Director’s Letter October 2020

On the Shoulders of Giants

Standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before me, I know my place and I’m sticking to it.  It gives me a view to the past, and more importantly, to the future.

It can be hard to appreciate the great scientists that have passed through RMBL.  A member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, Harriet Barclay inspired generations of botanists at RMBL, including Jean Langenheim, a founding faculty member at UC-Santa Cruz and former President of the Ecological Society of America.

Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the architects of the modern evolutionary synthesis was one of many fly geneticists that passed through RMBL, particularly in the 1950’s and 1960’s, including Colin Pittendrigh, who became known as the father of the biological clock.

Scientific fatherhood has been a theme.  Aaron Soule, former dining hall cook (and Gothic kid), would introduce himself as the brother of conservation biology after his father, Michael, helped launched the Society for Conservation Biology.  Charles Remington was referred to as the intellectual patriarch of butterfly biology in the United States, with numerous lepidopterists following his footsteps, including Naomi Pierce, Harvard professor and another former dining hall cook.

Any list of great RMBL scientists must include Paul Ehrlich.  Author of the Population Bomb and frequent guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Paul has driven the global conversation around human population growth and associated environmental impacts.

We all have our favorite giants.  Mine is Ruth “Scottie” Willey (see adjoining article).  Scottie began her love affair with the Gunnison Basin shortly after completing her PhD at Harvard University in 1956. I will be honest.  As a young director I cringed when Scottie called.  Was RMBL guarding its water rights?  Did I know about the neighboring property for sale?  And what was that recent legislation all about?  Scottie had a 30 year head start on protecting water and land in the Gunnison Basin and it was hard to keep up!

That passion, which she turned on both friend and foe, made things happen.  She and her husband Bob convinced The Nature Conservancy to do their first project in Colorado.  Now textbooks cite research conducted at the Mexican Cut.  Over gin and tonics she and Bob, along with attorney Pete Klingsmith, developed the concept of non-consumptive water rights, for which RMBL stream ecologists and Colorado fly fishermen will be forever grateful.  Scottie pushed hard for the protection of the iron fen west of Crested Butte and they were accused of seeding the area with carnivorous plants, natural relicts leftover from the glaciers.  She was not always successful in her efforts, but she tried!

Standing on her shoulders lets me peer into the future.  The tools that future leaders bring to conservation may be different than what she deployed.  But one thing will remain constant.  Unleashing passion for the Gunnison Basin, and the larger environment, and transmitting that passion to future generations, will be a big part of what defines the future of our environment.  Passion for a place can unleash a great deal of power to drive change.  And as Scottie points out, it’s fun!

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL