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Lee Talbot: A Passion to Explore

March 6, 2012

By Tara Laskowski

Lee Talbot holding the freshly shed skin of a king cobra in Laos. Courtesy photo of Lee Talbot.

From drafting key national environmental policies to facing down motorcycle gangs, Mason ecologist Lee Talbot in his more than 50-year career has learned one thing: life doesn’t work like a textbook.

Talbot, a professor of environmental science and policy at Mason, has been an instrumental force in changing environmental policy worldwide. Though Talbot loves more than anything to hit the ground and explore and research, he knows that at some point scientific research needs to turn into action and policy. It is this valuable bridge that he tries to teach his students at Mason.

“You need a toolkit, a set of methods that helps translate research into action,” Talbot says. So part of environmental policy is finding the important people and figuring out what’s in it for both of you.

Talbot pulls examples from his own career, both successes and failures, because, as he says, “You learn from both.” And his career is rich with such examples—from creating a secure reserve park for endangered lions in India in the 1950s to drafting the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act while an advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

No project is too small, either. Talbot says his toolkit is just as valuable when dealing with international leaders as it is with community members, as he discovered when having to convince a motorcycle gang they could no longer hang out on property that had been sold to citizens in Great Falls.

“You must have confidence in yourself and know where the other party is coming from—that’s key. No project is less important or less urgent, it just might take a different approach to succeed,” he says. “Environmental policy is what I have worked on for virtually all my professional career. I want to see things done. I don’t just want to learn. I want to add to the world knowledge and answer interesting questions, but I also want to see the results turned into action to try to make the environment better or save some of it.”

But advising and policy making aren’t necessarily the driving forces that make Talbot tick. Having just turned 81, Talbot says his research is still essential to his vitality. His ecological research created early concepts of ecosystem science and expanded its boundaries. He is credited with establishing an ecosystem basis for conservation.

This photos from 1959 shows Talbot and his wife, Marty, at work on the Serengeti Plains in what is now Tanzania Photo courtesy of Lee Talbot.

And while research keeps him young, it is exploration that keeps his passion alive. In 1997, during a project he oversaw as leader of the World Bank’s International Panel of Environmental and Social Experts, Talbot discovered in Laos a valuable stretch of largely unexplored land roughly the size of Delaware. He lobbied the government and the World Bank to get it protected, and for the past 14 years he has traveled there to explore different portions of the land. His most recent trip there was in early 2011.

“It has turned out to be one of the most valuable areas in the world from the standpoint of biodiversity and cultural diversity,” he says.

As the biggest uncut and intact piece of forest in Laos, the land holds many treasures from an ecologist’s standpoint. Talbot, occasionally with his wife, Marty (a scientist and explorer in her own right), has been charting and photographing the area, taking samples of land and vegetation, and contacting the local people. Talbot also works with the state government to make sure its development projects are socially and environmentally sound.

The research Talbot initiated has resulted in the discovery of three new ethnic groups, five large mammals, and a new type of forest that Talbot lobbied to protect with patrols. For the Talbots, one of the most vital goals of the Laos project is to make sure that the people affected by development in the country end up with a better quality of life, which includes from managing fisheries, water quality, and agriculture, to bringing education, health care, and even banking to the area.

“It’s wonderful country,” Talbot says. “Many of the people we talked to said it was their first time meeting a Westerner. There’s so much to learn, and so often when you learn one thing you open the window on something totally different. That is fun. I like the adventure.”

When Talbot decided to enter academia, he knew Mason was the place to be. He says the university’s entrepreneurial spirit is what drew him here.

“I came to the university at a time when it was expanding rapidly. The predominant culture was much more entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary than at traditional schools. I was impressed with that and decided I could make a difference here,” he says.

When he is not traveling the globe, Talbot teaches, in rotation, eight classes he’s developed during his time at Mason. His favorite is the course on translating environmental science and policy into action. It is there that he brings out the toolkit and allows his students to explore the ways in which their own research could someday impact the world.

Though he gives his students case studies and discusses some of the 131 countries where he’s worked over the years, Talbot admits he doesn’t take his students on field trips.

“A lot of areas I go to, the governments do not allow other people in,” he says. “Besides, I’m not sure whether some of the grad students would be able to take it!”

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