Bullitt Foundation Board Member Honored for Lifetime Achievements
The International Cosmos Prize has been awarded to Estella Leopold.
The International Cosmos Prize has been awarded to Estella Leopold, a University of Washington professor emeritus of botany, forest resources, and quaternary research. The prize, established to honor those who further the "harmonious coexistence between nature and mankind," carries a cash award of 40 million yen, nearly $500,000. It is awarded 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.
Estella Leopold "has dedicated herself to the preservation and stewardship of natural landscapes," the prize committee wrote. For example:
- After Mount St. Helens' 1980 eruption, Leopold was among those urging Congress to halt Bureau of Land Management plans to plant seemingly lifeless 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.
- She was one of those who kept the Department of Interior from flooding the lower part of the Grand Canyon in the mid-1960s. "It was a national park!" she said, still steamed at the idea. "Once it is a national park, we have an ethical obligation to maintain it."
- She marshaled support 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.
The International Cosmos Prize is administered by the Expo '90 Foundation, a Japanese organization that honors "Those who have, through their work, applied and realized the ideals which the Foundation strives to preserve how ... we as human beings can truly respect and live in harmony with nature." 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 will use part of her cash award on equipment for her lab at the UW. The rest will go to the Leopold Foundation, named for her father, Aldo Leopold, author of the classic, "A Sand County Almanac," and the first to propose a "land ethic" that believes individuals are responsible for the health of the land.
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 seven 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."