An Icon of Ecosystem Science
With a Humanist’s Worldview

Editor’s Note: The following essay, “Understanding How the Natural World Works,” was written by Frederick Herbert “Herb” Bormann, Oastler Professor Emeritus of Forest Ecology, and presented by him in October 2008 at the Woods Hole Research Center on the occasion of George Woodwell’s 80th birthday. Woodwell is the director emeritus, as well as senior scientist, at the Woods Hole Research Center. Os Schmitz, Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology, wrote the following introduction for environment: Yale.


Herb Bormann

Herb Bormann was already retired when I joined the faculty of the school in 1992, so I didn’t see him much. But he certainly was more than familiar to me. Herb is an iconic figure in ecosystem science. Any graduate student of ecology during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was made fully aware of the prescient and seminal contributions to ecosystem science that he and his collaborators (notably Gene Likens, Robert Pierce and Noye Johnson) made. They were mavericks who transformed a discipline. They were big-scale conceptual thinkers in an era when most ecologists were still enamored with largely reductionist details. They were experimentalists who measured effects in an age when much effort was devoted to simply describing energy and nutrient flows and species interactions. They cared about doing science in ways that provided insights for policy and management at a time when basic scientists were disparaging of applied science.

Theirs was an era when ecology as a subfield of biological science began to take on its own life as a legitimate scientific discipline. It came into its own after World War II when society still marveled at great scientific discoveries and regarded science as a key investment in its future. Ecological science played a prominent role in identifying the cause of major environmental problems and motivating policy to mitigate them. Most notably it was a period when Likens and Bormann were able to draw a link between sulfur and nitrous oxide emissions from industry and automobiles and acid rain, which helped to inspire the Clean Air Act.

Aldo Leopold once wrote that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” in which he likened the ecological profession to that of medicine. I believe that Herb, too, sees the world wounded by human impacts. But I also see Herb, more than most others, as one who understands the deep causes of those wounds and the intricate ways that we are all tied to them on this planet. He can foresee the unfortunate outcomes that befall us if we don’t take better care of the environment, and he has the guts to stand up and tell us about them. And like a great doctor, he uses his understanding of science to propose cures for the ailments. It is little wonder that Herb has received so many accolades and awards for his efforts on behalf of the environment. Herb looms large in the history of ecological science, and his essay is a wonderful reflection of his life’s devotion to the “cause.”

Understanding How the Natural World Works

By Frederick Herbert Bormann

Despite the enormous extent of human knowledge, all societies are ultimately dependent on nature for sustenance and growth. The primary relationship between society and nature is one in which society attempts to channel the resources of nature to its own benefit.

A few of the more salient examples are these: forests are converted to fields, deserts are irrigated, iron ore is smelted to create useful tools, dams are constructed to supply water and electrical power and organisms are engineered to be more useful.
To utilize nature more effectively, it is important to know how the natural world works. Such knowledge helps us avoid costly mistakes, and the world is littered with costly mistakes.

But knowing nature is not an easy task, as nature is extraordinarily complex and composed of living and dead components; organic and inorganic parts; and innumerable species of plants, animals and micro-organisms that constantly interact with living and nonliving environments—the whole continuously changing in response to ecosystem development or to naturally occurring or man-man disturbances.

How to untangle this puzzle is, has been and will always be a serious challenge to the human intellect.

Because of teaching and field trips, I became aware in 1958 of a breakthrough by soil scientists at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in central New Hampshire. Using a monitored watershed, they succeeded in establishing a budget for the use of water by an intact Northern deciduous forest.

They measured water entering the forest in rain and snow and leaving in stream flow from the presumed watertight watershed. They completed the budget by calculating evaporative water lost from the soil through the air from soil pores and leaves in the forest canopy. Through cutting experiments on small watersheds, they were able to measure increased stream water flow resulting from the removal of leaf surfaces.

In 1961, in a letter to Robert Pierce, manager of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, I suggested that the monitored watersheds would be ideal for the investigation of chemical budgets for whole forest ecosystems. In 1963, with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation, I and my Dartmouth colleagues, G.E. Likens and Noye Johnson, embarked on a biogeochemical study of Hubbard Brook ecosystems that became known as the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study.

Social and economic factors will override natural factors unless the public is educated to understand the relationship between nature and their own long-term welfare.

Scientists from throughout the United States and the world soon recognized the professional advantages of studying ecosystem-type questions in the monitored-watershed ecosystems of Hubbard Brook. Scores of scientists from universities, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and other institutions came to Hubbard Brook to examine various aspects of ecosystems function. Today, 45 years later, there is a substantial body of ecological, biological, geological, hydrological and biogeochemical information on how ecosystems (nature) work, and the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study has become a model followed throughout the world.

It might be asked, Of what value is this understanding of how the natural world works?

Hubbard Brook science is now in a position to make land use recommendations that go with nature rather than against it. This is important to millions of people who live in New England and to people throughout the world as a set of general land-use principles.

For example, scientists at Hubbard Brook can offer advice to planners on land use questions such as these:

  • Can water yields be increased in a sustainable, nondestructive way?
  • Can increased water yields be gained without loss of biochemical quality?
  • Would proposed vegetation management for water flow affect the release of carbon to the atmosphere and the problem of climate change?
  • Would aesthetic qualities of the landscape be affected by changes in landscape management?

Scientific knowledge about how nature works should be considered as payback for society’s investment in research.

As an ecologist and teacher, I learned that the line between science and policy can become blurred quickly, and politics can become a factor. In the late 1960s, a titanic debate was raging in the Western states, pitting the U.S. Forest Service and the forest industry against an increasingly strong environmental movement. The topic was clear-cutting of national forests. From 1968 through 1970, the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study published three papers documenting and explaining the heavy loss of nutrients from our experimentally clear-cut forest and the fact that water draining from the ecosystem might not be fit to drink. The nutrients were coming from the soil and raised the prospect that future forest productivity might be endangered.

Others quickly used our results in the argument against clear-cutting Western forests. In the eyes of clear-cutting advocates, we were responsible, even though our papers were limited to Hubbard Brook and our advice was that potential nutrient losses in drainage water should be taken into account when designing forest management practices.

We received vitriolic letters demanding that we come to the defense of the practice of clear-cutting. Rumors reached us about deep unhappiness within the U.S. Forest Service; a program office at the National Science Foundation told us that we would not be allowed to study forest cutting anymore. Apparently we were embarrassing another federal agency! We fought that dictate all the way to the National Science Foundation director, had it reversed and, in the process, helped to strengthen the principle that the National Science Foundation should stick to science.

In the long run, our studies had important implications for forest policy: notably, best management is achieved through an ecosystem approach, and nutrient cycling must be considered in preparing environmental impact statements.

We stumbled onto another controversy—acid rain. In 1971 we found that, as in Europe, rain and snow at Hubbard Brook were quite acidic, and Likens found the same was true in New York.

Likens and I published “Acid Rain: A Serious Regional Environmental Problem” in Science in 1974. A week later, the results were on the front page of The New York Times. For years afterward, our telephones rang constantly, as reporters from everywhere looked for a story. Today acid rain is recognized as a worldwide problem. Tens of thousands of research articles have been published, and new policies for its control have emerged. Our contribution began with the discovery that acid rain is a widespread problem in the Northeast, but the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study’s long-term record of precipitation chemistry was also important. That record was used not only to document the problem, but also to aid Congress in writing the Clean Air Act and, later, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the law’s proposed controls.

These Hubbard Brook events reaffirmed that science does not exist in a vacuum, but earlier experiences had already prepared me for difficulties in dealing with bureaucracies, scientists with narrow vision and the power of economic forces.

In the Dartmouth College greenhouse in 1957, radioisotope experiments designed to test nutrient movement between plants were ruined when control plants were contaminated with radioactivity. A random sample of leaves from my Hanover garden indicated that all plants outside were radioactive!

I called the New York office of the Atomic Energy Commission, and they said not to worry, but immediately sent their second-in-command to Hanover. It turned out that we had detected radioactive fallout from the 1957 atomic bomb test in the Pacific. These were days of great secrecy, and not a word of the fallout appeared in the media. The great bulk of Americans had no idea what was drifting down from the sky. The officer told Paul Shaeffer, a chemistry colleague, and Dave Mulcahy, a Dartmouth student, and me that the only problem was that a Geiger counter could fall into the hands of some fool! Humpph! The gentlemen was a guest in our house, so my pregnant wife fed him an especially large salad from our garden.

Because of the paucity of information on fallout and a growing public concern about nuclear war and its potential health effects and about radioactive strontium in milk, Shaeffer, Mulcahy and I expanded our survey. Elm leaves, which are good dust collectors, were gathered throughout New England and tested. Mixed-fission radioactivity was found everywhere, with a large hot spot found in southern Maine.

During this time, I gained unending respect for John Dickey, president of Dartmouth College. The fall term was about to begin, and a public announcement that the campus was blanketed with radioactive fallout had the potential to be very disruptive. We asked guidance from President Dickey. His approximate reply was, “Gentlemen, if you are sure of your facts, be guided by your conscience.”

We wrote a paper, “Fallout On the Vegetation of New England During the 1957 Atom Bomb Test Series,” and submitted it to Science. Despite its timeliness, we had no reply for months, and then it was rejected for what seemed to us the weakest of reasons. I suspected that the rejection came because the potential pool of reviewers was dominated by Atomic Energy Commission scientists and our “uncontrolled report” was thought too dangerous for the public to handle. We should have fought that decision, but not knowing the ropes, we published more than a year later in Ecology, where our study went largely unnoticed. I thought that Science, for whatever reason, had abetted the secrecy goals of the government.

That experience has made me wonder how often special interests have blighted the objectivity of science, particularly when corporate and government bureaucracies have huge stables of scientists and lawyers to present their points of view.

Lucy Braun, in her classic 1950 book, Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, described an extraordinary, but small, patch of “climax” sugar maple forest in Gifford Woods State Park in Vermont. In the mid-1950s, Professor Murray Buell of Rutgers University and I carried out a study to document the ecology of this rare forest. We learned that the state of Vermont was planning to construct a pond beside the forest, cut an adjacent secondary forest and admit full sunlight into the interior of the old-age forest, a deadly blow to the forest’s integrity. We wrote to the appropriate state official explaining the forest’s rare and unique nature and the devastation that would result from constructing a pond.

He wrote back suggesting a meeting at Gifford Woods. We went to present our evidence. Upon arrival we found dozens of cars and people milling about. Most were motel owners and businessmen from the local region. Our debate was brief—an early version of jobs versus environment. The pond was built.

I guess the underlying principle is that social and economic factors will override natural factors unless the public is educated to understand the relationship between nature and their own long-term welfare.

From 1974 to 1977, I sat on the executive committee of the National Academy of Science’s Assembly of Life Sciences. The committee dealt with a wide array of both science and policy questions such as health, agriculture and nuclear energy. The committee performed a most important function and performed it well; however, one aspect of our work deeply troubled me. Numerous sub-subcommittees were formed. Invariably, members were chosen from what might be considered special-interest groups: universities, government and industry. Rarely were members of nongovernmental organizations sought out. I had the sense that such persons were regarded as unqualified. More than once I came away with the question: Who speaks for the people?

My concept of ecology in the late 1950s and early 1960s was greatly enlarged by growing public concern about potential environmental impacts of nuclear and chemical technologies. Concerns about potential effects of nuclear war, recovery from nuclear attack and simply living in a nuclear world were wholly new drivers of ecological research. Many studies of radiation effects and cycling of radionuclides were conducted, and ecological programs, such as those of Robert Platt at Emory University, George Woodwell at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stanley Auerbach at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, were put in place.

I spent a sabbatical year, 1964 to 1965, in George’s laboratory at Brookhaven. Between times in George’s sailboat aground or becalmed on Long Island Sound, we spent many hours trying to think through the ecological implications of an increasingly technical age. Somewhat puffed up, we made a missionary trip around the country, spreading the message to ecologists that they needed to emerge from their cocoons. We gained few converts, but many enemies.

At Dartmouth College in 1962, robins were seen flopping around and dying on the campus. I and my students closely followed a study by Charles Wurster linking that behavior to the ingestion of DDT. George also studied the effects of DDT on soils at the University of Maine. Both George and Wurster went on to become founders of the Environmental Defense Fund.

At the same time, The New Yorker published an excerpt of Rachel Carson’s now classic Silent Spring, which heavily fueled the debate about environment and the need to understand humanity’s relationship to the rest of the world. For me as a teacher, this cauldron of change presented a challenge as to how to bring this debate to my students and a wider audience.

These efforts culminated in 1969 in a lecture series at Yale University, “Issues in the Environmental Crises.” In weekly talks, speakers such as Stewart Udall, Lamont Cole, Paul Ehrlich, Clarence Glacken and Kenneth Boulding explored the emerging dimensions of a world crisis in environment. Students from the Yale Law School attended, struggled and invented environmental law. Gus Speth was one of those. While Paul Erlich was at Yale, he and Charles Remington got together and birthed the organization Zero Population Growth.

Throughout the rest of my years at Yale, I used the lecture series as a means to explore the interaction between society and environment. I am grateful to have had that opportunity.

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