The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

Sort Interviews by Affiliation or Theme

Mike Newton Oral History Interview

March 15, 2016 – 10:00a.m.

Video: “A Life Dedicated to Healthier Forests” . March 15, 2016

Location: Newton residence, Philomath, Oregon.
Interviewer:  Mike Dicianna

1:52:20 - Abstract | Biography | Download Transcript (PDF)


Mike Dicianna: Well today is Tuesday, March 16th 2015, and the OSU Sesquicentennial Project has the pleasure of capturing the history of Mike Newton, professor emeritus from the OSU College of Forestry. We're at Mike's home in southwest Corvallis and my name is Mike Dicianna. I'm an oral historian for the OSU Special Collections and Archive Research Center. We always like to start out with a brief biographical sketch of where you started. Tell us a little about your early childhood, where and when you were born, siblings, that type of thing.

Mike Newton: I was born in Hartford, Connecticut of parents who were teachers at the Loomis School in Windsor, Connecticut. I was the fourth of four kids, and I was preceded by a sister, a brother, and another sister. Being the youngest, I was the one who got walked over quite a bit. But anyways, I grew up with my folk as the guy who got the short straw all the time.

Only my first four years was in Windsor because my dad had decided that he wanted to found his own prep school; about the time I was born he started making plans for that. Then in 1933 he bought a place in Vermont which was one of three houses in the town of Jamaica, Vermont, that was built in 1780. Really an old goldy: all put together with hand-human timbers, the whole business. It was quite a crude but beautiful building. Totally isolated from everyplace else except for horse trails.

It was at the end of the road when he bought it. A road had been built and served a couple of other houses in that area. We were thirteen miles from the village at the end of the road. There wasn't any traffic past our place, and there wasn't a lot of commerce in the area. Our neighbors were a long distance away, and we were often isolated by heavy snowstorms. We grew up to be pretty independent kids.

MD: This whole idea of a private prep school, kind of an East Coast thing, we don't see too much in the West. What age groups? Was it elementary all the way through? Is that where you went to school?

MN: The basic prep school was high school age. They needed students, so they took some 7th and 8th graders too. They hired a teacher who could handle 7th and 8th graders and also 1st through 7th, which captured the Newton kids.

MD: Having that kind of early education, did you think that that really affected your further endeavors, having that kind of personal education like that?

MN: Well, it did because I grew up sharing chores with students that were a lot older than I was. This was a very small school that never had over thirty students. We had a herd of cattle, and we logged with horses, the students did everything. We burned sixty cords of wood a winter. The students accounted for all that, including those who were in the woods yarding it out with Daisy and Dandy, and eventually James and Maggie.

MD: What kind of timber? Was it pine?


MN: Well, we were in a very rich forest area. Where our house was, was in basically the only cleared land in four to five square miles. There wasn't a whole lot of clearing, just enough to handle the odd inhabitants, a few cows, and a few horses and mule. So we had a lot. The school property had 160 acres and it was virtually all hardwood and white pine. White pine had invaded where they quit farming. We had seventeen species of useful trees in the area ranging from paper birch to sugar maple to white pine and hemlock and spruce. We became very, very familiar with the forest and its species. Our students had to be able to identify all of them.

MD: Well, growing up during the World War II years, I always love to talk to my folks that spent time then. You as a child, how did the war affect you guys in rural Vermont? On the home front, did you guys get involved with scrap iron drives or rationing, that type of thing?

MN: Well, really, we had ration books because my mom ordered the food for the place. We did have a cook, but she had to organize the purchasing. Once a week, our school truck would go to town and buy groceries wholesale outlet, we had a wholesale outlet. She had to do all this accounting in tickets to make sure she was all within bounds. And then of course, we ate a lot of venison.

MD: Live off the land.

MN: Oh yeah we did. We hunted snowshoe rabbits and grouse and various things. There was a lot of good eating out in the woods. The boys became good hunters because that went on the table, that was part of our banquet.

MD: I always love to ask, everyone has those memories that imprint on them, each generation has them. Did the news of Pearl Harbor affect you? Do you have that memory?

MN: Well, I was ten. We weren't affected by it; we were startled that somebody actually hammered our country. That's not legal. So we were really, really angry with the Japanese, and we were already sore with the Germans. Not because they attacked us but because they attacked our friends. We would tune in on a battery pack radio. We had only three stations, one of them was where we got all of our news. The boys would crowd around this one radio, and we did pay attention.

MD: Now this is right during the Rural Electrification Act. Did you guys have indoor plumbing, electricity, stuff like that?

MN: REA, Rural Electrification Administration, brought a line in in 1947. We'd been there round the clock for ten years. So I grew up with Aladdin lamps at study hall and little kerosene lanterns in our bedrooms.

MD: How about plumbing?


MN: We had gravity feed water from a spring up on the hill. We had hot and cold water; we had this big wood burning furnace that kept us a fine supply of hot water. The boys were expected to be clean. They came in out of the woods, you better take a bath before dinner. When they came in from the woods we had a half hour break, then a study hall, then dinner, then another study hall. So they really had to organize their time in order to get a quick bath, get something to eat at the break, then a group would be setting up tables and everything. Efficiency of getting things done was part of the exercise.

MD: Your higher education is extensive, but you began the University of Vermont in Burlington which is the fifth oldest school in the United States. Formed in 1791, I understand. It's also a Land Grant college, which Oregon State is Oregon's Land Grant college. What was your major area of study and why did you choose it?

MN: Well, I chose it because I thought I could get engineering and agriculture in one place. They did offer that, but there wasn't time for one poor sap who was very young starting college – I was sixteen when I got to UVM. So I discovered that I had to focus on agriculture and that was animal husbandry, dairy, that type of program. So it was a pretty broad spectrum thing, but I took engineering courses whenever I could get electives.

MD: So, Land Grant colleges required all male students to be part of ROTC or military tactics training. Even at sixteen, did you become part of the ROTC?

MN: Yes, it was an infantry ROTC unit. In my freshman year, I took military science all year long; second year, military science. Third year, I took out. I had some hospital time, I worked all winter building houses, digging foundations in frozen soil. I grew up a lot in that process, and when I enrolled again as a junior in my, basically, fourth year, I signed up for the ROTC because, there are two reasons: one is that the Korean War was going to suck me up if I didn't, and I thought, "might as well go in as a Second Lieutenant." But the main reason I signed up for the advanced ROTC was that it paid twenty-seven dollars a month. That was a critical source of income for me. [laughs]

MD: I've heard that story many times. So you went all the way through and received a commission as you graduated?

MN: Correct, and as an infantry officer I went in as an infantry platoon leader.

MD: Ok. So one of the things I've always loved is campus life during the 1950s. Did you pledge to a fraternity? What were your living arrangements at a college?

MN: Well, it was interesting. I lived wherever I could find a cheap room, which was often in spare rooms in fraternity houses. So I had the advantage of living with fraternity people who were often just ordinary guys, but it didn't cost me anything, there wasn't any charge to join. I got a room for four dollars a month which I could just barely afford. I think I spent one year in a dormitory, and the rest of my UVM time was spent shopping for cheap rooms in fraternity houses.

MD: So what other activities did you get involved with when you were there? Sports at all?

MN: Well, as a ROTC student I had some marching time to practice. I spent almost all of my time when I wasn't in class or doing assignments trying to earn a buck. I made gun stocks, did a whole lot of relatively crude gunsmithing, taught people how to shoot, a lot of things like that. But I also had a full set of carpenter's tools and I worked under houses in helping replace sills, that type of stuff. Whenever I had time I was working, so I didn't have much time for frivolity.

MD: Now at that time was it a large school or relatively small? During the '50s our student body at Oregon State was in the 5,000 range.

MN: 3,200 at UVM, and the College of Agriculture was one of the smaller schools.

MD: After college – you graduated in '54?

MN: Yes.

MD: So you got a degree, a BS in Agriculture?

MN: Yes.

MD: Then your commission. You entered the US Army at that point. Did you go to officer training school?


MN: Yeah, first four months was at Benning, at the infantry school. I was assigned to the 85th Infantry in Kansas. When I got there, here's a poor country boy who grew up in icicle town, and I got to Fort Riley which has got to be the hottest place in the world during the summer and full of chiggers. I was assigned to the 85th Infantry, which had just been assembled as a reserve unit. All of the current draftees and reservists got piled in to a 5,000-man regiment.

I was assigned to a pioneer and ammunition platoon. I was well-fitted to the title but when I got there, my platoon, all of my people, it was in a rifle company, so the companies all needed people to do details for them while they were out training. So my guys all got sent out to haul ammo or drive trucks or whatever. I didn't have a whole lot of regular soldiering to do once I got assigned to the P&A platoon. I signed so many chits for turning in ammo, dead ammo, and for issuing ammo, and for you name it. [laughs]

MD: It was paper.

MN: Yes, and I signed a lot of chits because my occasional trooper got out of sorts in town; we'd have to bail them out. I had a sergeant and we would go down there.

Anyway, we left for Germany in November of '55. I spent the next thirteen months in Bamberg with the unit. We were one of the frontier units, not far from the Czech-Hungarian frontiers.

MD: Yeah, because that was in down Bavaria, the southern part of Germany.

MN: Yes. We were right on the eastern edge of that.

MD: At the height of tension.

MN: When the Russians went into Hungary, we were there on relatively short notice.

MD: It was a hot time during the Cold War to be in Europe.

MN: My assignment was still Pioneer and Ammunition platoon leader, and one of the jobs was to recon along the border and find out where you had to have concentrations of ammo available for the battalion and that type of thing. That was a tense time for sure.

MD: Now, during these years you also started a family. So there's that story we can get started.

MN: Well, it's very nice when you're in the Army if you can raise a family on their nickel. Our first born, Dan, was born while we were still at Fort Riley, Kansas. Then after we got to Germany, I was on maneuvers when our daughter was born. When my wife would come out to the field to visit the troops, she had enjoyed the sensation of having been delivered to a hospital. She started in labor there and she had to catch a very strange ambulance that was a ton and a half truck that was adapted to be an ambulance; cobblestone roads for the first forty miles. She eventually wound up delivering in Nürnberg. Anyways, that was an eventful time. By the time I got out of the Army, that December of '56, we had two.

MD: Now where did you guys meet, in college or...?


MN: Well, let's see. While I was at UVM, my sister went to Presbyterian Nursing School in New York. She had a very nice roommate there, and when they graduated from nursing school my family went down to wish them well and I met Jane. We got to know each other pretty well, and I thought, "she's really, really an awfully nice girl." Not long after I graduated, she became my wife; October 1957, I guess it was.

MD: Coming up on sixty years?

MN: Yeah, that's right.

MD: I'm coming up on it; I was born in January of '57.

MN: Actually let's see. We got married in '65...yeah, '65.

MD: So you get out, you separate from the Army, now you only did two years?

MN: Two.

MD: You were required for two years. Did you stay in the Reserves after or just total separation?

MN: Well it was inactive reserve, which was total separation. It had to be an emergency to be called up, so I never saw them again.

MD: So, we're having a big relocation from the East out here to the Pacific Northwest. You came to Oregon state College at the time.

MN: Well, that was an interesting choice because I was interested in both forestry and engineering. OSU was the only one of six or seven western universities which had both. I was interested in Berkeley, OSU, University of Washington, Washington State, Idaho, Montana, and Utah State. OSU was the only one that cut the mustard. Jan and I showed up here, drove across the continent in our '51 Ford with all of our worldly goods, and set up housekeeping. I started over again; I was an undergraduate. When I got here, I was told that I'd have to take the prerequisites for a second bachelor's degree before I could become a graduate student. Now, almost anybody with a bachelor's degree can sign up for anything but for Forestry, I needed to have a Forestry bachelor's degree. I had to get a second bachelor's degree, and at the same time I took a full load of graduate courses. At the end of 1959, I got a second bachelor's degree and a MS, and I was hired by the college.

MD: [laughs] They wanted to keep you.

MN: The next day. [laughs] As an instructor.


MD: Basically you set up a whole new life in the Willamette Valley. Did you live in Corvallis?

MN: We lived in Corvallis for about four or five months. We were on the GI Bill and we had a little savings from the Army, so we started looking for a little more permanent place to live and we found what was not much more than a shack. A third of an acre out southwest of the country club; we bought the house for $5,900. So I rebuilt it, and made a very pleasant house out of it. We lived there until we built this house; in 1965 we moved out here.

MD: So your masters work was involved with forest management through weed control. Most people don't think of weeds and forests in the same idea, so tell us about that research. Was it groundbreaking research for the day?

MN: When I came back to school and started my second undergraduate program, I started looking for ways of supporting myself. I got an assistantship to be working on my masters too. The Forest Research Division of the Ag Experiment Station was not part of the College of Forestry, but the offices were in the College of Forestry facilities. So here I was, a forestry student, and I was offered an assistantship to do some work with herbicides – weed killers – to see if we could come up with some ways of controlling undesirable hardwoods. There are a lot of crooked big leaf maples and oaks and so forth that interfered with people's reforestation or afforestation as a matter of fact, that was a big thing then.

So I started working with herbicides, slipping them into trees to find out whether the trees did or didn't like them. I got very well acquainted with the flora in the area. In one of those years, I spent a lot of time working for Bruce Starker running survey lines around properties that they were buying. I got very well acquainted with not only one of the world's best foresters in Bruce Starker, and also their property and so forth. I learned so much about forestry while at the same time working on weed control. What a privilege; no man ever had a better privilege to get started.

MD: With your involvement in the Starker family, did you ever meet T.J. Starker?

MN: I did. T.J. and I had a lot of interesting conversations. Too many to fill you in on, but I want to top this off by saying; I was cleaning out under T. J's house, he was going to move, so I was cleaning out his basement for him. In the corner I found two old rifles. I liked guns and I had tinkered on them so I said, "T.J., do you ever use these?" And he said, "no, I haven't lately." I said "are they for sale?"

"Well, no. But do you want one?" And I said "well, I'm not sure, are they for sale?" And he said "well, make me an offer!" There was a Japanese rifle there, a 7.7, it was in really good shape and I said "I'll offer you five dollars for it." And T.J. said "sold!"


I took the rifle home, and about a month later I got a call from T.J. and he said "I want that rifle back, I sold it to you too cheap." [laughs] So I had to give up that rifle that I was planning to overhaul and make into a good civilian deer rifle. Anyways, that was one of the more entertaining conversations.

MD: So, the School of Forestry during the late '50s, how was it rated as far as the Forestry schools in the West or nationwide really. Were we the Forestry school?

MN: I was never aware of any rating system at that time. I had been told that it was a very good one, that the people who graduated from Oregon State would make really good foresters, and that they would be really going through the ropes while they were at school – lots of field time, really gifted faculty and so forth. I didn't know all that much; it was all superficial information when I signed up to go there. But I was really impressed by the quality of the teaching and of the students. A lot of ex-GI's were enrolled then, so they were older guys, very responsible, ready to hit the ground running when they graduated. It was a really good bunch to work with. They set a standard that I had to hustle to keep up with.

That was a fine experience. Then I became an instructor and I started teaching watershed management and a couple of other undergraduate courses. Then the guy that I was hired to replace while he was on sabbatical leave, he came back, so he took over his own teaching jobs. I was reduced to one class. Then I was assigned, went back on research to continue work with weed control and reforestation in general. So that was really the beginning of my research career.

MD: Now, were you a Fernhopper when you were a student?

MN: Oh, you bet.

MD: Tell us about the Fernhoppers; gotta get that on tape.

MN: Ok. We were serious Fernhoppers because my research was almost all in the field, and a lot of it was where there were a lot of ferns.

MD: In January of '60, that's when you actually started teaching these classes. So basically you had a boom right into teaching. Did you ever think that you would be a teacher? Or did you think you'd be traipsing around in the woods?

MN: Well, I don't know if I was ever really given a choice. When I got my teaching assignment, I had relatively limited exposure to watershed management, and I was given a senior course in watershed management with fifty-seven students. That was what I started teaching with. Meanwhile, I was teaching about forest management and forest protection. I was busier than a cat on a tin roof, I'll tell you. I didn't have much time to think about anything else. When that was up, I was offered this research job to continue, I was living on high. [laughs] I didn't yet have a yen to teach with that teaching load again.

MD: The rest of your career has basically been a combination of the research and working with grad students?

MN: Yes, and every other year I taught a graduate course, but there was a small – 10-12 students. It was a delightful field-orientated graduate student course in advanced ecology.

MD: So it was better to be out in the woods than in a classroom?

MN: Oh yes, that was very, very enjoyable. I would enjoy teaching that course as we speak.


MD: Well, one of the questions that I always enjoy asking emeritus professors is how students have changed over the years. Can you compare 1964 undergraduates to students of the 21st century.

MN: I can. There were several ways in which the students were grossly different. One was the high percentage of veterans when I was a student. Those guys were serious about their work. Most of them had come with some college but also with a lot of understanding about the world. When they came, they were ready to go right to work. Another part about that was that a great many of them came from rural families. They had a work ethic and they also knew something about the birds and the bees and what grew out there, and how you had to tend it. The basic concept of husbanding or agriculture or forestry sources was already pretty well imbued in them.

So I would say several parts of that picture are now missing. Among other things is 90+ percent of our population being urban in its orientation; even the people who live in the country are urban in their orientation. They work in town and they don't have a wood lot or field or anything to manage. Managing the native vegetation hasn't been part of their lives. But they think about it, "oh, I'd like to be a forester," without having really a clue about it. These kids coming into school now are way behind as far as my expectation of an incoming student.

MD: Yeah, they don't have the school of hard knocks to fall back on.

MN: That's right, they don't.

MD: So, herbicides and forest management, and then there is controversy. But I understand much of your research involved the use of different herbicides for forest management on the forest floor. [phone rings] And there was lots of controversy, what part of that were you in?

MN: Well, I had studied and used herbicides for twenty years when this really started to emerge. It was brought on partly by the use of herbicides in Vietnam, but also you wound up with the urban majority afraid of chemicals in general. So they were automatically suspicious of the kinds of chemicals I was using in my research. But they didn't know much about my research so it wasn't really in their way at the time except that I would talk about the herbicide – "here's a way of cleaning up a forest so we can install conifers," for example. So we'd already done a lot of work with aerial application in our woods here then, bang! Agent Orange showed up. That was aerial application when there were people involved. People were killing forests instead of growing forests.

So I had to start defending what I was doing. But I knew what I was doing, and I was able to explain anything you want to know about the dozen or so herbicides that we use in forestry today: how they got developed, how much research had to be done on them before they could be used domestically and that sort of thing. So it was a tough transition. Now what was interesting to me was that people started to be really upset by these things even though, ever since the late '40s, most of the food crops had been grown. So it was really a part of their world and they hadn't realized that, and nobody had gotten sick. Anyway, there's a lot of misunderstanding that grew as the population became more urban-oriented; people were just isolated from the real world.


MD: And they just thought chemicals are evil.

MN: Oh yeah.

MD: Now we're talking about 2,4-D which now you hear people talk about that, and the dioxins and things like that, people talk about how evil Dow Chemical and that type of thing is, and it wasn't until the controversy; it wasn't even on the radar.

MN: Well, it wasn't. The only reason it can be on people's radar today is that they don't understand what they're upset about. And of course, that's true for so many things in our lives. People are afraid of getting on an airplane, people are afraid of eating meat, etc. We live in a modern world of "isms."

MD: Well, I'm really interested in your involvement with the research that you did in country in Vietnam as well as the Philippines. Now, that was part of an international organization that was looking at the defoliation Agent Orange caused – the term "Agent Orange" came later, didn't it?

MN: There was Agent Orange, Agent White, Agent Blue. Those were the names that were given to different domestic chemicals that were used in one way or another, that were used to deal with different parts of the vegetation in Vietnam. Mind you, there were two major programs in the agent use of one kind or another. One was to fry off the foliage of forests so that people in helicopters could spot enemy activity. And the other was a crop destruction mission. In the areas of the hills, the Montagnards, that were signing up with the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong had to grow their own crops because they really couldn't do that in front of people. So their crop lands were sprayed to knock out their rice and various other things. Agent Blue was what you used for rice because it killed grass. Agent White kills certain broad leaf weeds. Orange was cheap and it was a pretty good defoliant. Orange was nothing but 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T that had been used in this country for years.

MD: So all the controversy that has arisen in recent years about all the people, the soldiers that were exposed to it, is that kind of manufactured to create a controversy? Or is there something there as far as the effects of Agent Orange on people today?

MN: Well, when Agent Orange was used, when there was a mission to fly out, it was applied by big aircraft that could handle a thousand gallons of chemical and spray it out at three gallons per acre so that one flight of one aircraft would spray over 300 acres. They would fly a line of anywhere from three to eight aircraft side by side; it would open up a swathe that would be about a half a mile wide in one pass. Before long, foliage would fall off, da da-da da-da. Well anyway, before that mission could be flown, all troops in the area were extracted. There was a group of hueys that would go in and pick up the guys that were on patrol or whatever, and they would remove them at least a day before the Orange was flown on. It was least a day after before they were reinserted if, in fact, they were reinserted.


The relevance of that was that when we study the behavior of this kind of chemical, it's an oily type of substance, it gloms onto vegetation, soaks in, and within minutes it's no longer dislodgeable. Anybody who claims to be exposed has to actually handle it and get the wet material on their skin, or else be there and be sprayed, which is something that didn't happen. When a lot of these veterans got out of the Army and became ill, a lot of their diseases, if it was military related, the VA looked after them very well. If they could claim that they had been made ill by Agent Orange, they could get some kind of subsidy as well.

A huge amount of money has been spent on the aftermath of that because of claims that somebody with cancer or somebody with diphtheria or whatever – don't quote me on the diseases – but the point is that there is something like 250,000 people who are now being looked after by the VA for Agent Orange-related maladies. Well, they weren't there when it was sprayed, and when they went back they couldn't pick up on it. So the only people who really were exposed were the 1,200 people who were the ground crew in Operation Ranch Hand. They had handled the material, loaded it onto aircraft, decanted it from barrels and so forth, and they had a very high exposure. Their disease frequency is identical to the human population in this country who never went to Vietnam.

So it's a little – I have to be very careful when I say it didn't. I'm not part of that study, but I am very well informed about it. I handled it. I handled a lot of these materials before anybody knew there was dioxin in them. I handled them when there was much higher dioxin concentration than in any of the chemicals since, because these were crude early manufacturing materials. I have enjoyed health better than almost anybody you'll meet with who's 83 years old. That has an influence on my attitude.

MD: Now, when you were in Vietnam and the Philippines you were doing studies after they actually went through and defoliated an area. You went in and actually studied that area? Or were these experiments away? Were you in the line of fire?

MN: We were not directly in the line of fire; we could hear firing. When we went out to look at the condition of forests that had been defoliated, we were there two years after the last defoliation flight. So the evidence was still very, very clear and it beat up the forest, but it didn't eradicate a lot of things. There was a lot of desirable dipterocarp hardwoods, which was the composition of the forest to start with, and it was regenerating. As far as we could tell with the small number of surveys we did, the high quality dipterocarps were perhaps a higher percentage of what was coming in after defoliation than before. Naturally.

MD: That must have been an interesting study.


MN: It was. I spent some days with a Vietnamese horticulturalist and he identified all this stuff for me. It was an absolutely fascinating time. And we had a battalion of ARVN troops as a perimeter around where we were working. Kind of an interesting environment.

MD: Yeah, to do research and experiments in a war zone.

MN: That's right. Then, the real focus of where our work, was that we applied Orange and White in various cropping systems to find out whether the residue in the soil would still inhibit crops growing. I sprayed plots at Phan Tiet [?] which is completely surrounded by Vietnamese/Viet Cong troops, but there's an experiment station there. I worked with the Vietnamese experiment station director laying out plots and actually spraying them with White and Orange, going back and forth and evaluating them, we took soil samples and so forth. That was delightful.

But then we went down to Vung Tau which is a coastal town, which is a resort. So we did work in the mangrove forest, and when the tide was out we sprayed the mangroves to see how long the herbicide would remain in the mud. We planted mangrove seedlings to see how they would do, and right nearby we had rice paddies that we sprayed. A couple of other places where we did different kinds of cropping system. Then we did the whole thing over in the Philippines.

MD: Duplicated the experiment; scientific method.

MN: That's right. That was simply in case the working environment became too hot from military activity, we'd still have data.

MD: One of the things that comes up on a regular basis on my reading about you is the forest floor – knowing what to control and making room for marketable timber like Douglas fir. What makes Douglas fir need your help?

MN: This is very rich environment to grow everything in. There's many dozen species of understory ferns and herbs and whatnot. Overstory, where you have stands of conifers, you'll always have brush in the understory. When you harvest a stand, which is the best way to open up the site so you can reforest it? You have probably fifty species there ready to leap into action, some of them coming up from sprouts; they existed before the logging and logging didn't wipe them out. Rubbed on root systems would sprout, so you'd wind up with a sudden onset of both shrub hardwood regeneration, and herbaceous stuff would occupy that ground. It would saturate the soil with its roots and create a shade that would limit the energy getting to newly planted seedlings.


For years we'd been trying to get these combinations and permutations of control agents and safety for desirable species that would not move in the water, that would dissipate in days or weeks, yet still suppress the competition enough so that a Douglas fir tree could emerge. And after a few years, it would dominate everything else.

MD: Yeah, it just needs to start, because nature is all about competition.

MN: Oh yes, absolutely. We learned a lot in the process because there are so many different groups of plants that are differentially sensitive to the different chemicals that we were using, or to the various non-chemical treatments. Whenever you deal with something as controversial as chemicals, you have to be dealing with alternative ways of doing the same thing. So we did a lot of that sort of thing. We hand-cut with the brush, we used straight diesel fuel as a spray, tried even alternate crops that would come up and occupy the site and then die back, annual crops. The kit of about twelve herbicides today accounts for 99+% of all the vegetation management that's being done.

MD: Has the science of this progressed over these fifty years? What did you learn? What did you figure out didn't work? Where were your big successes?

MN: Well, we started off with 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T and gradually, as the Ag chemical industry developed new products – atrazine and simazine and dalapon and you name it, on up the score – each time we introduced the new product, we would find out what it would control and the rate of application it would need to control that, or we would abandon it because it just simply wasn't effective enough. But each time we introduced another product, we would have to deal with how it persisted in the soil or in the ecosystem: whether the residues would be mobile and go into water, whether it would be persistent enough and soil active enough so it would damage the seedlings we were planting, whether the different species were differentially sensitive to the residues.

So there was a lot of backgrounding we had to do long before a chemical was registered for this use. Most people don't realize the amount of research that goes into registering a chemical for commercial use. We were just one of many uses. The only reason we and the companies could afford to support forestry was that there was so much work going on for a given chemical that we started off knowing quite a bit about it before we put it to use in forests. We had to focus on the special features of the forest and that was a lot simpler than going into an agricultural program.


MD: Well, that's one of the things you touched on a little bit is that how it affects the environment – first thing I had in my notes was how about the salmon, bunnies and Bambi? Is the forest industry as bad as the environmentalist movement tries to make it out to be as far as destroying the wildlife? Or is that a major concern in this research?

MN: Well, none of the materials that are registered for use in forestry are especially toxic. They're less toxic than aspirin for example. Not only that, if only a pound of it is distributed over an acre, then any given square foot has only got – what is that 43,000 square feet? That fraction of an acre is the maximum exposure an animal would get if he ate everything here. We're talking about many orders of magnitude safety factor. So he could eat this stuff all day long.

And then we have dealt with what happens if an animal eats a bolus of it. We collected dear that had been feeding in open prairie-likes areas where the whole feeding ground would've been treated with one of the chemicals or two that we used. So one of my jobs was to collect the deer and eviscerate them and dissect them for what organs would one might want to look in to find out whether they were being exposed. So with seven or eight different organs, we took them back to the lab, analyzed them for herbicide content and so forth, looked at the animal to see whether it was skinny or otherwise. Turned out their exposure under the worst case analysis was hugely safe. It's a little bit like wearing slippers on a rug and worrying about the electricity it's generating.

MD: Well yeah, because it's vastly effectively on plant life but it affects different organisms differently with these different chemicals.

MN: Oh yeah. And, of course, we were doing our research under worst-case conditions. Operationally, another couple orders of magnitude increase in safety factor existed. So those of us working with these materials are simply not concerned about them. The people who don't know anything about them have a tendency – we all have a tendency to talk about the things that worry us. These people form groups, and then the groups have official people who protest for them. You will find in the newspapers accounts of how these people are being poisoned because the scribe reports what these people tell him, puts it in the newspaper, and then other people get concerned. So this is a never-ending problem.

MD: Oh yeah. Never-ending, and the latest cause du jour is the GMOs.

MN: Oh boy.

MD: You have an opinion on that?

MN: No. GMO stuff tastes the same to me. [laughs] The nutritional value is the same for me. And I don't know of any poison so, hey, let somebody else worry about it. [laughs]

MD: Well I found it interesting, in an interview with Evergreen magazine, you were asked a question that I just love. They said: "There is a public perception that the kind of forestry research in which you're engaged is a relatively new phenomenon that's all experimental and results can't be proven." What's your feelings on that question? We've been doing this for a lot longer than just recently.


MN: Yeah, I've been working with herbicides since 1958 and, last time I knew, that was something like fifty-six years or fifty-seven years. The work that we've done and others like us around the country – and most particularly, I think the people who work for the manufacturers – the data that they have to furnish before they can register a chemical is enormously costly. The only reason that any of this is controversial is that people who don't know anything about it complain about it.

When I think about the number of injuries that have been saved by people using these herbicides rather than cutting the brush down with their power saws and so forth – I did a major book with a toxicologist, Frank Dost, who had been a professor toxicology at OSU. We wrote up a 450-page book on chemicals and hazards. As part of that, we included a table in which we compared the alternative ways of controlling vegetation compared to 2,4-D or atrazine or whatever. We're talking about four orders of magnitude, something like a 10,000-time increased risk of injury or other misery if the person takes the chainsaw to do what we do with an aerial application of 2,4-D.

MD: Oh yeah, and efficiency, time...

MN: Yeah. And a lot of things people don't even think about. Bee stings. When people are cutting brush and you fall down on a cut stub and get skewered by it. You're talking about serious injuries there. When you've cut with a machine or whatever, you've got a huge pile of fuel, and it burns. You've got people exposed to all kinds of hazard trying to put the fire down. And then it sprouts, and then you've got to start over again.

So it's a no-brainer. You can't even argue on the merits of it because we're talking about apples and oranges – absolutely don't meet.

MD: Your whole career has been around forest management and the forest, you spend a lot of time out in the forest. With what you know today as opposed to 1958, what's the overall broad question, the big major breakthrough in these past fifty years?

MN: Well, let me start by describing the condition of the forest when I came to Oregon. The Coast Range had been heavily cut over, and there weren't any laws that said you had to reforest. So basically, literally millions of acres of our best forestland had been converted to find maple, salmon, berries, fern, you name it. The conifers that they had removed represented a relatively small fraction of the stuff that came back. So there was a huge reforestation challenge because if you planted trees in the condition that was there when I came, they'd all die. There wouldn't be any daylight getting to the ground to the little seedling. So all of our vegetation management work had to be combined with reforestation.


Sooner or later, we had to evaluate whether the methods we used to control the brush would harm the seedlings, and whether the way we controlled it, controlled it for long enough so the seedlings in one or two shots would get above it and not anything else. Well, that was really a pretty big challenge because out in the Coast Range, we'd probably have twenty species that would prove to be competitors, and so we had to know what recipe we could use to deal with the local species composition. So we had a huge ecological problem to solve, and then we had a huge population of wildlife that we had to deal with.

So any time we were working with chemicals there we had to know about the residues, how long they lasted, who was going to eat them, what they did with the chemicals once they'd eaten some. It was a pretty broad spectrum program that I, as a one man show there, was having to deal with. So I was in school constantly, and I was in the woods whenever I wasn't in the lab working with people over at Ag Chemistry to get some data from residues and that sort of thing. I was a busy boy.

MD: Well it seems like you say what you want, you're not afraid of controversy, and I know you're a strong advocate of salvage logging after fires and wildfires and things like that, and I know it's a hot button in the forest controversies of today. Now, where has your experience and research led you to your opinions on salvage logging?

MN: The question probably is not ideally framed. I've been very thoroughly indoctrinated on the importance of reforesting. And before you can reforest satisfactorily, you'd better have the snags cut and logged, and any logging removed, because logging would beat up the plantation. Not only that, fire will typically give you a result that is somewhat similar to hand-cutting brush because it hasn't killed the root system of whatever was growing there. Not only that, there are a number of species that have grown before that stand grew to where it burned.

Have you ever heard of snowbrush? It's an evergreen shrub that's very common in burned areas. Snowbrush, madrones, manzanitas, all these evergreen plant species will reoccupy these sites that have burned. So you have two problems: How do you prepare the site by removing what would fall down on your plantation? And then, what is the future composition of the brush field that's going to appear there so that you know how to suppress that to let your plantation grow? And then you have to have trees, seedlings, that are big enough and vigorous enough to outgrow whatever you haven't been able to kill.

MD: So you worked closely with the tree farms in developing the best super seedlings, I think I heard them called?

MN: Oh yes. Well, I've worked some with growing big seedlings. I was co-owner of a forest nursery over at Brownsville, and we sold several million a year, but we learned a little bit about how heavy fertilization would give you a tall competitive seedling. So that proved to be important. Then other nurseries have gone way beyond what we did here; now people are planting two or three foot trees wherever they think there's a competition problem down the line.

MD: Now a lot of your work has revolved around the forest floor and Douglas firs. What about other species in the Pacific Northwest? Do they have the same basic problems and needs that Douglas fir do – like ponderosa pine and things like that – or is everybody unique?


MN: Well, I would identify two important groups of trees: those that require full sunlight to get established and those that don't. We call those the shade tolerant, like hemlock and true firs, white firs, grand firs, and so forth. And then the shade intolerant – Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, larch. So the things that can't grow in the shade, they take a fair amount of tending. They have a tendency to grow pretty fast as a young tree, so if there's a mixture of those with the shade tolerant species, usually but not always they can outgrow and become the dominant tree. And they have to do that because if they get shaded out by fast-growing hemlocks for example, then the Douglas fir will just poop out. So that has a lot to do with what kind of competition control you have to have. Douglas fir needs competition control to get started, shade tolerant not so much. But also, the shade tolerant species aren't nearly as valuable as Douglas fir and larch.

Now you ask about the east side; very little research has been done in eastern Oregon. We, seven years ago, eight years ago, we did a huge experiment north of Elgin on company land which now belongs to Handcock Forest Products. We planted seven or eight thousand seedlings of Douglas fir and larch in there, we gave them all kinds of different vegetation management scenarios, and we did learn some things about how to give them a head start. But eastern Oregon is a tough customer because of the droughty summers; any competition at all really puts a hurting on the trees that you plant.

MD: Yeah, when you have the lush Coast Range, the Douglas fir probably loves that.

MN: That's right. Over there, it's anything that grows uses water and it sucks the water down. Out on the Coast Range its anything that intercepts solar energy. So you're dealing with different resources but the outcome, you've gotta deal with some of the same principles.

MD: Well, let's shift gears a little bit. I'd like to fill in your career at Oregon State, beginning with Oregon State College and going through to being today's OSU. You were around when we became a university.

MN: That's correct.

MD: Was that a big celebration on campus?

MN: Your talking about the Fernhopper banquets?

MD: Well no, the fact we became a university as opposed to an Oregon State College.

MN: Oh! Yes, but because I was probably working or busy in some way, I didn't participate in any of the free for all. That was a pretty hot time; big deal. Yeah, it was Oregon State College, OSC, I keep forgetting that.

MD: But you did attend the Fernhopper balls and banquets every year?

MN: Yes, indeed. Yes, I did.

MD: Once a Fernhopper always a Fernhopper?

MN: Absolutely.

MD: Now your publishing, I looked at your bibliography and your CV and it's just been more than prolific, it's crazy. Do you have a process? What's some of the high points in your published works? How many?


MN: Wow. It's been kind of a constant trickle. I wish you hadn't asked me that question; you really stymied me because I've never asked myself that question. But in terms of the value of something I've published, there aren't very many things that stand out, but most of the things that I've written remove barriers to progress in some way. When I was writing them I kept thinking, "well, this is technology, yes, but they all have contributed to ecological management of forest ecosystems." So I'd like to think that all of them have ecological and operational value.

You take them as a package, I think they have been enormously valuable, and if you want to know how valuable they are, fly over the Coast Range one of these days. If you get a chance I hope you can do that, just because from 3,000 feet you will see the most magnificent forest in the world. And it's changed from one that was full of weeds to one that is the closest thing to perfection in the world, because you have these stair step different ages of forests that have been perfectly groomed with a tree every twelve feet, where they have been thinned, where they're supposed to be thinned and so forth, on private land. On federal land, no.

The old clear cuts are in good shape except they haven't been thinned. But when you're looking at the Weyerhaeuser land and the Plum Creek and so forth, from the minute they're logged, the reforestation process has already been in movement for over a year. It takes two to three years to grow a seedling, and before I cut in my property I've got that seedling ordered for the first opportunity to plant it.

We are farm owners and tree farm out here. As a woodland owner, I have to know all the rules. You have so many days or so many years or whatever in order to have so many trees per acre established and dominant over the vegetation. So the various things that we've done has been to help identify how long you have to keep the brush down, how much a certain level of brush decreases the productivity of the plantation, and so forth. So each one is a stair step someplace.

MD: Yeah because your publications are in the hundreds; twenty-four pages of them.

MN: About 350 altogether, of which a lot of them are applied forestry types of things. But the last 190 have been published in refereed journals.

MD: Your career at Oregon State is incredible, it spans over fifty years, and you are officially an emeritus as of retiring in 2000, but you've continued with your research and working with graduate students. So tell us about your life and your so called retirement.


MN: Let me start about twenty years before my retirement, because I've had a number of really outstanding students. And I guess that most professors that take graduate students think their students are outstanding well, ok, I get a lot of juice out of my students. They have to have published their thesis work and most of them – I've got sixteen doctoral students who went to university positions all around the country, and we've attempted to keep our wires intact and we trade information and that sort of things. And that doesn't stop when you retire. A lot of my students have retired, but were still in contact.

But then there's one particular one that I have employed. One, Elizabeth Cole, did her master's thesis in '82, '83 I guess it was. Her master's thesis was an incredible work of art; something like 350 pages. The first draft I saw of it, it only had 3 typos. It was the kind of perfection that I hoped to get and finally did, so I hired her. I hired her not because of her thesis but because of the degree to which she was such a precise manager of data, converting trees into numbers into data files and handling it. So anyways, she still works for me. Actually she works for the university but we still work as a team. We've been so productive; she has been a co-author on probably forty or fifty major publications. The other ones – I think there have been sixty-nine since I've retired – the co-authors were other students and colleagues. Yeah, I've been busy; a lot of this is carryover from patterned, long-term experiments.

MD: That's true, because when you're working with trees, it's not just growing a coleus plant for three weeks.

MN: That's right. One of my life's serious accomplishments is we've managed to establish a long-term study of maturing Douglas firs. We started off with fifty-year-old stands and we've thinned them at different levels and we hope to grow them past age 100. Liz has been a real champ with that; she's done most of the measurements were looking at. Understory, deer forage, composition of biota, how fast the trees are growing and the quality of the size of the logs, whether it's regenerating in its own shade and so forth. Eventually we will be evaluating its old growth-like features.

The goal eventually is to have a study that says, from seedling to old growth, were just looking at stages, they're all stages of the same thing. If you want old growth, you can grow old growth, and the national forest system can have regular harvests and regular onset of old growth. It isn't one of those things that once you destroyed it, you've destroyed it forever. This is a concept that we're building on and I can't quit until we've got pretty decisive data at every stage. And I think we've got eight publications on that subject alone.


MD: Old growth, that's the term that gets thrown around and I don't think many people understand, they just say, "oh, that's a big tree, must be old growth." What's the marketable age of regular timber that we cut today? Is it fifty, sixty years? What beyond that makes it old?

MN: Well, you can start getting a reasonably profitable crop at age 35 out there on the Coast Range on the really good ground. It may be sixty years on the east side. Then the yields go up very, very rapidly beyond age 35. Age 60 to 70, the rate of increase levels off, but it levels at a very, very high level. From age 60 to age 110, there isn't much difference in the annual increment. That holds at a very high level up to 140-150, and I've got a plot that's 160-years-old that's still right up there, nearly the top. So what we're saying is that if you grow a long rotation, like 120 to 140 years, the last 60-70 years, the stems have an increasing frequency of old growth-like features.

In the last few decades, you've got all of the elements of the stuff that the Forest Service is preserving. That's what it's missing is that it's been managed. What I like to think about is that if you look at a landscape with say 100,000 acres, and you cut 700 acres each year, it takes 140 years to get around the whole circle. And if you did that progressively, you'd have a slice of that pie that's young forest – tremendous forest for deer and elk and bunnies and whatnot – then you'd have a phase where it's completely dark because you have dog hair density of young trees that shades the ground, so there is not much forest there. But you've got songbirds galore in these young forests; the seed-eaters for example.

And then as they grow you'd thin them so there's enough space for the trees can get bigger and more valuable stems and so forth. So you'd go through these steps, and in about sixty or seventy years you'd say, "ok, we're not going to be thinning anymore there, we've got to stand down. We started off with 300 trees per acre, we got it down to 60 trees per acre, get out of there and let it grow." By the time those trees are ninety to one-hundred years old, they are right in the old growth diameter range. The bark isn't quite as thick, so it might not look the same to a brown creeper bird that lives on the fissures, that gets bugs out of the fissures on old growth, that's one of the old growth magic birds.

Anyways, so if you had a quarter of the rotation that delivered really old growth features, that's a significant portion of your forest, especially when the other three-quarters is in various stages that occur naturally. So anyways, that's our story. We're trying to get the word across to the feds that you can pick any rotation you want, and if you work at them progressively so that the old stuff is in large parts of the landscape, you can get there from here.


MD: There is one thing I forgot to ask. Were you involved in research in the middle of the spotted owl controversy of the late '80s, early '90s? Where did you fit in?

MN: Well, that's when we started this mature forest study. We actually have an owl – most of our study areas are in McDonald Forest here – and we have an owl right next to one of our hundred-acre patches there. It's there, we haven't touched that. We've done some owl-like work when we first set up the study. By the way, every standing overstory tree has a number. We have 9,000 big trees, each with a number, each one being measured every five years. So we've got a series of measurements already.

But anyway, in McDonald Forest here, we hired a climber who would go up and top a tree and put a platform just up there, so something like a spotted owl that is a platform rooster could nest there. It's been there for twenty-five years and nobody has built a nest so far! [laughs] We've asked the question, and we made them out of cedar so they'll probably last forty to fifty years.

MD: So I really can't imagine you plan on slowing down any time soon. I understand that you're not going to keep an office in the new Forestry building, but that's not going to keep you off campus I take it?

MN: Well, no. I'm hoping Liz will be able to maintain an office so I can use that as a shuttle. But it disturbs me that the value of old professors has been negated. The new building will have zero space for emeritus. I would say that's really cutting off the roots that keeps the tree growing.

MD: Is that a national thing or...?

MN: I don't have a clue.

MD: I just find it interesting.

MN: I was not pleased when I saw that.

MD: Well, you can set up a cot in Liz's office; have a little corner in her place.

MN: Well, I will do whatever it takes. I am a persistent bugger.

MD: Obviously! [laughs]

MN: But I've only been retired for sixteen years, so I've still got a lot to learn about how to survive. [laughs]

MD: Well, one of the other things we like to do is catch up on our emeritus and alumni's family. We learned you have a couple of children, let's catch up. What are they doing? What about grandchildren? What do you guys do around here for enjoyment? Kind of catch us up.

MN: Ok. We've got three children, and I always have to stop and meditate a moment to count the grandchildren because Dan has three children, Lindy has two children, Tom has a couple of sets of children. Roughly eleven that we count as having some legitimate claim on us as grandparents. We've got eight? Jane, is it eight great-grandchildren on last count? Something like that. [laughs]

MD: Now are they local or are they spread out all over the nation?

MN: They are every place except Corvallis. The radius is about ninety to one-hundred miles. We have sole control over that circle of about a 90-mile radius. [laughs]


MD: So when you're not researching, you're not thinking about forestry, what are you thinking about?

MN: Forestry. [laughs] Oh yes. We surely think about our various offspring. It's a little bit hard to keep in touch with them. Our three direct children are very busy; our older son is chief forester for a Weyerhaeuser company. He's in charge of over 2 million acres. He's a very busy guy, so we don't see very much of him, but when we do we talk about forestry. [laughs]

Our daughter Lindy, Melinda, is a nurse who was a wound care specialist. She's in Tillamook County and she keeps people from falling apart when they have very, very severe traumatic wounds. She's very, very good at her job and she's teaching all over the region people how to deal with these terminally injured people, and bring them back.

Our younger son Tom is an ER physician. He's one of the lead physicians at Silverton Hospital. He's been an ER physician for 25 years, I guess. So none of our direct descendants are either idle or stupid, and they don't have very much time to play, and when we play we usually play in the woods.

Our family tree farm is 300 acres; we like to think of it as something like a museum piece. It has demonstrations of a lot of things that we have been developing for forty-five years. Like when you look out the window you see forest around here, well those are trees that we planted that are forty-five years old. They're growing like very productive land on marginal ground. So this is the kind of thing – we go out and measure trees, we go out for walks in the woods and plant trees or kill brush, there's always something to do out there.

MD: Yeah! Basically you live in the middle of your experiment.

MN: We do. But another thing too is a patch of woods is a very handy estate planning gizmo because you can give to setup an LLC. And little by little we can divest ourselves of shares in that, and now we're only about twelve-percent owners of that, so we won't have any inheritance tax from there.

MD: Yeah, I've run into this before.

MN: You probably deal with that all the time.

MD: Well, is there anything we really haven't touched on in your long history with Oregon State that we really needed to catch? Or have we got Mike Newton?

MN: Well, there's one thing that didn't start with Oregon State, it started with me as a kid: I'm a mechanic. If I'm not working on a hot forge to make something, I'll have an engine apart or whatever. Tinkering is something I do. One of the things that I invented, the only thing I've got a patent on, was about forty-five years ago, was a hatchet-like gadget with a pump end. When you strike a tree, it injects, it's called a hypo-hatchet. Anyway, it still works, it's still being sold. I haven't made much money on it, but I've made something. The pleasure of knowing that you can get rid of hardwood trees very, very quickly with that thing, it's all it's good for. [laughs]


Anyway, I enjoy taking things apart and reassembling them better off. You saw that old pick up out here? That engine is in brand new condition. I pulled it out, I did a major overhaul on it, replaced the crank shaft. This is all something I take pleasure in doing. We know Tom and Dan have done the same thing. [laughs] We all have weird recreation. I go to football games; when I get a free ticket to an OSU game I go. Write manuscripts. [laughs] We've really covered the high spots.

Oh, I'm a hunter.

MD: Fish? Avid outdoorsman basically, hunting, fishing?

MN: Yeah, I don't ever shoot things indoors so I've got to go outdoors where the elk or the deer are, or grouse or whatever. We grow a lot of the things but we usually shoot them someplace else. [laughs]

Anyway, I wanted to say another thing too. This house is another one of my improvisations. We drew the plans – I got an architect to correct my mistakes – then we hired one carpenter and a helper until we got the frame up and the windows in, then Jane and I did the rest. We've never been sorry about anything we designed or put into it.

MD: Yeah, a beautiful location; you're in the middle of your environment.

MN: Yes, we are. When we bought the thirty acres that surround us here, it was all prairie or blackberry patch. Every tree you see here is one that we've put here. We grew Christmas trees for a while, and that more or less paid for the house.

MD: Well, we always like to end with a chance for folks to impart any last words of wisdom to the Beaver Nation that's going to be viewing this and utilizing these oral histories. What's your final thoughts?

MN: Well, there are two things. One is that it gave me an opportunity to make a living while I was living a life that I had dreamed of, in the woods, and actually contributing something. The other thing was it attracted a number of very, very fine students that have made my life a dream. When you've got students that get so much responsibility that when they way exceed what you had in the way of expectations, it's a real joy. I think I've taken in seventy students and I think sixty-six of them have survived that. I've had foreign students from eleven countries I think, and that was enjoyable.


But the university has attracted the kind of environmental part that people contribute to, and I've been able to work with the giants in forestry. I can't tell you how much satisfaction that's given me, what an education that's been for me! And then, of course, when you're married to the same wonderful woman for over sixty years, she's let me do this! It's not her field, it's my field. She doesn't try to claim it, but she's part of it, probably the most important single half of it. [laughs]

Anyways, I think that pretty well sizes it up.

MD: Well Mike, it's been indeed a pleasure. You are an icon of the OSU School of Forestry, and it's been my pleasure to capture your story for history.

MN: It's very nice to think I'm being interviewed by somebody who gets to interview a lot of people who have stood out in various ways. And it's a pleasure to have this conversation with somebody gifted at picking out the things that are important to your victims. [laughs]

MD: Well, thank you so much Mike.

MN: Yeah.



Download Transcript (PDF)

Return to Main Page