Centennial Story 90: James R. Karr, Professor, 1991–2006 (Emeritus, 2006–present)

Some of us cannot help doing in retirement what we’ve loved doing throughout our working lives—indeed, since childhood. When I was a boy, I treasured exploring and learning about Ohio’s forests, fields, and streams; I kept exploring regional ecological systems in the Pacific Northwest on arriving at UW in 1991; and after becoming emeritus in 2006, I am still happiest exploring, learning, and teaching.

I have been very lucky in my research and teaching career. After earning my BS at Iowa State and an MS and PhD from the University of Illinois with work on fish and birds, I worked from 1970 to 1972 as a post-doc at Princeton with Robert MacArthur and at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) with Neal Smith. I spent those years studying bird communities in tropical forests around the world. I then held academic appointments at Purdue, Illinois, and Virginia Tech, where my research was split between tropical birds and temperate stream fish, and an appointment as deputy director of STRI in Panama for four years in the 1980s. Throughout those pre-UW years, I was privileged to work in forests and watersheds in Central and North America.

Jim Karr with a snake in 1978
Jim Karr and bushmaster in Panama forest study plot, about 1978.

In 1991, I came to UW as Professor of Zoology and Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies. While here, several UW departments, including Fisheries, Environmental Health, and Civil Engineering, as well as the Graduate School of Public Affairs (now the Evans School), gave me adjunct appointments, which opened doors to collaborate with faculty and students in those units. When Environmental Studies was eliminated during budget cuts in 1993–94, I transferred half of my appointment to the School of Fisheries while the other half remained in Biology.

The best part of my time at UW has been working in and with new places, systems, and people for both research and teaching. While in the Midwest, I had developed an index of biotic integrity (IBI), which incorporated characteristics of fish communities to measure the health of streams and rivers. Little did I realize then that the 1981 paper I wrote introducing this index would become the most-cited paper published in the 44-year history to date of the journal Fisheries. As I gained experience in the Pacific Northwest, my students, post-docs, and I created a complementary index based on benthic invertebrates instead of fish. This work took place in Puget Sound lowland streams, Yosemite National Park, two major watersheds in Japan, and also in Puget Sound and coral reef marine environments.

One early spin-off from this research, a collaboration among SAFS Research Professor Jim Anderson, me, and filmmaker Alan Honick, was the nonprofit organization Salmon Web, which produced two videos for citizen scientists and government agencies on how to use the benthic IBI. Ultimately, the Puget Sound Partnership adopted this index as a primary freshwater vital sign, and a group of cities, counties, agencies, and tribes developed a coordinated benthic invertebrate database that is applied to monitor and assess stream health across Washington State.

Meanwhile, battles over natural resources—particularly spotted owls and salmon—were roiling the Pacific Northwest, and they only got worse during the 1990s. A climate of controversy animated the public and underscored the need for collaboration across disciplines in academia. Working with colleagues in the sciences, humanities, policy, and the law, I took part in projects examining better roles for fish stocking in aquatic resource management, effects of salvage logging on stream ecology, effects of ungulate grazing on western public lands, the need to protect late-successional and old-growth forest, adapting land and water management to climate change, and using risk assessment and invertebrate and plant IBIs to evaluate cleanup of the shrub-steppe lands of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in south-central Washington and at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Thanks in part to the near impossibility of taking anything but an interdisciplinary approach to such problems, I also participated in the Global Ecological Integrity Project, a consortium of global scholars, for more than 15 years.

Throughout my years at UW, I also enjoyed teaching an evolving array of courses—introductory (biology, environmental science), intermediate (Scientific Foundations of Environmental Policy, Ecology and Conservation: Humans in the Environment), and advanced (Biological Monitoring and Assessment, Advanced Fisheries Ecology). My most popular course—Attaining a Sustainable Society—was for me also the most rewarding to teach. It routinely drew 100 to 150 undergraduate and graduate students from as many as 45 majors each year, even for three years after I officially retired in 2006.

Jim Karr and students at the Northwest Youth Conservation and Fly Fishing Academy, 2008, examining bugs from MacLean Creek in Capitol State Forest.
Jim Karr and students at the Northwest Youth Conservation and Fly Fishing Academy, 2008, examining bugs from MacLean Creek in Capitol State Forest.

When I first retired, I intended to spend more time fly-fishing, which I have managed to do—in North, Central, and South America and several Pacific Ocean islands, as well as closer to home on the Olympic Peninsula. But even in retirement, I can’t seem to stop teaching. UW Alumni Travel had previously asked me to be a lecturer on trips to Central and South America, and I continued to do so after retirement. I’ve also been able to serve in similar roles with the University of Illinois Alumni Travel office and the Smithsonian Institution’s Smithsonian Journeys. Since retiring, I have averaged three to four trips a year, visiting 35 countries in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia and New Zealand. Eight trips on the Amazon River in Peru alone have afforded many opportunities to meet local fishes in the field and in fish markets.

And then there’s the “miscellaneous” lecturing: I spent a decade teaching 13-to-16-year-olds stream ecology and conservation at the Northwest Youth Conservation and Fly Fishing Academy in Lacey, Washington, every June; gave a keynote talk at the start of restoration for the then soon-to-be-undammed Elwha River; speak and work with my local Audubon and salmon conservation groups; and even volunteer as a counselor in an AARP-IRS program to help folks complete their federal tax returns.

I just can’t seem to help it.

Jim Karr with group of graduate students during special symposium at 2007 San Francisco AFS annual meeting celebrating Jim’s career (L to R: Kurt Fausch (post-doc), Tom Martin (PhD), and Paul Angermeier (PhD, all Illinois); Jim Karr; Owen Gorman (MSc, Purdue); Leska Fore (MSc, QERM 1992) and Casey Rice (MS SAFS, 1997; PhD SAFS, 2007)
Jim Karr with group of graduate students during special symposium at 2007 San Francisco AFS annual meeting celebrating Jim’s career (L to R: Kurt Fausch (post-doc), Tom Martin (PhD), and Paul Angermeier (PhD, all Illinois); Jim Karr; Owen Gorman (MSc, Purdue); Leska Fore (MSc, QERM 1992) and Casey Rice (MS SAFS, 1997; PhD SAFS, 2007)
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