Loss & Legacy
On the lives of science luminaries Edward O. Wilson and Thomas E. Lovejoy.
This winter, the national park family and the broader environmental world lost two champions: Thomas E. Lovejoy and Edward O. Wilson. Both pioneered new fields, furthered the understanding of the natural world and inspired people to act boldly in pursuit of conservation.
Lovejoy, a longtime NPCA member, is perhaps best known for coining the term biological diversity (later shortened to biodiversity) in 1980. The concept has become all but synonymous with the health and resilience of ecosystems and arises frequently in the context of national parks, which are often lauded as bastions of biodiversity. Lovejoy encouraged a much wider vision, however, one in which humanity values and protects species well beyond park boundaries. If we do that, he wrote in the spring 2019 issue of this magazine, “parks will no longer be isolated treasures set in the midst of human-dominated landscapes. Instead, we will have a vast natural web connecting these jewels we love so much.”
Originally fascinated by East Africa, Lovejoy turned his attention to the Amazon around the time he started his doctoral work at Yale University in the late 1960s under the guidance of famed British ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson. His Camp 41 field site north of Manaus, Brazil, “turned into this center for ecological research with massive impact,” said Ryan Valdez, NPCA’s director of conservation science and policy. The studies conducted at Camp 41 continue today and have revolutionized scientific understanding of forest fragmentation and the importance of large landscape preservation.
The site also proved to be an incomparable asset for the politically savvy Lovejoy. Roughly twice a year, the bowtie-wearing biologist would bring decision-makers, media and celebrities into the jungle to see firsthand what would be lost should this unique ecosystem be entirely carved up and destroyed. Valdez, who worked with Lovejoy on a Smithsonian-affiliated project in the Amazon for nearly a decade and credits him with securing significant protections for the area over the years, compared these trips to Stephen Mather’s 1915 excursion into Yosemite National Park to sell congressmen, magazine editors, business magnates and scientists on the need for a national park agency. “Exactly the same concept,” Valdez said. Guide influential folks to a little-seen, little-known wonder, “and then the magic will happen.” Visiting Camp 41 with Lovejoy “was such a transformative experience for his guests,” Valdez added. “They went back home ready to help him.”
Lovejoy’s impressive resume includes stints at the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund and Smithsonian Institution, among others, as well as posts on countless boards and in five U.S. administrations. The Blue Planet Prize recipient also helped create the popular television series “Nature.” Most recently, Lovejoy taught in the Environmental Science and Policy department at George Mason University and served as senior advisor at the United Nations Foundation.
“He adored mentoring people, whether it was his students at George Mason or students throughout his career,” said his daughter Betsy Lovejoy. His methods — maintaining an open-door policy and chatting with them around drinks after class — produced an ever-growing orbit of disciples. “More than anything, he wanted to get back to his students,” she said. “That was what was driving him to get better.”
Lovejoy, who died of pancreatic cancer in December at the age of 80, is remembered by those who knew him best as humble, kind, generous and not above a little harmless mischief. He couldn’t resist planting fake tarantulas in hammocks at Camp 41, recalled his daughter, who harbors fond memories of bantering with her father in Portuguese and bird-watching with him in Rock Creek Park near her home in Washington, D.C. Because his knowledge of avian life mostly centered on the Amazon, she relished the chance to share what she knew of Mid-Atlantic species. “He would always send texts, ‘I just heard a great horned owl in the backyard,’ or ‘I heard a barred owl,’ or ‘What bird sounds like this?’” she said.
Wilson, too, had a soft spot for the capital’s rambling national park site, having lived within walking distance for a couple years as a boy. “It’s where I did my first entomology expedition,” he told National Parks magazine in a 2008 interview.
Restricted from a young age to the use of a single eye after a fishing accident, Wilson found that this disability uniquely prepared him to peer intently at insects, which he did with abandon, eventually earning the sobriquet “ant man.” In due course, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner shifted that laser focus to the wider world, studying human nature as closely as anything else.
But those formative experiences in Rock Creek Park and the woods near his childhood home in Alabama, turning over every rock and stick to find “the little things that run the world,” as he called them, impressed upon him the value of early exposure to the outdoors. “He fundamentally understood how important it was to have these transformative moments of discovery in nature,” said Paula J. Ehrlich, CEO and president of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.
To that end, Wilson — who died on December 26 at the age of 92 — enthusiastically promoted citizen science efforts, such as biodiversity surveys, with the dual goal of inspiring wonder and advancing science. He believed we couldn’t hope to be effective in our conservation efforts, halt species extinctions or fend off “that great, wrathful demon” of climate change, if we didn’t ramp up our identification and understanding of species. The more people involved, the better.
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It was this faith in his fellow humans, as well as a firm grasp of the data, that led Wilson to dive headlong into the Half-Earth Project in his later years. When people would ask him if conserving 50% of all lands and waters to protect biodiversity and ensure a habitable future for humanity was an achievable goal, Ehrlich said she remembers him “just leaning back and looking out and saying, ‘Of course we can, if we want to.’” Though critics decried the effort as an attempt to fence people out from half the planet, Walter Jetz, director of the Yale Center for Biodiversity and Global Change, said that nothing could be further from Wilson’s true hope. “He was very cognizant of the people dynamics,” said Jetz, who spent the last four-and-a-half years collaborating with the naturalist on the project. Wilson encouraged “approaching sustainable development for this planet in a way that is equitable and fair and just,” Jetz said.
The 30 by 30 movement, which has been endorsed by roughly 100 nations, including the U.S., takes its cues from Wilson’s Half-Earth Project and calls for the protection of a third of the world’s lands and waters by 2030. As national parks serve as vital conservation puzzle pieces, NPCA staff and allies are working on the ground and in the offices of decision-makers to identify and protect this country’s critical landscapes.
Wilson laid it on the line during a 2015 keynote address at a University of California, Berkeley conference in the lead-up to the Park Service’s centennial: “The only way to save the rest of life, if we want to save the rest of life — and heavens to Betsy, we do — the only way is to increase the area of protected and inviolable habitat around the world to a safe level.”
About the author
Katherine DeGroff Associate and Online Editor
Katherine is the associate editor of National Parks magazine. Before joining NPCA, Katherine monitored easements at land trusts in Virginia and New Mexico, encouraged bear-aware behavior at Grand Teton National Park, and served as a naturalist for a small environmental education organization in the heart of the Colorado Rockies.