Marrying Passion and Science

Mary Ruckelshaus has an international reputation for salmon ecosystem research and for applying values to the services nature provides. She’s a devoted hiker, and the new chair of the Conservancy’s Washington board of trustees.

Ruckelshaus is the director of the
Natural Capital Project, a partnership whose objective is to improve the state of biodiversity and human well-being by motivating greater and more cost-effective investments in both. She has a bachelor's degree from Stanford University and a PhD from the University of Washington. Ruckelshaus has been a Washington state trustee for eight years. She also serves on the global Science Council for The Nature Conservancy and has served on the Conservancy’s international Board of Directors.

Read a press release about Mary Ruckelshaus


Tell us about an important experience in nature for you.

Mary Ruckelshaus:

One of my most formative moments was when I was in high school and my family had just moved to Washington state from Washington, DC. (Mary’s father is William Ruckelshaus, the first and fifth director of the Environmental Protection Agency.) I was in awe of the mountains here and got a job with Youth Conservation Corps doing trail maintenance in the Alpine Lakes. Because we were in wilderness we used only non-mechanized tools. My first week out there we came across a huge old Douglas-fir down across the trail. It took us all week to cut through that one tree with cross-cut saws. That experience gave me a huge appreciation for the majesty of our wilderness areas, and for the work that goes into trail-building that has stayed with me through all the backpacking I do with my family.


Salmon have been a big part of your career – where do you think we stand on salmon recovery?

Mary Ruckelshaus:

We are making headway in terms of understanding what salmon need. It’s not just a harvest problem, or a hatchery problem or a habitat problem. In the old days we tried to deal with one of the pressures on salmon at a time. Now we’re looking at it holistically, from the headwaters out to the ocean. Getting those strategies coordinated will definitely help salmon. Here in the Northwest and throughout the region we’re now calling the Emerald Edge—Washington, British Columbia, Alaska—there’s a lot to build on. If we can bolster the salmon and add to their resilience there’s a good fighting chance for them.


You have so many claims on your time and your expertise and such a broad world to work in. Why do you choose to volunteer with The Nature Conservancy, and particularly with the Washington program?

Mary Ruckelshaus:

It’s really because of two things. The Nature Conservancy appeals to both my heart and my brain. The people are committed and passionate about what they do, and the work is science-based and evidence driven. And of course Washington is where I live, and where I love experiencing nature.


The Nature Conservancy has long been known for buying land to protect it. We’re working in new ways now to ensure that whole natural systems can function, and we’re talking a lot more about the benefits nature provides to people, like clean air and clean water. Why should our members get excited about this?

Mary Ruckelshaus:

The Conservancy has always included people in its strategies. We’ve always worked with the people who are closest to the lands and waters where we’re working, like ranchers and fishing communities. What’s new is thinking bigger about getting the benefits to people from nature. By working on whole systems, we’ll be reaching a greater fraction of the earth’s land, air and water, and support it in a state that people can still get the benefits of clean water to drink, healthy food to eat, clean air to breathe.


Climate change – what gives you hope?

Mary Ruckelshaus:

Climate change is definitely the challenge of our generation and the next generations. We face it in all aspects of our lives. I find hope in human ingenuity. Many of the things we’re already doing to promote resilient natural systems will help us adapt to climate change as well: protecting intact ecosystems, using working lands and coastal systems better. We have to pay much more attention to adapting to the climate that we are going to have to live with.


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