Director’s Letter June 2020


RMBL owes our ability to move creatively in response to Covid19 because our founder, Dr. John C. Johnson, was fired from his job for not being a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.  After World War I, the Colorado State Normal School, which trained teachers, became Western State College, offering 4-year degrees.   Dr. Johnson had just received a PhD in parasitology from University of California -Berkeley and with family ties through his wife Vera Adams Johnson, he was asked to start their science department.

Under the auspices of Western, Dr. Johnson initiated the Rocky Mountain Biological Station (RMBS) in 1922, a field station, just north of Gunnison.  The creation of RMBS was part of a trend leading to the creation of field stations across the western US.  Field stations, and their support of students and scientists to studying plants and animals in their natural environment, were just what was needed for the nascent scientific discipline of ecology.

Politics, however, got in the way.  By the late 1920’s the Klu Klux Klan was active in Colorado.  They arranged the firing of Western’s first President, Dr. Samuel Quigley, because he would not join, a fate shared by Dr. Johnson.  The RMBS disappeared.

Meanwhile, Dr. Johnson took a faculty position with West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Remembering the striking wildflower displays and abandoned buildings from a trip to Gothic on July 4, 1919, he established RMBL. While there were three other founders (Dr. LA Adams from the University of Illinois and Drs. Aute Richards and AO Weese from the University of Oklahoma), he and Vera agreed to be responsible for the finances, risking their own money.  While most field stations, like RMBS, are organized under the auspices of a college or university, RMBL was launched as an independent institution.

This independence matters.  It means that all our resources, from our Board of Trustees, to our staff, to our buildings, to our financial reserves, are focused entirely on helping students and scientists.  Whereas many field station operations this summer would pose unacceptable liability risks to their hosts institutions, RMBL’s entire focus was on how we could best serve field science.

The adjoining article on Princeton graduate student, Ian Miller, demonstrates the value of a field station serving no master beyond science.  While we are careful to preserve RMBL’s long-term sustainability through prudent management of liability and finances, we have spent the last three months thinking about little else than how to get scientists like Ian working this summer.

Thanks to Dr. Johnson and his legacy of independence, we’ve been able to apply ingenuity and diligence. From getting an operating plan approved by county public health, to designing new undergraduate programs, to helping scientists overcome logistical and financial hurdles, we’ve pursued whatever we can to get research to safely happen.  While the numbers have been reduced, it has been very gratifying to see scientists and students in Gothic this week.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL