The person who has had the most significant impact on my life is Dr. Robert Owen Petty (“Doc Petty”), biology professor at Wabash College. He was a passionate conservationist, a philosopher, and a poet—Wabash College was a perfect place for him.

 


Magazine
Fall/Winter 1999

Cloyce Hedge '71
conservationist and coordinator,
Indiana Natural Heritage Data Center


What event of the 20th century had the most significant impact on your profession or field of study? What lesson do you take away from that event?

To me, the most significant event of the century for conservation was, and is, a century long and continuing event: conversion of natural habitats for other uses. Conservation exists in response to that conversion, concern for public health, and because of a growing public understanding of the importance of natural ecosystems and their component species.

I used to think I could save the world one small nature preserve at a time, but I've learned that, to really do the job, conservation must be accomplished across working landscapes at a variety of spatial scales. Some species and natural communities can be conserved in small preserves, but others require much larger, unbroken blocks of habitat, and connections between different habitats. For example, many turtles inhabit wetlands, but also need accessible dry uplands to lay eggs. The necessity to work at larger scales has lead to an important lesson: for conservation to succeed, more people than me and other conservationists must care about nature and wild things. The trick is to combine good biology and positive public sentiment to accomplish conservation goals.

There has been another life lesson: nature is resilient. In spite of massive habitat conversion, we still have an amazingly diverse and wonderful biota around us. I am convinced that conservation can occur at landscape scales, even in the context of working societies. There will be plenty of challenges along the way, including filling vast gaps in our knowledge of species biology and ecosystem function, and finding ways to implement conservation strategies which engage all of us and not just conservationists.

Personally, what is the most meaningful life lesson you have taken from your vocation or avocation?

Amazing people can make a big impact. The program I run in Indiana state government was invented by Dr. Robert Jenkins (“Big Bob”) a past vice president of The Nature Conservancy. Twenty years ago, he saw that conservation was driven largely by knee-jerk reactions to development. He devised a simple and elegant methodology to catalogue natural biological features (species and ecosystems) so that proactive conservation could occur. He instituted the methodology in The Nature Conservancy and beyond; today Natural Heritage programs using Dr. Jenkins' ideas exist in all 50 states, several Central and South American countries, and most Canadian provinces (see background).

Big Bob had three things going for him which I believe made his idea possible: knowledge; creative genius; and passion. For me, the life lesson from Big Bob was to work hard to acquire the knowledge, avoid being confined by traditional thinking, and to allow my passion for natural things to show.

 

What person(s) or mentor(s) have had the most significant impact on your life? Can you describe how that person affected your life?

Without question, the person who has had the most significant impact on my life is Dr. Robert Owen Petty (“Doc Petty”), biology professor at Wabash College. Doc Petty inspired me and many other Wabash students so that we first developed a passionate appreciation of natural things and learned the biology necessary to pursue it. He was a passionate conservationist, a philosopher, and a poet--Wabash College was a perfect place for him. He combined a passion for nature, a searching mind, and artistic expression with a caring attitude toward his students. His legacy continues through the careers of many of us in the field of conservation biology and none of us has forgotten him.

 

In your experience, what is the greatest misconception the public has about your vocation (or field of study) or the people in that vocation?

Green = nature: wrong!

Although I am always astonished by nature's resiliency, I must also point out that everything that is green around us does not equate to a healthy, functional ecosystem. There are hundreds of species from outside the U.S. which have invaded and now occupy our entire landscape, especially the most altered portions. Many of these species are harmless, but others have become serious pests as well as successful competitors displacing our most endangered species. A large part of the job in conservation biology is controlling these invasive species and restoring the natural systems they inhabit.

 

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