Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Interview with Michael Lannoo

How long have you been working to conserve natural areas and their inhabitants?
What was the catalyst that brought you to appreciate amphibians in the first place?

It was at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, in 1977, when I was 19, where I first meshed who I was with what I wanted to do with my life, which was to become a field biologist. And as a corollary I became interested in amphibians, especially tiger salamander larvae, because they were the top aquatic predators in my favorite ecosystems, wetlands. In fact, in 1982 I was fortunate to discover that Okoboji wetlands support cannibal morph tiger salamander larvae, an uber top carnivore. In 1988, I realized a huge professional dream when the director, Dick Bovbjerg, invited me to join the Lakeside Lab faculty. And with the exception of a couple of years when the administration of Lakeside did not understand the essence of Lakeside, I’ve been on the faculty ever since. Lakeside Lab has a rich history of biological investigation, and when the first alarm bells about the serious nature of amphibian declines started to ring, Lakeside, with its long history of field investigation and its magnificent gazetteer, had the best data available to address the issue for the midwestern United States. It was also about this time that I began understanding the incredible ecological damage that state-supported fish management practices was doing to Okoboji wetlands. And although remnants of these practices persist today, extensive habitat restorations in the Okoboji region have made this area one of the most extensive and exciting wetland regions in the United States.

How do you merge your teaching and your writing with your hands-on research and fieldwork? 

I don't view teaching and writing and research as separate activities. They just sort of spring naturally from some always varying combination of the core of who I am and the shell of what I've experienced, and they feed forward and backward on themselves to keep building who it is I am and what it is I do. The great thing about being a tenured full professor is that I have the freedom to unabashedly pursue my interests, whether they are in temperate, tropical, or polar ecosystems, or whether they are based in fieldwork or lab work. My last book was on malformed frogs and how, in this investigation, the scientific method got ambushed by personal ambition. My next book is about two great biologists, Aldo Leopold and Ed Ricketts, and how combining their approaches (Leopold’s ethic and Ricketts’ method of engagement) provides the modern environmental movement with the tools it needs to change the world as we now know it in the only direction it can change and persist, which is in ecosystem-based sustainability (as opposed to economic-based profitability). My teaching and fieldwork feed forward to influence my writing and research, while my writing and research twist backward and influence my teaching and fieldwork. I’m not alone here; Norman Maclean wrote, “A long time ago I realized that I would not see something unless I thought of it first.” The thinking stuff and the doing stuff, while appearing to be separate activities, actually feed each other to produce some sort of spiraling forward, to produce what I would loosely call a career.

What has changed in the outdoor world since your first days of trying to study and protect frogs? What’s better, what’s worse?

Crisis can bring out the best in people, and some very fine people have emerged to fight on behalf of amphibians; I am glad and privileged to count many of these folks among my best friends. As a result of their work we now know the causes of amphibian declines, including habitat loss, disease, global warming, introduced predators, and competitors. The real work now lies in convincing society that the things individual people do—day in and day out—will influence the impacts of these causes, not only on amphibians but on the world as a whole; the world their grandchildren will inherit. In short, what’s better now than twenty years ago is that we now know what’s wrong; what’s worse is that because amphibian declines persist unabated, we have fewer pieces remaining to build upon.

What advice would you give to beginning conservationists? What are the particular challenges of being a conservationist in the Midwest?

Take all the courses you can at the Iowa Lakeside Lab or some other field station. While modern society claims to be about image (which is, they say, everything), the world outside of People magazine is still being run by folks who know things and do things. A test: take some average environmental sciences majors and put them outside somewhere—forest, prairie, wetland—and start asking them questions about what they see. You quickly come to the conclusion that they don’t know much about these worlds. But these days, in an impossibly tight economy, it is the people who know something about these worlds who are getting jobs. Maybe not great jobs, but at least they have their foot in the door, and at least they’re staying in the business. At some point in our human history, if society as we know it is to persist, people who know and understand ecosystems will become among its most valued members.

There is always potential in crisis. Take a superficial look at the Midwest and all you see is corn and soybeans (and it gets you wondering about the effects of pesticides on you and your family). But there are natural jewels here, also, that will persist, even though just about everyplace that can be converted from a natural area to a human-dominated one has been. So we’re pretty much near or at the bottom, with only one direction left, and that gives us a glimmer of hope. In this light it becomes interesting to watch and participate in the activities of land trusts, organic farming, and re-wilding efforts.  As long as we keep enough original pieces, we keep hope.

What are your favorite natural areas in the Midwest? What areas do you return to constantly, and what’s your favorite newly visited area?

The Okoboji region of northwestern Iowa is my all-time favorite place; if we could ever afford to retire, Sue and I would like to live there. Other places touch specific parts of me. In Iowa, searching out prairie rattlesnakes in the Loess Hills is special, as is the view of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers from the bluffs above McGregor. I love all four corners (so different) of Minnesota and the Prairie Coteau region (full of wetlands) of northeastern South Dakota. Recently, because of some work I've been doing close to home, I've come to favor the mine-spoil prairies of the southern Midwest. These are not natural, but really, what is these days? These ragged prairies, on land that several decades ago had absolutely no ecology, remind us that you can have nature even if it is not pristine.

Michael J. Lannoo, author of Okoboji Wetlands: A Lesson in Natural History, editor of Status and Conservation of Midwestern Amphibians

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