October 31, 2005
Biodiversity expert documents our natural heritage
By Tim Stephens
As a UCSC undergraduate in the 1970s, Bruce Stein and a group of fellow students spent an entire spring quarter in the Eastern Mojave Desert doing surveys of the Granite Mountains, learning all they could about the area's natural resources, and eventually publishing their findings in a report that influenced the Bureau of Land Management's planning decisions for the area.
Bruce Stein is vice president of the nonprofit conservation organization NatureServe.
Photo courtesy of Bruce Stein
Although Stein spends less time in the field these days, his interests remain much the same--providing the scientific information needed to guide conservation and land management decisions.
As vice president for programs at NatureServe, a nonprofit conservation organization, Stein oversees the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information from a vast network of biological inventory programs. Through its searchable online databases and other products, NatureServe provides reliable data on rare and endangered species and ecosystems for land managers, policy makers, and the general public.
"We focus on bringing good science into the conservation process," Stein said. "As the scientific experts, we can work with environmental organizations as well as with government agencies and development interests to make sure their actions are grounded in good science."
The NatureServe Explorer web site provides access to scientific information on more than 65,000 plants, animals, and ecosystems in the United States and Canada, while a related site (InfoNatura) offers data from Latin America.
Stein not only helps manage all of this information, he is also an avid user of it. "One of the things I enjoy most is analyzing our data from a big-picture perspective and writing about what the data are telling us," he said.
He is the author of the book Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2000), described by Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson as "the definitive text on U.S. biodiversity."
"That was a major effort to pull together the information we had and ask what do we really know about biodiversity in the U.S., and what should we be doing to preserve it," said Stein, who worked on the project with about 20 collaborators from the Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service, and other organizations.
More recently, Stein coauthored the 2005 report Endangered by Sprawl: How Runaway Development Threatens America's Wildlife, a joint project of NatureServe, the National Wildlife Federation, and Smart Growth America.
At UCSC, Stein majored in biology and environmental studies. The Granite Mountains project got its start when he took the Natural History Field Quarter course taught by the late Kenneth Norris, a professor of natural history.
"He was a fabulous teacher and mentor--one of those truly inspiring individuals. You're lucky if you meet one such person in your lifetime," Stein said.
Ten students in the class applied for and won a $20,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a resource inventory of the Granite Mountains, with Stein as project director and principal investigator on the grant.
"I think it was a pivotal experience for a lot of us who went through that," he said. "It's the kind of thing UCSC is known for--the idea that you can give a big responsibility to undergraduates and they will rise to the challenge."
During the project, Stein became increasingly interested in botany. He got to know Robert Thorne of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, who generously shared his knowledge and expertise with the students. Thorne, a world-renowned botanist and a leading authority on the evolution of flowering plants, inspired Stein to continue studying botany. But Stein says it wasn't until he was in graduate school that he realized just how important a figure in botany Thorne was.
After graduating from UCSC in 1978, Stein spent a year traveling in South America, where he "got smitten by the tropical bug." Deciding to pursue a Ph.D. in tropical botany, he wrote a letter introducing himself to the eminent botanist Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a leading advocate for the study and conservation of tropical forests.
"One of the things I learned at UCSC was to be bold," Stein said.
With Raven as his adviser, Stein earned his Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, studying the tropical relatives of lobelias for his thesis. After graduate school, he took a position as a Latin American botanist with the Nature Conservancy. Within six months, he had become director of the Conservancy's Latin America Science Program.
Stein worked at the Nature Conservancy for more than a decade, advising the organization on conservation priorities and establishing biological inventory programs throughout the Western Hemisphere.
NatureServe, originally known as the Association for Biodiversity Information, was established in 1999 as an offshoot of the Nature Conservancy, created to carry on the organization's biological inventory and assessment work. Stein moved into his current position as vice president for programs in 2000.
Precious Heritage, published that year, had an immediate impact. A New York Times editorial exhorted the nation to protect the rich natural heritage documented in the book. The book included an analysis of biodiversity "hotspots" and a map showing areas with particularly high concentrations of imperiled species. That hotspot map continues to influence conservation efforts, in some cases leading directly to major investments from philanthropic groups to protect land in hotspots of biodiversity.
Meanwhile, Stein continues to work on new ways of using NatureServe's data. He is currently working with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop methods for assessing the health of freshwater ecosystems.
From the California desert, to the tropical forests of Latin America, to the NatureServe headquarters in Washington, D.C., Stein has steadfastly pursued his interests in biology and conservation.
"At Santa Cruz, I was allowed to focus on the things that truly interested me. I just followed my passion and was able to create a career out of it," he said.
Profiles of other UCSC alumni are available online at the Profiles in Excellence page.
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