UW Today

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July 26, 2010

UW professor’s lifetime efforts receive international recognition

News and Information

A prize claimed by renowned conservationists such as David Attenborough and directors of some of the world’s largest botanic gardens has been awarded to Estella Leopold, a University of Washington professor emeritus of biology, forest resources and quaternary research.

The International Cosmos Prize carries a cash award of 40 million yen, nearly $500,000, and goes to just one individual or team each year, according information from Japan’s Expo ’90 Foundation, sponsor of the prize.

Leopold, 83, has been teaching and conducting research for more than 60 years, 35 of them at the UW. She pioneered the use of fossilized pollen and spores in North America to understand how plants and ecosystems respond over eons to such things as climate change.

She is the daughter of Aldo Leopold, known for proposing the “land ethic” that individuals are responsible for the health of the land and author of “A Sand County Almanac.” Estella Leopold “has dedicated herself to the preservation and stewardship of natural landscapes,” the prize committee wrote. For example:
• She marshaled 20 nonprofit groups in a six-year fight to gain national monument status for Colorado’s Florissant fossil beds that contain 35-million-year-old remains of plants, fish, birds and some of the earliest known fossils of butterflies. The beds were on the brink of destruction by real estate developers when, with bulldozers on the site, Leopold and a small group of activists obtained a court injunction to stop development so there was time to seek protection through the U.S. Congress, the awards committee writes.
• After Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, creating huge swaths of land seemingly devoid of life, Leopold was among those urging Congress to halt Bureau of Land Management plans to plant areas with non-native grasses and instead leave the land alone. The result: the Forest Service’s first national monument, a place where scientists had access to a natural laboratory to study landscape recovery. “The U.S. Forest Service has done a great job in protecting a huge area in the center of the monument for pure research, keeping everyone strictly on the foot trails so the regrowth of native grasses and flowers is taking place so beautifully,” Leopold says.
• Her public service efforts also have included serving on the national boards of organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Fund, and being appointed to governor advisory panels concerning oil shale in Colorado and high-level nuclear waste management in Washington.

“The College of Arts and Sciences could not be prouder or happier to count Estella Leopold as both one of our most distinguished faculty members and one of our closest friends,” Ana Mari Cauce, dean of the college, says. “Throughout her career she has been a fierce advocate for science, for the environment, and for the need to make connections between these two passions. The committee could not have picked a better recipient for this award. It brings honor to Estella, and Estella brings honor to the award.”

The objective of International Cosmos Prize is to honor those who further the “harmonious coexistence between nature and mankind,” according to the foundation.

Asked how she thinks mankind is doing in that respect, Leopold talked about children.

“There’s a subculture of birders, of people who love nature, and many of them probably grew up like myself. I was raised outdoors. You’d go out to play, get on your bike and just go everywhere — out all day. But kids now are more restricted. How are they going to learn to love nature and to protect it?”

She also talked about the need for global outreach. In working for the Aldo Leopold Foundation — where she’s held a number of director and officer positions through the years — she said the foundation’s programming is increasingly engaging audiences around the globe. China, for instance, is rich with a heritage of art showing a love of nature, but the ethic is colliding with population growth, poverty and politics, she says.

Leopold’s research concerns climate and plant species change during the last 50 million years. At sites where sediments and ash from volcanic eruptions have fossilized plant material in the soils, Leopold looks for ancient grains of pollen and spores for clues of what used to grow where. Pollen grains, she discovered, can be present even if leaves and other plant materials have decayed.

At the fossil beds in Colorado, for instance, pollen provides evidence for a far greater variety of plants than revealed by the leaves alone. At a site near Hanford in eastern Washington, no plant material other than pollen has been preserved. There, in soil cores dating back 5 million years, pollens provide evidence that cypress-type swamps were once present. Like those in southern Florida today, the kinds of plants present would have needed almost tropical temperatures and 40 inches of water a year. Today Hanford receives less than 7 inches of rain.

“Ancient floras were richer than we have at Hanford today and climate change wiped them out,” Leopold says. “If there’s a lesson from that today, it would be that it’s a shame to be losing more species at the hand of man.”

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For more information:

Leopold, 206-685-1151, eleopold@uw.edu