My job title is “Distinguished Professor of Geography” at Western Kentucky University, where I direct the Hoffman Environmental Research Institute. My research is focused on hydrogeology, geochemistry, and water resources with a special emphasis on “karst” landscapes formed on soluble rock like those common in Kentucky where caves, sinkholes and underground rivers are common. I am actively involved in international efforts to understand and protect karst landscapes and groundwater resources and currently serve as a co-leader of the United Nations scientific program “Environmental Change and Sustainability in Karst Systems.” In 2011 (between teaching classes) my projects have included nearly two months of geochemistry-related climate change research in China, a visit to recently discovered, spectacular caves in Vietnam’s remote Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, consulting to the government of Barbados on cave-related environmental education, and lecturing on water resource protection as an invited guest of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Here in Kentucky, I work closely with Mammoth Cave National Park, and help manage the Crumps Cave Education Preserve in Warren County with the support of the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund Board.
Nature.org: How did you develop an interest in conservation?
I’ve always thought that I had a “genetic” predisposition towards the outdoors and thanks to my parents’ support of my interests, lots of family travel, scouts and the like, being outside and appreciating the natural world has been a fundamental and natural part of my life from my earliest memories. I grew up in Maryland, and remember many excursions with my father taking us out to look for fossils on the cliffs and beaches along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Working one summer during my teens at a scout camp in southwestern Virginia, I discovered cave exploring and some years later eventually made my way to Western Kentucky University, close to Mammoth Cave (the world’s most extensive cave system which is still being explored) and a nearly literal Mecca for cave and karst research. I am blessed to have eventually landed here to make a home and raise my family. For several reasons karst landscapes are especially fragile and I have spent much of my life working to understand and protect them.
Nature.org: Does your profession and your passion for conservation intertwine? If yes, how so?
Fortunately, yes. This happens both in my teaching and research. The Hoffman Environmental Research Institute has for years undertaken projects throughout the world that aim to better understand interactions between landscapes, water, the atmosphere, and people. This work involves graduate and undergraduate students in all aspects, so I am able to expose this passion to students both in the classroom and through research. At the Crumps Cave Reserve my colleagues and I are working to educate students at all levels about natural resources and how human activities can influence them.
Nature.org: Describe your interactions with The Nature Conservancy of Kentucky?
For several years I interacted with Dr. Richie Kessler who was the Green River Basin coordinator for TNC’s Kentucky chapter. To assist TNC’s conservation efforts, my students and I mapped caves and conducted hydrologic studies and resource inventories at several properties in the state in collaboration with Richie.
Last year I was invited to join the Chapter’s Board of Trustees, where I hope to bring a scientific perspective to the Chapter’s decision-making.
Nature.org: Do you have a favorite project of TNC’s? Any advice for other people interested in Kentucky conservation?
As a relatively new Trustee I am still learning about TNC’s efforts in Kentucky, but clearly I have been impressed by both the scale and the quality of the Chapter’s successes in conservation. Certainly the efforts to protect the Sturgis Tract as part of the Big Rivers Corridor Project is a fantastic example, both with regard to the conservation benefits that will be realized, as well as the creative partnership building that has gone into the effort.
With regard to conservation in Kentucky I think it is important to understand and be mindful that there is a “bonus” landscape in the state, underground in caves, including several of the world’s most extensive known cave systems. These are places with diverse and fragile ecosystems, and which provide homes to several federally endangered species. Sadly, a devastating and typically fatal disease afflicting bats called “White Nose Syndrome” has spread through the eastern United States since it was first seen in New York in 2006, and the first case within Kentucky was identified earlier this year.
More broadly, as a scientist I think that in order to develop policies to solve problems, the first step is to understand how the relevant systems function. For folks interested in conservation I think an important step is to learn as much as possible about the resources that we are trying to protect.