So just imagine this: The call comes in on a Wednesday — you are to meet with the President of the United States on Friday. Between now — now being your everyday life as a mom, research scientist and community member —and your meeting with POTUS, you need to go through the security clearance process, you need to figure out what one wears when meeting the president, you need to get yourself to Seattle, and, most importantly, you need to tell no one outside of your immediate household. These people, too, need to keep it all a secret. So while going about your daily lives — work, school, sports, meetings, social events — you are bursting with this momentous thing that is going to happen, but you can’t talk about it.
Regardless of your political leanings, a face-to-face meeting with POTUS is a heady experience, as Methow Valley resident and forest ecologist Dr. Susan Prichard recently learned, when she attended President Biden’s Seattle-based signing of an Executive Order that is intended to “strengthen America’s forests, boost wildfire resilience, and combat global deforestation.”
Last year Susan co-authored a somewhat controversial paper about adapting western forests to climate change and wildfires. “As all of us in the Methow Valley are well-aware, high-severity fires are becoming increasingly common,” Susan says. “A lot of the old guard environmental groups and the strict anti-logging crowd aren’t happy with our paper, but it’s solid science-based adaptive management that makes sense to land managers and policy makers — it’s proactive things we can do in fire-prone forests so that they don’t completely burn up in high-intensity fires.”
Senior Advisor for Climate in the Office of the Secretary Sean Babbington caught wind of Susan’s paper and called last Wednesday morning her to ask if she might be willing to attend President Biden’s signing of the Executive Order on Earth Day, in Seattle. It wasn’t a sure thing, Sean told Susan, but he got her started on the security clearance process just in case they needed her.
By late Wednesday afternoon Susan hadn’t heard anything from the White House, so she assumed she’d been cut from the list. Thursday morning, however, the official invitation arrived, along with a special request: would Susan discuss forest protection with POTUS, on video, after the signing? Susan jumped into action. At the top of her list were two priorities: come up with a list of talking points and figure out what to wear.
The sartorial decision was made with the help of friend, part-time valley resident, and trial attorney Heather Yakely, who consulted with Susan on her wardrobe options. The talking points took a bit more time. As Susan drove toward Seattle, she thought about some key aspects of protecting forests. “None of it is revolutionary,” she said. “We need to thin forests, we need to leave big trees for carbon sequestration, and we need to do more prescribed burning. Most of all, we need to curb greenhouse gas emissions.”
The setting for the video, however, proved more problematic. “I knew the video would be made with President Biden and me in a lush area of Seward Park, full of western red cedar and bigleaf maple trees. It’s a typical west side forest and the optics weren’t right to talk about mitigating wildfire. It just doesn’t look like a place that could ever burn up,” Susan said. So in the west side forest setting, Susan decided to keep the focus on conservation, carbon sequestration, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Filled with high-level politicians, tribal elders and other people Susan didn’t know, the ceremony itself felt a bit surreal, especially because Susan had 10 Secret Service eyeballs fixed on her steadily throughout the speeches. As someone who would meet individually with POTUS after the signing, Susan was a potential chink in the security armor.
Toward the end of the president’s speech, an aide tapped Susan on the shoulder and led her away with the video crew. Soon, Susan found herself discussing place-based adaptive management strategies with the 46th President of the United States. “Thanks Doc,” POTUS said to Susan after they talked.
Then suddenly it was over, the presidential motorcade drove away, and Susan headed back over the mountains to her normal life, arriving home just in time to host a ski team dinner, with kids who have witnessed the smoke and devastation of wildfire, who have experienced the shorter winters and hotter summers, and whose generation stands to suffer the most from climate change.