Director’s Letter – January 2019

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Our Vision: Unleashing the Power of Place

Last year the RMBL Board of Trustees adopted a new vision:  To unleash the power of place to transform how we understand the world and provide the scientific knowledge needed to maintain the environmental processes that support food security, air and water quality, and human health.  This month we are launching a new communications effort with this newsletter.

We’ll use this platform to share with you – the RMBL community – researchers, students, visitors, donors  – our evolving thoughts and ideas about how RMBL can manifest this vision.  You are a community of lifelong learners, and we hope you find these messages educational and inspiring.  In this, our inaugural e-newsletter,  we’ll explore “The Power of Place”.  The Power of Place drives modern exploration and discovery at a time when understanding and managing the world has never been more important.

The “Power of Place” uses intensive study of a single location to inform how we understand ecosystems around the world, from the deserts of the Kalahari, to the Central American tropics, to the frozen tundra above the Arctic Circle.  This is not intuitive.  How can the valleys around Gothic shed light on the incredible diversity of ecosystems spread throughout the world?

The valleys around Gothic are some of the most well-studied in the world.  We have the biggest collection of long-term field studies.  When it comes to understanding the biology of a changing world, this is the place, thanks to long-time scientists like Drs. Ward Watt, David Inouye, Barbara Peckarsky, and Howard Whiteman (just to name a few).  When you add on all of the additional work being done, involving genomics, airborne and satellite imagery, isotope work, and all of the other crazy things scientists can measure, we have an unparalleled way of seeing a complex interactions that generates a model for understanding the world. Understanding the Power of Place means embracing the fact that many fundamental biological processes are the same everywhere.  Penguins, lions, and bacteria are built on the same rules of life, regardless of whether they are found in the Antarctic, the African savannah, or the dirt under our feet.  Many biological processes, especially those involving genes, proteins, and physiology, can be studied anywhere.

Understanding the Power of Place also means giving up on the idea of perfect knowledge. It doesn’t take much wandering around outside, scooping through dirt, trying to distinguish fox and pine marten tracks, or figuring out how to catch that trophy trout, to realize just how wondrously varied and rich the world is.  Given the complexity and diversity of the world, we will never have the resources and time to truly see, much less understand, the ecosystems of the world.  The goal of field science can’t be complete knowledge of all places.  Rather, given limited resources, how can we best understand the ecosystems of the world?

Maybe a thought experiment will help.  If multiple field projects can be funded, would it be better to fund in different places, or in one place?  Sometimes the answer is to fund the projects in different places.  Is the relationship between warming, species removal, and carbon storage in mountain ecosystems the same around the world?  You can’t answer that unless you repeat the same experiment in mountains around the world.

But what if you have projects looking at different subjects? One scientist studies bacteria and plants, another plants and deer, and yet another looking at deer and coyotes?  Pulling those projects together in a single location gives you the opportunity to see relationships between bacteria and coyotes that you might otherwise miss.  The relationship between the bacteria and the coyotes may be different in Gothic than in the Alps, but the fact that they share fundamental biological processes means that there will be similarities.  And because we don’t have the luxury if studying the relationships between bacteria and coyote everywhere, the connections we see in the valleys around Gothic often serve as a proxy for understanding connections around the world.

The Power of Place means that the valleys around Gothic are a metaphorical telescope trained on the Earth.  The Power of Place motivates RMBL’s new strategic plan, which includes driving investments in stronger data services for scientists, ensuring access to valuable historic data, as well as our emphasis on developing a campus in Mt. Crested Butte and taking care of our historic structures in the Gothic Townsite.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL