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Jenna Morris '17

Alumna studies threat to forests

Jenna Morris' graduate research takes her high into the Colorado Rocky Mountains to the Fraser Experimental Forest, one of the oldest and largest of its kind in the country.

"Composed primarily of subalpine spruce-fir and lodgepole pine forests, walking around is breathtaking – both in terms of scenery and as a result of the elevation," says the 2017 Whitworth alumna. "Occasional wildlife encounters, mainly moose, add to the excitement."

A major problem is clearly evident, though – nearly all the mature pine trees in Morris' plots are dead. The reason is not fire, but beetles.

"I'm currently researching how forest management practices can increase tree resistance to mountain pine beetle outbreaks," Morris says. "Bark beetles are major disturbance agents in western North America, often affecting a larger area than fire."

Morris is studying the problem, which is exacerbated by climate change, as a master's student at the University of Washington School of Environmental & Forest Sciences.

"I am passionate about supporting conservation and sustainability efforts in the face of rapid global change," she says. "Ensuring that future generations have access to the same opportunities and experiences I have enjoyed is important to me and requires research and management of natural areas and their resources."

At Whitworth, Morris was a biology major and environmental studies minor.

"Addressing ecological problems involves the interaction of so many disciplines," Morris says. "My Whitworth education in the biology and environmental studies programs, in addition to other courses within the liberal arts requirements, have given me a well-rounded perspective and set of tools with which to approach my master's program."

One of Morris' highlights from her time at Whitworth was her participation in the Central American Field Ecology course in Costa Rica, led by her advisor Grant Casady during Jan Term.

"It was an incredible opportunity to experience the diversity and abundance of tropical ecosystems, while gaining valuable field and research experience," Morris says. Afterward, the students presented the results of their work at the Spokane Intercollegiate Research Conference.

Morris also was a research assistant for Casady, an associate professor of biology, through Whitworth's STEM summer research program. Over the course of three summers, she measured forest vegetation in North Idaho and examined sage-grouse habitat in Central Washington.

"As my advisor, Grant was instrumental in helping me get to where I am today," Morris says. "I'll never forget his passion for teaching, dedication to his students, and his emphasis on always taking a step back and appreciating our surroundings, reinforcing our responsibility as stewards of the environment."

Morris carries this sense of responsibility with her as she studies the beetle outbreaks.

"Seeing the extent and magnitude of mortality caused by the beetle outbreak feels sobering," she says. "Addressing and adapting practices and strategies in the face of climate change often feels overwhelming, but it ultimately renews my convictions to continue advancing our understanding of its effects on natural systems so that we may be best prepared to provide solutions."