By R. Scott Warren, Professor of Botany
Presented at the October 6, 1999, meeting of the Connecticut College faculty
William A. Niering, Lucretia L. Allyn Professor of Botany, came to Connecticut College in the fall of 1952 with appointment as instructor of Botany; that year he taught seniors in the class of 1953. He died this August 30th, 47 years later, just after speaking to the class of 2003 on the importance of environmental stewardship in their roles as citizens of both Connecticut College - and the rest of Planet Earth. With that address, Bill touched half a century of Connecticut College students, and his 47 years here spanned more than half of the life of his - and - our institution - a couple of rare claims for a faculty member toward the end of 20th century.
But Bill Niering will be remembered at Connecticut College and in international scientific and conservation communities for much more than his longevity.
- At Connecticut College, his teaching in the classroom, laboratory, and perhaps most of all, the field, was legend. Bill's courses in ecology, plant taxonomy and environmental studies inspired generations of undergraduates to careers in science and to lives as environmentally responsible citizens - and his lectures in General Biology and Botany were invariably packed, not only with students, but with his New London Hall colleagues.
- As a conservationist, Bill earned the admiration, appreciation, and respect of individuals, private organizations, and government agencies across Connecticut and around the nation for his tireless and exceptionally effective work in environmental protection, preservation and restoration. The walls of his office did not have room for all the plaques and certificates recognition awarded from the U. S. Park Service, the State of Connecticut, Garden Clubs of America, and the Society for Ecological Restoration - just to note a few.
- He will also be remembered here as a citizen of Connecticut College. He served on almost every major College and faculty committee, accepted appointments to innumerable ac hoc task forces, and was our community's environmental conscience. Bill was Arboretum Director for 23 years, Botany Department Chair for one, and acting President for a semester. And his most prized public symbol of recognition was the Connecticut College Medal, which was awarded in 1998.
These observations have been made many times, in many places, and by many different people over the past month. They mark an impressive career, but they are not news to most of us at Connecticut College. There has been, however, a great deal less public recognition of Bill Niering's contributions to the science of ecology. As a faculty we are committed to both teaching and scholarship, and a minute in the official records of our faculty meeting is a most fitting way in which to recognize Bill Niering's contributions as a scholar:
- Bill was a creative and extremely rigorous scientist; the breadth and impact of his insights and writing on vegetation ecology are unlikely to be matched for some time. Working with Murry Buel, Frank Egler, and Robert Whittaker, Bill used what contemporary ecologists have come to call "space-for-time substitution experiments" to lead a revolution that overturned reigning paradigms of ecological succession, climax communities, and the role of disturbance in structuring biotic systems. Bill was also keenly aware of the limitations in using "space-for-time" and was one of the first scientists to establish long term - multiple decade - ecological studies.
- He was also unusually productive. Alone and with numerous colleagues Bill published 76 papers and book chapters in the peer-reviewed literature. The first came out in 1951; the latest, still in press, will bring the total to 78 or 79. He also authored nearly 100 scientific reports, short notes and bulletin articles, and over two dozen book reviews and journal editorials — not to mention six books aimed at a non-science audience.
- Bill Niering's research and writing also spanned an unusually diverse range of ecosystems.
- The revolution he helped foment in our understanding of biotic change was based on his early work on vegetation dynamics in the Eastern deciduous forest - the biome in which we in Connecticut live, and upon which he continued to publish for the next 48 years.
- His 1963 Science paper with Bob Whittaker on Saguaro cactus of Arizona's Sonoran Desert won the Ecological Society of America's Mercer Award for the best paper published that year. He went on to write eight more papers on vegetation ecology of the southwest and when he died was working on one more, based on 1999 re-surveys of his initial plots.
- His papers on the ecology of Pacific atolls are considered classics, forming the foundation literature for a large part of what we now call ethnobotany.
- And he worked and wrote critically on both inland and coastal wetlands.
- Bill Niering saw applied questions in ecology as a way both to use and do fundamental research while protecting the environment — particularly notable examples are his work on vegetation management which we all see, but few may notice, on utility right-of-ways throughout the northeast and on salt marsh restoration which has returned hundreds of acres of Connecticut tidal wetlands to the Long Island Sound ecosystem.
- He pioneered the new sub-disciplines of conservation ecology and restoration ecology, writing articles in Volume 1, Number 1 of the two premiere journals in these fields, and as editor-in-chief, he lead the new journal Restoration Ecology from its inception to international prominence in just four years.
Bill Niering was an inspired and inspiring teacher, a scientist of extraordinary vision and breadth - and a scholar whose research and writing gave powerful credibility to his work in the field of conservation. As colleague, mentor, friend, citizen of Connecticut College, and citizen of our so rare and precious jewel of a planet, Bill has been an amazing gift to us all.