Professor Jim Trappe (Forest Science) began learning about the environment when he was very young. “Our family had a couple of other families as good friends and the fathers in both cases were foresters. We would go out on picnics around and beyond of the Spokane area, sometimes going as far as northern Idaho, and one of these men took me under his wing,” he says. “He took me out on trails in the woods and would explain things to me: ‘See this little tree right here? This is a hemlock. It’s lowly, but it’s being protected by the big trees. One day one of those big trees will fall and this hemlock will grow up.’ He just made the whole forest come alive.” Trappe was only 5 or 6 years old at the time, but he was interested in forestry from that point on.
At the University of Washington, Trappe earned his B.S. in Forest Management, followed by a M.S. at the State University of New York, and then returned to Seattle to complete his Ph.D. In 1956, he went to work for the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the USDA Forest Service, studying lodgepole pine in La Grande, OR, then was transferred to Portland in 1958. He eventually became a project leader for forest mycology and was stationed at Corvallis, moving here in 1965. “I received a courtesy appointment here and continued with the PNW Station until I retired in 1986,” he says. “I then spent 10 enjoyable years as a research professor with the Department of Forest Science and retired from that in 1996, and I’m still here! Essentially, I retired from all of these things I didn’t like so I could do what I found to be really enjoyable, which is learning new things about forest fungi.”
When he first began conducting research, Trappe discovered that little was known about truffles. “It was difficult to identify below-ground fruiting bodies because there wasn’t much to go on at that time,” he says, “I discovered that, amongst other things, these are an important food for animals, in fact, most animals will dig them up and eat them. Flying squirrels eat them in preference to anything else. They are concentrators of minerals, so we believe that many animals, such as deer and elk, probably use them as a salt lick.”
The phenomenon of mycorrhizae is something that Trappe has studied for a long time. “It’s a symbiotic relationship between various fungi and tree roots. Often the tree and the fungus cannot survive without the other, so understanding this relationship is essential to understanding forest ecology and has many implications in reforestation,” he notes.
In some ways, this symbiotic relationship calls to mind another of Trappe’s avocations: teaching and mentoring students. “One of my great pleasures has been being able to interact with my many students over the years,” he says, “especially on a graduate level, where we’ve worked together on research and had opportunity to help each other. Every student I’ve ever had has taught me something useful and valuable.”
When not conducting studies of mycorrhizae, mentoring students, and participating in truffle-related activities, Trappe writes books on fungi. The beautifully photographed, full-color Field Guide to North American Truffles: Hunting, Identifying, and Enjoying the World’s Most Prized Fungi, by Matt Trappe, Frank Evans, and James Trappe, was published to acclaim by scientists and chefs alike in 2007.
His latest book, Trees, Truffles, and Beasts: How Forests Function, written with colleagues Chris Maser and Andrew W. Claridge, will be published in February 2008. “It’s about bringing together what the three of us have been working in this area,” Trappe says. “Between us, we have more than 100 years of research working in this area, and we summarize that, as best we can, in this book. It should pull our collective knowledge together with special reference to comparing South-East Australia, where I also spent time researching truffles and ecosystems, to the Pacific Northwest.” These places are half the world apart, and the Australian eucalypt forest systems have evolved independently of the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest. But they and their various components—trees, fungi, animals—function much the same. Notes Trappe, “It's like a Shakespeare play: performed in Seattle or Sydney, the actors are different but the play is the same.”
Bio of Jim Trappe written by Bryan Bernart, Editorial Assistant, Forestry Communications Group, College of Forestry