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Fred Swanson Oral History Interview, October 21, 2020

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Fred Swanson Oral History Interview, October 21, 2020


Fred Swanson, a Forest Service research geologist, became involved in the Andrews Forest program in 1972 and succeeded Jerry Franklin as Principal Investigator in 1986. His work focused on interactions of landforms and geophysical processes with forests and streams.

Swanson begins by defining the term ecosystem as biotic and abiotic components interacting with their environment any scale. He discusses the importance of endogenous and exogenous disturbance agents as contributing to the dynamism of ecosystems, especially forest systems. His natural instinct and geology background lead him to observational and natural history approaches to science rather than experimental. In his roles as a research administrator, it was important to facilitate opportunities for people using any approach to science. He goes on to describe adaptive management as an approach to learning at the science-land management interface with examples from the originators Holling and Walters and the local Blue River Project. Some of this work involves understanding past conditions of a landscape, so he describes methods of interpreting that history going back centuries and millennia. He mentions the value of using multiple working hypotheses in interpretation of history with some examples. The conversation carries on to deep time of plate tectonics and his work in the Galapagos as a grad student. An overarching point is that the Earth is always changing.

Recognition of the dynamism of the Earth means one should be careful with use of the word and concept “restoration” – there’s no going back. Mention of working with creative writers comes in here. This relates to issues of the relevance of understanding of environmental history to planning for the future. He speaks of the challenge of a geologist fitting into an ecosystem research program and community in which so many scales of dynamism operate. This leads to discussion of natural history as an approach to science, “physics envy” in ecology and social sciences, and funding challenges.

Swanson describes his own approach as just wanting to know how the world “ticks” working at interfaces of traditional disciplines. He navigates questions about objectivity, truth, laws of nature, and motivations for doing the work with the general perspective of sharing lessons learned so others can make up their own minds. He elaborates on use of natural history and observational approaches in research and education at Andrews, and the importance of being patient in the observing and learning processes. He makes this point referencing an interaction with a poet in the forest and says more about artists and writers in the Andrews Forest.

Then the conversation turns back to science at Andrews Forest and other LTER sites and the roles of modeling, hypothesis-testing, and experimentation. He discusses variations of these approaches at Andrews and some of the strengths and weaknesses in the steep land and massive forest at Andrews, using examples from Mark Harmon on carbon dynamics and Julia Jones on climate warming. He discusses challenges of a research leader for a complex program like the Andrews involving several institutions and many disciplines. He gives high marks to National Science Foundation as an institution, and reviews some of the efforts to gain more support from NSF for arts/humanities engagements at LTER sites. Social science work on advocacy in natural resource decision making is also described.

Swanson concludes by reviewing major contributions from the Andrews program, their effects on society, and several areas of work that will influence the futures, notably climate change and the arts/humanities. He expects the Andrews Forest program to go forward with the positive energy of the community inspired by the beauty of the place.


Fred Swanson


H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest Oral History Collection (OH 28)


Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Oregon State University Libraries


October 21, 2020


Sara Khatib


Born Digital Video




Oral History



Oral History Item Type Metadata


Sara Khatib


Fred Swanson


Interview conducted over Zoom

Original Format

Born Digital Video



OHMS Object

Interview Format


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