of new acquaintances---inspired us and enriched our professional and personal lives. Streams of North America with healthy riparian forests and threatened fish populations surviving in recovering river basins are a lasting reflection of the curiosity, creativity, and passion of Jim Sedell.

Contributed by:
Stan Gregory, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon
Gordie Reeves, USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station, Corvallis, Oregon
Pete Bisson, USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station, Olympia, Washington

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