Seeing the forest and the trees
Interview by Marcy Stamper
Peter Morrison founded the nonprofit Pacific Biodiversity Institute, a branch of the Sierra Biodiversity Institute. The Institute conducts scientific research in the fields of ecology, conservation biology and natural resource management.
PBI is involved in so many aspects of analyzing the natural world. Can you tell me more about your work in the Methow?
Most recently we’ve been working to assess the impact of forest health – to look at 21 local wildlife species, ranging from butterflies to large carnivores, wolves and lynx.
Do you personally go out and do surveys in the field?
Yes, all of us do multiple things. We all want to do some of the fun stuff – we got into this because we love the natural world.
I would imagine you also need to do field work to have some perspective on things – for instance, to know what the habitat should look like for a species to thrive?
Exactly. We do a lot of computer mapping and analysis work. We’ve actually won a lot of international awards for our work in that realm.
How do you use that information?
We’ve focused on integrating landscape-level view and analysis with field-based studies. We actually use mobile GIS – where we can bring up the same kind of information we have on the computer screen in the field. When you’re on the ground, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees – you see the details. More and more, in conservation biology and ecology, people are trying to step back more and see the big picture, too. It’s gotten almost as though too many people are just looking at it from space and don’t have that field-based experience. A lot of stuff done now is off in the theoretical realm, just looking at the data on computers.
Through computer analysis, are you looking to see if you find what you expect, in terms of wildlife and habitat?
Yes, and to look at things like landscape fragmentation and connectivity, because almost all of our species and ecosystems really depend on being connected with something. They don’t just exist in a vacuum. That’s one of the biggest challenges that a lot of the species and plants face, that their habitat has been fragmented so much by human development and activity that they can’t move around.
PBI has been able to collect an astonishing amount of information – mapping all of North America’s wildlands, for instance.
Yes, we’ve done some projects that are continental in scope. And we’ve looked at the distribution of different weed species in the Chewuch watershed. We did a whole bunch of plots – this is whitetop; this is diffuse knapweed. It’s been a chance to get to know parts of our landscape that we wouldn’t normally explore – from exploring our roadsides to deep in the wilderness, to places where nobody ever gets, except the grizzly bears.
Do the people who commission your work use it to make changes, or do you just put it out there and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve found’?
Well, it’s kind of a combination. We specialize in providing the information on the state of the natural environment and try to do a really objective job of providing that information on ecological health, status of various plant and animal species, and overall biodiversity and ecological systems. We try not to be an advocacy group, but we try and keep it really objective and credible so it stands the test of time.
I can imagine some groups feel information can be dangerous, in and of itself.
Over the last eight, nine years there was a big trend, particularly in the federal government, for not wanting a lot of information to get out there. I think the whole scientific community breathed a big sigh of relief once George Bush left office, because he was pretty anti-science.
How did you get into this work? Were you already doing this when you came to the Methow?
I always had a real love for the natural world – both of my parents were geologists. Actually, we came to the Methow in order to farm, and still do that – my wife, Aileen Jeffries, and I have an 80-acre ranch up the Chewuch with sheep and hay and food, a huge garden with fruit. I’ve had kind of a dual career – it’s been very interesting. My grandfather wrote the world’s bible on animal husbandry and grazing.
I grew up on a ranch in Colorado. It’s been interesting, because it’s allowed me to see things from a bunch of perspectives. I’m definitely not your typical ivory-tower scientist. I’ve always lived in the West and that rural way of life is important to me. I’ve been president of the Skyline Ditch Company. Our farm really suffered a lot when the ditch was closed down because of endangered salmon issues. I could understand the endangered-fish issue, but could also see and feel how it impacted irrigators.
One year, a cougar came and killed nine of our sheep all in one night. It was interesting, because I’d been doing a lot of work on conservation, to see both perspectives. That’s been really helpful, to not just understand them intellectually, but understand what it was like to have your flock of sheep killed.
Right now we have an excellent opportunity in the Methow with a recovering wolf population. There’s increasingly more and more knowledge about how to farm and ranch with wildlife. One of the things you may have seen on our website is an initiative on biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. I really think there’s a strong connection in both directions between protection of biodiversity and good agricultural practices. I feel it a lot here in the Methow – some of the best habitat for wildlife is in well-managed agricultural or ranchland. The two things can work together.
Your view of biodiversity is broad enough to encompass humans and the animals they bring in that wouldn’t naturally occur in the area?
Sure. Humans are very much a part of the ecosystem, and always have been.
Some people might argue that humans keep moving further and further into the territory that these animals need to survive.
Well, I think that there needs to be refugia for wildlife, and protected areas where they’re not hunted. But in the long run, refugia can actually benefit hunting. Once again, it’s not an either/or type thing.
Other than thinking hard about these issues and having experienced them in your own life, have you worked with any organizations to bridge the gap?
I’ve worked quite a bit with the conservation community in Washington state to increase their awareness of some of the rural perspectives on things. We’re one of the few places in the whole world at this point that have the full complement of our native biodiversity still intact, and always have. We have our large carnivores – we still have wolves and grizzly bears. We’ve lost coho salmon, but they’re working on recovering that, but we really have pretty much a full complement of all the species that inhabited this environment before we got here.
Do you think it was good fortune, or that people recognized it and tried to preserve it?
Well, it was a combination of lots of factors. The Methow was pretty isolated – until 1972, there was only way into the valley. And conservation – like the fact that there was a long-term effort to not have a ski area. That would have dramatically transformed the valley. And the landscape is rugged enough that it’s protected itself. If it were flat, with good soil, we’d all have wheat fields.
What about other aspects of your life?
I have a wide variety of other interests. I’ve really focused a lot, though, on these kind of dual interests – living in a fairly closely-knit rural community, which I find incredibly rewarding. It’s great to be on our ski trails and be able to run into people that you interact with in all different ways.
I’d like to see more opportunities for kids in the Methow. I think agriculture should be right up there with writing and reading. There are a lot of opportunities to make agriculture more viable, and it’s challenging because agriculture has gone so big scale. We have to look at how we can bring things together, where maybe there are more farm cooperatives so people can share equipment.
I think that things like this community garden that we’re doing here at the Institute are an example. I just love growing things – food, vegetables or fruit or livestock – and it’s a place where everybody can come together and find common ground. We’ve very open to getting people involved in this garden. Hopefully next year the garden will look even twice as good.