Interview with Orie Loucks, August 7, 2013

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Orie Loucks was a member of the Ecological Society of America’s Applied Ecology and Certification Committees. He won the George Mercer Award in 1964 and was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and Miami University in Ohio. In this interview, Loucks discusses his work with the International Biological Program and the Holcomb Research Institute.

Interview Notes

Loucks grew up on a southern Ontario farm on the Canadian Shield, which was not good farmland. He went to a country school with two grades per room. He had no role models in science. His dad loved the forest, including old growth and they would not even cut firewood in the old-growth. His focus was very applied from an early age.

Education and early employment

He went to the University of Toronto to study forestry. Angus Hills, soil surveyer for Ontario Department of Forest, provided his introduction to ecology, but developing a career on ecology in 1952-53 required financial support.

Importance of wildlands/wilderness

Dr. Carl Atwood, an entomologist, was the main proponent for wilderness in Canada, and he worked with Sigurd Olsen and the Wilderness Society. Atwood used the annual sportsman show to raise money for conservation, which provided funds for a graduate student, which Orie received to study forests in wilderness areas including Basswood Lake and Quetico Provincial Park. He was a finishing undergrad student at the time. There were lots of pressures to harvest the large pines along the shores. Orie developed an M.S. degree out of the project, and his undergrad assistant was Rickard Waring, who became a well known ecologist at Oregon State. Orie developed a paper based on this work and describes some of the results.

After finishing his M.S. degree, he worked for the Canadian Forestry Service in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. There they encouraged him to pursue graduate work, recommending Wisconsin, and he went there in 1957. He had an interest in vegetation patterns caused by topographic control, moisture, and nutrients. He spent a year at Wisconsin, then a year in New Brunswick, and back to Wisconsin to write a dissertation – for which he received ESA’s George Mercer Award.

In those days he was taking a narrow view of ecology, more so than later in his career. Botany was his focus, no courses in animal ecology, but he did study soils and meteorology, which was out of step with plant ecology at the time. He was interdisciplinary in that sense. He went to Wisconsin because of Curtis and Cottam, as they were more quantitative, which enabled the answering of new questions. He knew about that before he began his studies there.

He returned to New Brunswick, but the University of Wisconsin approached him to join the faculty in 1962, which he did, to fill the faculty position of his mentor John Curtis who had just died. Orie went there knowing that the department was very divided at the time, between physiologists and ecologist. Before he died, Curtis had encouraged the department to recruit him.

Years on faculty at Wisconsin

He worked as faculty at Wisconsin from 1962-78. During this time, Rachel Carson’s book came out, which resonated with him. Orie attended local citizen group meetings, to try to stop insecticide applications for mosquitoes. There was insufficient examination of the risks at the time. This led to his involvement in the banning of DDT. (See Banning DDT: How citizen activists in Wisconsin led the way by Bill Berry.) Partly as a result, Orie’s work became more systems oriented. This became his focus on ecology; “how ecology should serve the taxpayers.”

John Hart et al. took the lead in a new book on environmental science, Patient Earth, that was widely adopted, and Orie wrote a chapter on the DDT battle in Wisconsin. So he changed from a forest ecologist to a systems ecologist with an applied focus.

He also became interested in plant and animal adaptations. David Parkhurst, a mathematician, came to Madison to work with Orie, which led to a paper on optimum leaf size. Why do some plants have small leaves, or compound leaves, and others much larger leaves? They used mathematics to demonstrate the relationships with wind and other factors. One of their major papers on the subject was published in 1970.

Joan Hett also helped him develop his interest in long term tree demography. Initially she worked on balsam fir in the Quetico, and then hemlock. Orie describes what they found in the interview.

International Biological Program at Wisconsin

Loucks thinks IBP represented a major revolution in ecology (see Big Ecology by Dave Coleman). He compared Europe and U.S. programs, and mentioned the role of Frank Blair and Art Hasler. Watersheds were commonly studied. He was involved with urging Congress to increase NSF funding by $50 million, for ecological research based on models. In those days, he soon learned to never use the word “model” when talking to biologists. Orie describes the Lake Wingra site, for which Orie initially led the upland studies. He soon became the leader for both upland and aquatic studies. Sixteen departments were involved; it was a new paradigm for ecological research – mostly aquatic, led by John Magnuson. He wrote a book chapter on the history of IBP, in which he describes what has been learned from all the IBP biome studies. The new paradigm was a primary result of IBP, which he discusses in the interview – a major turning point for ecology, and it was frustrating for lots of people who didn’t want to use mathematical models.

Orie commented on Hubbard Brook, the leaders of which were disappointed with IBP at the time. George Van Dyne would antagonize some ecologists. There was a cultural divide among ecologists. Eventually, some European institutes adopted the U.S. model. Criticism of IBP is less now. Plant and animal ecology is now well integrated.

Leaving Wisconsin, the founding of TIE, and move to Holcomb Research Institute

EPA got him involved in acid rain studies, and his interests had evolved to large regional effects. This was during the Carter administration. Emissions were an issue, and legislation was being formulated on acid rain. Many leaders in ecology, like Gene Likens studied large scale environmental effects. Parallel to this was growing interest in the development of an institute of ecology, one that would not compete with member universities, and this led to The Institute of Ecology (TIE), which headquartered at the Holcomb Research Institute in Indianapolis. There was a lot of debate about TIE, but Orie liked the idea. Holcomb provided a home for TIE and Orie was convinced to move there to direct the program. He did some projects with the Department of Energy, but after three years, the enthusiasm on the part of the TIE board waned because it was impossible to create a niche that did not compete with universities. So TIE was disbanded and Orie became a part of the Holcomb Institute at Butler University in Indianapolis as director. He had some good post-docs, and continued his work on Ohio forests and on patch dynamics in prairies, working with students at Wisconsin, such as Mary Plumb-Mentjes, with whom he continued to work while he was in Indianapolis. He conferred with Simon Levin, who at the time was working with Bob Paine on the intertidal zone.

Orie thinks that his most important paper was written with Jianguo Wu, now at Arizona State University, Global Institute of Sustainability, and had to do with the meaning of the balance of nature. He discusses this in the interview. “Hierarchical patch dynamics” was discussed in the paper, building on the writing of Dan Botkin and Simon Levin. For example, he discusses the importance of gopher mounds in some areas. The paper was published in the Quarterly Review of Biology, in 1995.

Orie was involved with the Scientific Natural Areas Program at Wisconsin and he worked with TNC protecting nature preserves, a cause that he believed in. He served on Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and National TNC boards. Orie said he put a lot of time into this, research administration, and actual research.

Move to Univesity of Miami-Ohio

Butler hired a new president which led to changes that reduced the stature of the Holcomb Research Institute. At the same time, the state of Ohio developed an Eminent Scholar Program. Gary Barrett, at UM-Ohio at the time, developed a proposal for the position that Orie got, and he moved there in 1989. He welcomed the opportunity to work with the College of Business there, for reasons that he discusses in the interview, such as involving corporations as part of the solution. Risk reduction was a focus, and getting competing businesses to self direct their solutions was a goal. The Bhopal disaster was a warning about what can happen. Orie taught a course in “sustainability,” which business majors readily took, with some scientists as well, but fewer than he wanted. He and others wrote a textbook on the subject with case studies, which are now in need of updating. It was always difficult to attract faculty from science and business to do the teaching.

Development of ESA

ESA meetings were always inspiring, he said. The first meeting that he attended was at the University of Colorado in 1964 when he received the George Mercer Award. Much later he became involved in committees, especially the Applied Ecology Committee and the Certification Committee. He thinks ESA leadership doesn’t provide adequate leadership for committee and section chairs, so it’s hard to get as much done between annual meetings as one might like. He was also on the ESA “policy” committee. He misses the annual business meeting of the membership as a whole, which was a common feature of the annual meeting early on. Orie doesn’t understand the current organization of ESA and thinks it’s less effective. He hopes the Council is doing what it should be doing. He discusses differences between ESA and the American Society of Civil Engineers, in which Orie’s son is involved.

Any other topics?

Documenting history is important. Professional obstacles did occur during his career. “Difficult people made life difficult for me.” “Life is political. You can’t let such things get you down.” Electric Power Trade Association attacked Orie, thinking that he had gone too far with regard to the proportion of lakes in the northeast affected by acid rain. He survived it, but he said, “Not everybody does.”





Oral History Item Type Metadata


108 minutes


Orie Loucks and Dennis Knight, “Interview with Orie Loucks, August 7, 2013,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed June 8, 2023,