Dr. Estella Leopold is a world-renowned paleobotanist who helped spearhead the 1969 fight to save Florissant Fossil Beds in Florissant, Colorado. She was the recipient of several awards during her career, including Conservationist of the Year (1969) from the Colorado Wildlife Federation, the Keep Colorado Beautiful Award (1976), and the International Cosmos Prize (2010). Many of her early conservation efforts contributed to saving resources in Colorado. Between 1965 and 1973, she co-founded and served on the board of the Colorado Open Space Council. She also served on the boards of the Denver Audubon Society (1970–73), the Governor’s Oil Shale Committee on Environmental Protection (1971–72), and the Rocky Mountain Center on Environment (1971–73).
Early Life and Education
Leopold was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1927 to Estella Leopold Sr. and the famous conservationist Aldo Leopold. Her siblings included A. Starker Leopold, Luna B. Leopold, Nina Leopold Bradley, and A. Carl Leopold, all of whom worked in conservation, geology, and other natural sciences. Estella is Aldo and Estella Sr.’s only living child.
Leopold’s career has been expansive and influential. She earned two degrees in botany, a bachelor’s from University of Wisconsin–Madison (1944–48) and a master’s from the University of California–Berkeley (1948–50). Her formal education concluded with a PhD in plant sciences from Yale University (1953–55).
Fight for Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
After earning her PhD, Leopold worked for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) from 1955 to 1976, conducting much of her research in Colorado. It was during her sojourn with the USGS that she fought for the protection of Florissant Fossil Beds. Leopold was adamant that the fossils were important because they represented a prehistoric period just before intense climate change. Since the fossil beds’ discovery in 1874, the National Park Service (NPS) had periodically documented them but made no significant efforts to take control until the 1960s.
Leopold’s work with the USGS had put her in close connection with the fossil beds, and when she heard about the NPS’s interest in making the area a monument or a park in 1962, she readily lent her support. With other scientists, she surveyed the valley to recommend geographic boundaries for the NPS’s prospective plan for a monument. Leopold also worked on a subcommittee of the Colorado Mountain Club to promote publicity and support for the fossil beds. Moreover, she and fellow scientist Bettie Willard used the Colorado Outdoors Coordinating Council, an umbrella environmental group, to gain further support.
The fight for national monument status intensified in 1969 when the Park Land Company purchased tracts in the valley with plans to build subdivisions. Leopold and Willard contacted New York lawyer Victor Yannacone, who had recently won a case in Wisconsin for controlling the pesticide DDT. They also contacted three other lawyers: Richard “Dick” Lamm, Tom Lamm, and Roger Hansen. The team established the Defenders of Florissant to raise awareness and funds to pay the lawyers’ expenses. As the Park Land Company moved in to begin development, Leopold worked quickly and exhaustively. She gained local support, led field trips with state and national dignitaries such as senators, and refined her testimony.
The fight had also intensified because Leopold and the Defenders knew legislation to create Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was working its way through the US Congress. Bills from the early 1960s had died on the floor, but on June 20, 1969, while Leopold and the Defenders staved off the developers, Senate Bill 912 – which would make Florissant Fossil Beds a national monument – passed the Senate. It went to the House for approval, but debate halted the proceedings just as the Park Land Company brought bulldozers into Florissant valley.
Leopold and the Defenders scrambled and won a ten-day restraining order against the developers on July 11, but it would take longer than that for the bill to get through the House. The Defenders appealed for more time. Despite testimonies from Leopold and countless other citizens and scientists, the appeal held no legal ground. Fortunately for the national monument advocates, appellate judge Alfred P. Murrah withheld his decision until the bill passed the House on August 4. It bounced back to the Senate for approval on August 7, and President Richard Nixon signed it on August 20. Florissant Fossil Beds had become a national monument.
The fight for Florissant was one of the highlights of Leopold’s career, though she has continued to win acclaim since then. In 1976, after several more years with the USGS in Colorado, she pursued a career in teaching and research at the University of Washington, attaining the rank of professor emeritus in 2000. Some of her key contributions to botany include using fossilized pollen and spores to study how plants have changed over time in response to climate change. These studies spanned North American geography, with collaborative research conducted in China.
As with Florissant, Leopold was an actor in the 1982 establishment of Mt. St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument. She and other concerned scientists and citizens challenged the US government’s plan to sow exotic grasses and replant forests following Mt. St. Helen’s 1980 eruption. Also in the 1980s, Leopold assisted in preventing Washington’s state government from burying nuclear waste at the Hanford Reservation.
Leopold’s research and activism have given her the expertise required to hold many leadership positions in numerous organizations. She has been a professor, director of the Quaternary Research Center (1976–1982), and member of organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, Environmental Defense, National Audubon Society, and the Children and Nature Network. Since 1982, she has served on the board of the Aldo Leopold Foundation to promote land health and land ethic. She has published more than 100 articles based on her research, adding invaluable information to the field of paleobotany.