He Puts His Research to Work
Growing up deep in the Vermont woods, Mike Newton arrived at adulthood with more than his share of hard-headed practicality. He hunted meat for the family table from the time he was 9. "We lived in a township that had 39 registered voters, and no store," he says. "If I needed anything, I had to make it with my own hands."
His parents, though, weren't the typical hardscrabble Vermont homesteaders. Educated, idealistic city people, they operated a boys' prep school that aimed at blending academic with practical education. "The motto of the Newton School was 'Teaches hands as well as heads,'" says Newton, a forest ecologist and professor of forest science. "So I got the benefit of both sets of ideals-the satisfaction that a classical education could bring you, and the value of solving problems with the tools you have at hand. Both those things permeate my approach to my job today."
In his teaching and his research, Newton strives to enrich theory with practical knowledge. He enjoys teaching for many reasons, he says, one being that it lets him use the forest as a hands-on classroom, a silviculture and ecology laboratory.
"It gives me an opportunity to get on my soapbox-to show the students that there are many, many different things happening in the woods," he says. "I try to show them what the forest used to be like, what happened to change it, what diseases and insects might have affected the stand, how to recognize signs of real gusto growth, what will happen after the trees are cut. See, that stand is more than just a collection of cylinders."
Newton's approach is clearly a hit with his students. Last spring he received the 1992 Outstanding Faculty Award for his excellent teaching, advising, and mentoring. The award was created in 1990 by the forest science students, who get together and choose the recipient each year.
In his research, Newton studies the effects of plant competition on conifer growth. He's done some pioneering-and controversial-studies on the efficacy and safety of herbicides. He and his wife, Jane, put his findings into practice on their own forest lands-500 acres of timber land in the Coast range and a 3-acre Christmas tree farm near Corvallis, where they live.
Newton loved the woods as a boy, but the closest he could get to a forestry education in his home state was minoring in forestry at the University of Vermont. He majored in animal and dairy science, and then, after graduation in 1954, served in the Army to fulfill his ROTC obligation.
Resolving to go back to college after his discharge, Newton looked around for a school that offered degrees in both forestry and mechanical engineering. He settled on Oregon State-the only one he could find, he says, with first-class programs in both disciplines. In 1957 he moved west with his wife and their two small children.
"I was not long into the forestry program before I was hooked," he says. "I never touched engineering after that. The woods were definitely in my blood."
He wasn't thinking about an academic career at all. But Bill Ferrell, a professor of forest ecology, saw promise in Newton and encouraged him to go for a master's degree. "He sparked the idea in me," Newton says, "that the science of ecology could be interesting, and that a life of research would be desirable."
In 1960, working on a master's in silviculture and ecology, he was asked to take over teaching duties for another professor, forest hydrologist Jim Krygier, who was on leave. Newton taught classes in dendrology and forest protection, and later in watershed management and forest mensuration.
He's been on the Forest Science faculty ever since. He finished his master's in two term and one summer-"my ultimate incentive was a wife and two children," he says-and then started a doctorate in botany, finishing in 1964.
Newton is a forthright advocate of scientifically sound management of natural resources, and he praises technology for the tools it has provided. His position on herbicides-formulated after many years of study-is that they're highly effective tools, far less toxic to humans and far less harmful to the environment than most people think.
But saying this in a climate where the debate has become politicized and polarized, he says, "has gotten me into the frying pan" many time. "But," he adds, "I'd rather be in the frying pan than sidestep the truth."
He made four trips to Vietnam in 1972 to evaluate the consequences of the defoliant chemical known as Agent Orange, after the color of the barrels in which it was shipped. The aim of the study, organized and funded by the National Academy of Science, was to find out whether the herbicide had affected the land's long-term ability to support plant growth.
The Vietnam War was still on then, and Newton conducted his test plantings with the sound of gunfire and helicopter engines ringing in his ears. ("I was scared as hell.") He found that reports for the herbicide's devastation were much exaggerated: "I could get crops growing on that ground in three weeks." The report that emerged from the research received little press, he says, because its contents were not sensational-"just interesting and gratifying."
He's not pushing herbicide, Newton insists. "But I'm comfortable with the information I've gained about them, and I've been willing to share that information when it wasn't popular. Because I couldn't be talked into saying herbicides were bad, I got called an advocate."
Rather, he says, "I'm an advocate of good forest management-of using whatever tools meet your objectives. The goals, not the tools, are the real issues. All practices should be judges in relation to the goals they're supposed to meet-and then a professional mustn't be afraid to tell it like it is."
Newton's current study is a set of test planting of Douglas-fir, grand fir, hemlock, and alder, planted at many different spacings and in several combinations of species. The goal is to see how the trees' growth affects and is affected by the other trees and by certain competitors. The study covers about 30 acres in the Coast Range. Newton hopes it will yield information for 30 to 50 years.
Funding from research grants doesn't cover costs, so Newton is paying for some of the expenses out of his own pocket. Last year he and Jane added a $10,000 donation to their ongoing support of the research. They have also been generous in their support for other College activities over the past several years. "The College of Forestry is our favorite charitable organization," Newton says.