Memorial from Restoration Ecology

William A. Niering, Lucretia L. Allyn Professor of Botany and Director of the Connecticut College Arboretum, 1924-1999

by Edith B. Allen and Marjorie Holland
Taken from December, 1999, Restoration Ecology Vol. 7 No. 4, pp. 319-320*

William A. Niering, first editor of Restoration Ecology since 1993 and respected ecologist, died suddenly on August 30, 1999, at the age of 75. In typical fashion for him, he had just completed a lecture to incoming freshmen and their parents at Connecticut College on the merits of good citizenship and environmental stewardship, qualities he exemplified during his life. He collapsed backstage shortly thereafter, while his audience continued to give him a standing ovation.

Bill graduated with B.S. and M.S. degrees from Pennsylvania State University, and then received his Ph.D. in 1952 at Rutgers University under another eminent ecologist, Murray Buell. He began his career as Professor at Connecticut College the same year, and soon applied the basic principles from vegetation dynamics that were central to his Ph.D. work, to the practical problem of power line right-of-way management. Along with Frank Egler and others he developed the concept of "arrested succession" that is central to maintaining vegetation in early stages of succession, and thus demonstrated that rights-of-way can be managed with a minimum of herbicide application. He continued to publish on arrested succession into the late 1980's, where a long career enabled him to demonstrate that early successional shrub communities can remain stable for 30 years when managed appropriately.

Bill joined forces with Robert H. Whittaker during the late 1950's and 1960's and solved the riddle of the establishment of giant saguaro cactus. This cactus establishes only during infrequent wet years, and then requires a nurse plant to survive. But the cactus outlives the nurse plant, sometimes by centuries, and the 1963 Science paper that arose from this work was clearly the work of clever ecological detectives. The principles from this study are still critical for restorationists who must try to establish plants in the desert. The two ecologists published five papers together, up to Whittaker's untimely death in 1980. Bill's love of the desert continued, and he spent spring 1999 on sabbatical in the Arizona desert examining vegetation recovery rates after cessation of longterm grazing. Don Falk, past Executive Director of the Society for Ecological Restoration, collaborated with him in the field on this last trip to the desert.

It is remarkable for one person to become known for groundbreaking work both in the eastern deciduous forest and in the desert, but Bill didn't stop there. He also had a lifelong passion for wetland ecology and restoration that arose naturally enough for Bill because he lived so close to environmentally imperiled tidal salt marshes. He became a leader in wetland ecology and conservation as well, testifying before the House of Representatives in 1982 on the need to stop discharges in navigable waters. In addition to many publications in the field, he prepared the groundwork for passage of Connecticut's Tidal Wetland Act of 1969, and received the Governor's Environmental Award in 1996. Those who knew him initially from one discipline often didn't know he had a separate research program in another discipline. He did a great service to us all when he wrote the Audubon Field Guide to North American Wildflowers-Eastern Region with Nancy Olmstead in 1979, but he surprised many when he also agreed to write the popular Audubon Guide to Wetlands in 1985. Few people have made the transition between upland and wetland ecology so well.

Bill had just under 200 publications during his lifetime, from locations around the world. These include Kapingamarangi Atoll in the South Pacific, spruce-fir forest in Minnesota, vegetation studies from Australia, dune restoration in South Africa, and many co-authored studies with his colleague from Connecticut College, Richard Goodwin, on forests and wetlands of Connecticut. Bill was already a restoration ecologist before William Jordan coined the term "restoration ecology" in the 1980's. Niering's restoration studies date to the 1950's, but were called transplantation or vegetation management studies.

Both of the authors of this memorial knew Bill personally. Edie Allen's acquaintance with Bill Niering began when she was a graduate student at Rutgers University in the early 1970's, when Bill would come down to visit his former mentor Murray Buell. On one of those visits he gave a seminar on right-of-way vegetation management that made us all realize that we do not have to accept only what nature presents, but we have the ability to improve and even to heal the scars left by human activities. Bill inspired many students. Marge Holland was an undergraduate at Connecticut College in the late 60's, where Bill encouraged and challenged students. He helped each of them to do the best they could do in each of his classes, whether it was botany, ecology, plant taxonomy or senior seminar. Bill hoped that many of his students would pursue careers in ecology, conservation biology, botany, forestry, and restoration ecology. In fact, he once said "I hope to get students excited about the subject and to become involved in the world as activists, to leave the world a little better than we found it." His classes were electrifying -- Marge remembers as an undergraduate feeling shivers run down her spine while Dr. Niering was lecturing, and it was wonderful to feel those shivers again 25 years later when he lectured to the CC Club of Washington, D.C., while he served as acting president of the College.

Bill stepped in to serve the Society for Ecological Restoration at a crucial time when our journal, Restoration Ecology, was just beginning. He started his term as editor at one of his busiest time periods, when he was serving as acting president of Connecticut College, but this is just one example of how much he gave of himself. He brought his critical thinking, his energy, his philosophy of the environment, and his cross-disciplinary knowledge to assure that our journal would rise from an unknown entity to a recognized international ecological journal. We will miss his service to the journal and the society, his research contributions to the field of wetland ecology, successional dynamics, and restoration ecology, and his great humanity and stewardship of the environment.

Edith B. Allen
Department of Botany and Plant Sciences
University of California
Riverside, CA 92521-0124

Marjorie M. Holland
Department of Biology
University of Mississippi
University, MS 38677

©1999 Society for Ecological Restoration
*This article reproduced with the permission and assistance of the authors, the editor and Blackwell Science, Inc.