Interview with William Reiners, October 20, 2015

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


William Reiners was the Treasurer of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) from 1981-1984. He has also been a professor at the University of Minnesota, Dartmouth College, and the University of Wyoming. In this interview, he talks about his career and his research. Reiners also discusses the development of ecology and the ESA.

Interview notes

Bill grew up on the southwest side of Chicago in Oak Lawn, Illinois, with lots of open space and prairie grasses at the time. He was interested in frontier living.  Bill visited his family farm and worked on a farm one summer.  He related to rural life.  His dad was an ardent hunter (pheasants, rabbits), though Bill didn’t enjoy hunting much.  His mother came from Chicago, from a musical family.  He also was involved with athletics, including wrestling.  He developed a romantic attitude toward nature, stayed healthy, and was very musical. 

Bill entered Knox College in 1955 where he majored in biology and got to know Paul Shepard who was good at natural history.  Went with his friend, Tom Murphy, and Shepard to Green Oaks natural area frequently, where he was paid on Saturdays to maintain trails, etc.  Shepard was a student of Hutchinson and was influenced by Paul Sears.  Shepard was interested in “how we see nature” as artists, scientist, natural history; he had a minor in art history.   

Bill was on the wrestling team all four years at Knox with no scholarships.  He also took vocal lessons at Knox and was involved with ROTC. 

His senior thesis was on the study of plant ecology in relation to slope exposure.  Bill became more interested in plants; Paul Shepard was more interested in animals. 

Before Knox, Bill did not know about ecology.  He thought he probably would go into medicine or biochemistry.   

Shepard taught his ecology course using Eugene Odum’s book (1st edition), and some reading from G. E. Hutchinson.  Bill developed interests in ecosystems, conservation, and music and art.  He did an independent study on range management, which might have been a motivation for coming to Wyoming.  For a while he was interested in working with Lincoln Ellison at Utah State, but Ellison never replied.   

Bill’s advisors recommended that he consider Duke or Rutgers and he interviewed with Murray Buell.  He started in the summer of 1960, because he had a year of ROTC military obligation first.  But Murray Buell and Helen adopted Bill and other grad students, treating him very well and making him feel welcome.   He thinks his Army experience was very good for him.   

For his M.S. thesis, Bill focused on hydrological effects of shrubs in the Pine Barrens.  He developed a lysimeter which estimated evapotranspiration, a subject that Buell did not know much about.  In the process, Bill learned about micrometeorology and energy budgets. 

Buell was a good friend of George Woodwell, and Bill ended up doing his dissertation research with George and Murray at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which also was in the Pine Barrens.  That work also was not very fruitful and didn’t get published, though other things that he did at that time were published. 

He felt that he had a valuable “hybrid education”, combining plant ecology and ecosystem analysis.  

Bill married Norma in 1962.  Murray thought Bill needed help with his writing, so Helen Buell taught Bill how to write science.  Helen was a very smart, kind, critical woman, and he owes her for it.  He notes that it is another example of “how I owe everything I am to other people.”  

One person in the theater department encouraged Bill to consider becoming a professor. 

Milestones in his career 

Don Lawrence at Minnesota was going on sabbatical and asked Murray if he knew if anyone was available to fill in for him.  Murray asked Bill, but Bill had six months of work left on his dissertation.  But on a drive, he was touched by an experience and decided to take the job in Minnesota. Bill and Norma had to finish their graduate work at Minnesota. He recalls moving to Minnesota in the winter time and the cold drive there in 1963. 

Bill joined the Botany Department at Minnesota, and he soon got to know Don Lawrence.  William Cooper was not around at that time, but he also met Eville Gorham, who was influential in developing Bill’s interests in biogeochemistry.  This was an enriching experience and he has the “greatest gratitude” to them.  Though botany was not “in good shape” at the time. 

The temporary position became a tenure track assistant professor position, and one day an NSF staff member came to Minnesota, urging scientists to write research proposals.  Bill submitted one and it was funded.  That work was done at the Cedar Creek Natural History Area.  He doesn’t think that subsequent research has not taken full advantage of Cedar Creek. He learned a lot while teaching. 

One day Bill got a letter from Dartmouth asking him to apply for a position vacated by Herb Bormann who moved to Yale.  He and Norma enjoyed various excursions to northern New England and by then, he also knew about Hubbard Brook, led by Bormann and Likens.  Dartmouth was building a Ph.D. program and so Bill went for an interview.  He had a wonderful time in the interview and he ended up taking that position.  Now he thinks he might have been better off staying at Minnesota, but it worked out ok.  Their boys were born there, Peter and Derek. He greatly appreciated the undergraduates at Dartmouth, one of the first that he got know was William Schlesinger, and his first Ph.D. student was Peter Vitousek. Bill had tremendous rapport with Gene Likens, but Gene soon left for Cornell.  Gene and Bill developed a biogeochemistry course, from an ecological perspective, and Bill thinks it might have been the first, or one of the first.  They blended their terrestrial and limnological perspectives and it was a great learning experience.  He also developed a terrestrial ecosystem ecology course with rigorous field trips.  He used Odum’s book again, because it wasn’t used in the introductory ecology course at Dartmouth, as he recalls.   

His ecological stoichiometry interests emerged from his teaching.  He describes a little about his paper on complimentary models. 

In 1979-80 he had a sabbatical at the University of New Mexico with Jim Gosz, and then in England for half of the time to learn from John Montieth about micrometeorology.  Gary Lovett led the way with subsequent research on that topic (cloud droplets, eddy flux, geochemistry, etc), and that work was very successful.   

At Dartmouth he started his long-term study of vegetation recovery at Hubbard Brook.  He also worked on high elevation fir waves, lichen communities, water capture, stem flow, throughfall, etc.  And Jerry Lang helped greatly with that as a post-doctoral associate.  Jerry had a lot of energy and “boundless courage.”  Bill says that he owes a lot to Jerry.   

Peter Vitousek was a marvelous student at Dartmouth and his first job was at the University of Indiana.  Peter organized a meeting on nitrate output at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado.  Bill was involved, along with a bunch of others, and that work led to some “outstanding experiments” in Oregon, New Mexico, Cape Cod, Indiana, and New Hampshire, to help explain why N was not always lost following a disturbance – one of the finest examples of experimental science that Bill has been involved with, and Peter deserves the credit for that.   

The Dartmouth Biology Department was very fractious.  Bill agreed to become chair, but it was a terrible experience and he came to think that Dartmouth was not providing the best environment for his graduate students.  At that point he had been there for 17 years (he spent three years at Minnesota).   

Bill went to Wyoming to give a seminar while he was on sabbatical in New Mexico.  He was surprised by how much he liked it in Wyoming.  He liked the land grant university diversity, academically, and thought that he could be happier there.  So he applied when he heard about an opening for a new head at the University of Wyoming.   

So in summer 1983 he moved his family to Laramie and arrived at the Knight’s house.   

[End of first session] 

Second Session 

Bill describes his first days in Wyoming and his family’s stay at Knight’s house for the first night.  Laramie was much different than Hanover, NH.  There was more plant ecology at Wyoming than he had had at Dartmouth, and being head of the department was easy, much easier than Dartmouth.  Botany had the backing of Joan Wadlow, the Dean of Arts and Sciences.  He was happy at Wyoming. 

He carried over his research from New Hampshire and mentions Rich Olsen. 

His administrative experiences at Wyoming included botany from 1982-89, dealing with funding shortages, serving as Chair of a presidential search committee that hired Terry Roark, was asked to be first director of Wyoming’s Natural Heritage Program (WYNDD), in 2003 he chaired search for a new provost that hired Tom Buchanan, who later became UW’s president, and from 2002-2005 he led the initiative to reform the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center. 

Bill also chaired review committees at national and international level for LaSelva and other places.  All of these experiences added breadth and depth to his career.  One year he was in Berlin, Germany on sabbatical.  And in 1992, he was on sabbatical at UC-Santa Barbara learning skills in GIS, where he started a long association with Frank Davis.  And then a sabbatical at NCEAS in Santa Barbara where he wrote most of a book on transport processes with Ken Driese.   

Research during this time included:  1) sagebrush steppe, which blossomed with the help of Pam Matson who got funding from NASA; 2) for a short time, effects of acid precipitation in the mountains, including potential for acid neutralization in the snow; 3) resurveys of Hubbard Brook vegetation recovery; 4) tropical work, which stemmed in part from teaching a course in Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. This led to helping him develop ecosystem-level research at La Selva with the help of Pam Matson and Mike Keller, a research associate/PI. His research included a new program on methane flux (trace gases) in relation to forest disturbance and changing land use. He thinks the paper is the best research and “finest science” he has ever published, but least known.  Another “throw away paper” or two were widely cited.  His most widely cited papers were his BioScience paper with Vitousek and later his paper on complimentary models. Shuang Liu, a student of Henry Gholz, made it possible to do the spatial modeling for the trace gas research; another wonderful person who entered his life.” 

Continuing with research at Wyoming included: 5) GAP analysis work with Evelyn Merrill, which led to land cover map for Wyoming done with Ken Driese; He says that GAP was “one of the best run programs that I’ve ever experienced.”  He describes how GAP suffered with changes in administration.  6) working with BLM to create a map of the “ecosystems of Wyoming” which he did using a physiographic approach with the help of Rob Thurston, using remote sensing and GIS. That involved a lot of low elevation flying to take photos resulting in excellent reports, though no papers were published. 

Bill recalls travel experiences that were very influential, including shrub ecology workshops organized by the Range Management Department at UW. 

7)  With a Melon Foundation Grant he was able to develop a project on transport processes in ecosystems, which led to his book co-authored with Ken Driese.  8) Recently, he has been working with Jeff Lockwood on the philosophy of ecology and the values of ecologists based on survey of ESA members, and he is helping with the second edition of Mountains and Plains: The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes. 

With regard to teaching, Bill enjoyed teaching at Wyoming, but acknowledges that he didn’t do a good job of teaching general ecology in lecture format, but he did very well teaching the field ecology course, and he loved it.  He provides a heart warming anecdote from one of the last courses he taught in 2014.   

Philosophy of mentoring graduate students  

Generally, his mentorship was modeled after his advisor Murray Buell at Rutgers.  His students had to know certain basics, including statistics and other quantitative skills, but these subjects took away from the time available for taking biology and botany fundamental courses.  Ideally students did their M.S. before the Ph.D., and he always gave students extensive training in writing.  Practically, his students had to work on some aspect of Bill’s research, to a large degree, because of funding.  He’s sorry about that, as he would have liked his students to be able to exercise their creativity more fully.  He describes Ken Driese’s dissertation and how he did it, which Bill thought was not ideal.  He mentions the role of Steve Praeger in contributing to his research. 

Landscape Ecology  

Landscape ecology stems back to Henry Chandler Cowles and how change occurs over space and time.  He mentions Jean Langenheim’s biographical paper about William Cooper at Minnesota.   Murray Buell taught a course in geoecology with field trips, as well as a course in geomorphology and mapping.  At Wyoming, Bill did the transport processes research and his topology paper with Steve Praeger, which he considers to be landscape ecology.  The formal definition of landscape ecology originated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where modeling was used and the subject became more theoretical, which most ecologists had little use for in his opinion.  Monica Turner has led the discipline back to being more practical, as illustrated in her book.  “We’ve all been doing it [landscape ecology] for a long time.”   

[End of second session] 

Third Session 

Did your book with Jeffrey Lockwood on the philosophical foundations of ecology change your philosophy?   

Yes, and it stemmed from a graduate seminar course that they taught which was one of the best that he’s been involved with.  Jeff had the foundation in philosophy and Bill says that couldn’t have done it without him.  There are many ways of viewing nature and ecologists are a heterogeneous group; their views on how nature works depend on their perspective.  Pragmatism seems applicable to ecology.  “We may never understand how nature works,” but we can state how it works based on what evidence we have, and we should ask others in order to to improve our understanding.  Doing it was a “great personal pleasure.”   

The book led to the ESA survey work to find out what ecologists think about ecology.  Derek and Jeff got excited about the survey and got a great response from ESA members.  It was motivated in part by the upcoming ESA Centennial in 2015.  It also led to finding out more about what ESA members are thinking today about ecological concepts.  Both surveys have been very revealing and very interesting.   

Is ecology a cohesive science?How has ecology changed over the years?  

Ecology is scarcely cohesive, Bill thinks, and it probably wasn’t in 1915 either.  There is great variability in how we go about understanding how nature works.  Different people know different things.  But ecology has become bigger, more analytical, and is now huge.   

What else has changed for better or worse?   

The training of ecologists has changed so that we often cannot talk with each other.  In the last 20 years or so, the sociological aspects of ecology have become more important.  Feminism is a powerful force in the discipline, as throughout academia.  SEEDS program is an example, which is now a “glamour aspect” of what ESA does right now.  That has blossomed while at the same time public affairs has become important.  “We felt like we should, but that we couldn’t . . .”  We provide advice, but we don’t lobby. 

Development of ESA  

ESA membership seems to have leveled off, partly because you don’t have to be a member to get the journals.  Libraries have them, and they are available digitally.  Also, some ESA members have chosen to affiliate with other organizations, such as the American Geophysical Union, which also includes a lot of ecology.  He speculates that new graduates are funneling themselves professionally into other aspects of the profession.  They “diffuse” into other subdisciplines.  

He says that maintaining ESA has become somewhat of a struggle and wonders if the discourse at ESA meetings is declining. He claims that the experience at the annual meetings has been diluted.  Ecologists have to commit, in terms of time and money, to sustain the organization.  Fortunately, we have some excellent people to take the lead. 

Anything more? 

He added that he’s enjoyed his career in ecology immensely.  He has very warm feelings about ESA and that he owes a lot to many people. He also mentions how the University of Wyoming has been very good for him professionally.





Oral History Item Type Metadata



152 minutes


William Reiners and Dennis Knight, “Interview with William Reiners, October 20, 2015,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed June 12, 2024,