Dr. Beatrice Willard (1925–2003) was an internationally recognized tundra ecologist who made significant contributions to environmental policy in Colorado and the nation. Her research in the Colorado mountains established her as a well-known ecologist, educator, and negotiator.
Beatrice Willard was the daughter of Stephen Willard, an artist and landscape photographer, and Beatrice Willard, a teacher. Young Bettie spent many days traveling the deserts around Palm Springs, California, and the mountains of Mammoth Lakes, California, where her father had a studio. By age twelve, she had her own nature-guiding business. She graduated from Stanford University in 1947. In the early 1950s, the Ford Foundation awarded her a grant to study European alpine ecology. She soon entered graduate school at the University of Colorado, working with Dr. John Marr, founder of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.
Alpine Tundra Research
In 1959 Willard established two study plots along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park to understand how humans affected the sensitive alpine tundra ecosystem. The two plots were at Rock Cut parking area, which opened in 1933, and Forest Canyon parking area, which opened in 1958. Both areas had damage caused by human feet: vegetation was destroyed, lichen removed from rocks, and paths worn into sensitive tundra soils. Willard wanted to understand how long it would take for the alpine tundra to recover from trampling. At her plots, she measured the number and species of tiny alpine plants, followed the fate of seedlings, and noted ecosystem processes like frost action and erosion. She drew maps of the plots and took photographs so she could compare change over time. She continued to record this data at the plots for the next forty years.
During her research, Willard found that the tundra was especially fragile and recommended changes to the park’s visitor management in this special ecosystem. Following her advice, park authorities paved trails and started an educational campaign to explain the fragility of the alpine tundra. Willard earned her PhD in 1963 and wrote many scientific articles about her research in Rocky Mountain National Park and the alpine tundra. In 1972 she coauthored the seminal book about the alpine tundra, Land above the Trees: A Guide to American Alpine Tundra.
Leading the Environmental Movement in Colorado and Beyond
Willard’s experience at Rocky Mountain National Park taught her how to influence policymakers. She became a leader in Colorado’s environmental movement. In 1965 she became executive director of the Thorne Institute and helped develop the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the Colorado Open Space Council, the Colorado Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club. She met Bill Coors, who later credited her with convincing him to invent the recyclable aluminum can. In 1966 Willard created the Experiment in Ecology, an interdisciplinary approach to engineering, economics, and the environment that three years later became codified in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
By the early 1970s, Willard was internationally recognized for her pioneering work in applied ecology and her ability to mediate environmental disputes and establish partnerships with various organizations. In 1972 she accepted President Richard Nixon’s invitation to serve on the president’s Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ). Willard was the first woman appointed to the CEQ. She traveled around the country encouraging leaders of government and industry to act responsibly toward the environment. She advocated for NEPA, one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation of the late 1960s. Willard also served as a mediator during planning for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which runs through arctic tundra.
Willard resigned from the CEQ in 1977 and returned to Colorado to join the Colorado School of Mines faculty, where she called for the integration of engineering, ecology, and economics. She helped many Colorado environmental organizations, including serving as the secretary of the National Energy Resources Organization. She was also a member of the Advisory Committee for Conservation Education to the State of Colorado, a member of the Colorado Environmental Inventory Advisory Committee, and chair of the Denver Olympic Planning Committee. She also contributed to the planning of Chatfield Dam and lake. She helped Estella Leopold advocate for the creation of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. She received numerous awards for her contributions, including the United Nations Environmental Leadership Medal in 1982.
Willard’s greatest legacy may be that she taught several generations of students—through lectures, field seminars, meetings, and books—to be stewards of the American landscape. She believed that “[m]an can live, work, and play in harmony with his environment. He has only to prove this fact to himself.” Rocky Mountain National Park honored Dr. Willard by listing her research plots at Rock Cut and Forest Canyon Overlook in the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.