THINKING BIG: GLOBAL ECOLOGY AND LONG-TERM ECOLOGICAL MEASUREMENTS

“In the early 20th century and continuing to the middle of that century, ecological research was done by a small group of botanists and zoologists interested in the connection between living things and their environment. The research tended to be a one-by-one.   My major professor for my PhD was Murray Buell, a charming and thoughtful ecological scientist, who was, to my knowledge, just one of five plant ecologists who were full professors at a university or college in the U.S.A. They knew each other well, having always met at the annual Ecological Society of America meeting and had friendly conversations. Nevertheless, there were major gaps in the knowledge they had obtained.

In the early 1970s, I was a research scientist at the Ecosystem Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, when I got a phone call from the man in charge of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Research Resources. He also called two other ecologists, Paul Risser, on the faculty of a major university (later to become president of Oregon State University in Corvallis), and George Lauff, Director of the Kellogg Biological Station of Michigan State University.  In his call, the NSF head of Research Resources said that there were quite a number of parks, nature preserves, and other places that were part of and/or operated by a major university; that these were places you would think that ecologists would love to do research, but that nothing was happening at them. He mentioned Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and the last remaining unplowed tall grass prairie, among many others. He said that he wanted the three of us to go to each of these places and find out why nothing was happening–no current ecological research at any of these places. He would accompany us to a few–and report back to him why so little research was being done at the university-owned locations.

We did those trips and returned with two answers.  One was that these places were far from the university campuses if there was a person involved in the university’s management on campus that the university’s president didn’t like and didn’t think was doing a good job, but could not fire him or her, he would put them in charge of one of these remote sites, where they did little and therefore nothing of value and no embarrassing mistakes would happen.

The second reason was that when an ecological scientist tried to do research at any of these sites, there was no long-term monitoring of key factors, including weather records — just the standard kind of weather station that the U. S. Weather Bureau used in those days— no longer term measurements of the major vegetation, usually a forest or grassland, nor of any of the dominant animals.  Since the standard NSF research project was 3 years of funding, no scientist could get enough basic information to result in a publishable scientific paper.  So, few ecologists could work there.

After we presented our report, the head of NSF’s Research Resources got in touch with me and asked me if I didn’t think it would be a good idea for NSF to support a series of workshops for ecological scientists to discuss whether there should be funding for long-term measurements and, if so, what these should be like. I thought at first this was a casual informative discussion, but after a while, he said, “Dan, I’m asking you if you would set up and run these workshops.” I agreed to do it.  

This resulted in two long summer workshops with about 30 scientists, covering a wide range of knowledge, such as the leaders in the history of geological mapping of vegetation and bedrock, and ecologists from a wide variety of research, from competition between individual plants to the widespread geographic distribution of sets of species. These workshops turned out to be intense debates with a lot of the participants getting very angry. 

Out of directing this study and other workshops of scientists, I developed a theory about how the leader of such events could get the participants to arrive at a useful conclusion.  Part of my theory was that if the participants didn’t hate the leader by the middle of the workshop time, the workshop would be a failure. Next, when the stage was reached, it was necessary for the leader to summarize to the group what the group so far had concluded. This would involve such disparate suggestions and goals that the participants would realize that were on their way to failure.  They would then spend the second half of the workshop focusing on how to resolve their differences and come to a useful conclusion.

The reason they had to hate the leader by the middle was if they did not have such strong feelings about the way things were going, they were just not really interested and devoted to the topic, and were just waiting for the time to pass so they could go home, and no real discussions were taking place nor would take place.

The major argument at these workshops was whether the variables to be listed to be measured over a long time should be based on current leading hypotheses or whether they should just be those that seemed important in general but not attached to any particular hypothesis. In the end, the group agreed that ecology was such a new science that it had passed through and was continuing to pass through many hypotheses that were quickly rejected, and therefore basing the choice of variables to measure from current hypotheses was bound to fail.

A major question asked of the NSF head of Biological Research Resources was how could the typical short-term funding be extended to a useful length of time.  He answered that NSF had always funded such things as museums where research was done.  It provided 5-year grants, but each grant was phrased in terms of the expectation that there would be a subsequent 5-year grant.  This practice could be applied to the Long-term Ecological Research Program. The final result was the creation of a program called the Long-Term Ecological Research program (LTER). I also participated in the development of the first set of these LTER projects, a program that continues on today.
  
Thinking Big: Remote Sensing of Large Areas as a New Method for Ecological Research
 
In 1980, NASA’s head of Biological and Medical Research, Jerry Soffen, contacted me and asked me to help lead NASA into using its satellite remote sensing capabilities to begin studying to ecology of Earth from space.  A few years after the workshops he asked me to lead, Jerry asked me to do the first ecological research on a continent using Landsat imagery. Given a very short time to develop that research project, because of the availability of the necessary aircraft, I had to think of an area where research could quickly be set up. 

I chose the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a million acres of wilderness and the first legally-designated Wilderness Preserve in the U.S.A.  I had previously done research there, and had come to know many of the local scientists involved in research there. Another advantage was that the BWCA was adjacent to the Superior National Forest, where trees were actively cut. We could therefore compare how a nature preserve and an actively logged area differed from one another.
 
Our research required that we test whether NASA’s Landsat satellite could detect small differences in forests— each of the major kinds of tree species that grew there and differences in the age of each part of the forests. This required several steps. The first was direct measurements in the field by teams that measured the height and diameter of each tree in uniform stands large enough to appear as a single point by Landsat. Then, the same instrument that was in the Landsat satellite was placed in a small helicopter, and the helicopter had to hover for at least 30 seconds completely stationary and stabilize over an area of just one species at just one stage in the growth of a forest. Four of us flew in those helicopters: two test-pilots (because, at that time, flying a helicopter and hovering exactly over one spot without pitching in any direction was said to be one of the most difficult maneuvers for the pilots), myself and Bob MacDonald, who had led the first use of Landsat to study any vegetation. (That first study was to attempt to forecast the next Russian wheat harvest from measurements made in mid-summer.) “

– Dan Botkin 

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