Environmental visionary Raymond F. Dasmann dies at 83

Raymond F. Dasmann, a founder of international environmentalism and a professor emeritus of ecology at UC Santa Cruz, died Tuesday, November 5, in Santa Cruz. Dasmann had been in ill health for several years. The cause of death was pneumonia. He was 83.

Dasmann was the author of more than a dozen books, including The Destruction of California (1965), Environmental Conservation (fifth edition 1984), Wildlife Biology (second edition 1981), and California's Changing Environment (1981). A visionary environmentalist, Dasmann began working as a conservation biologist in the 1950s when the field was just emerging, identifying the major threats of population growth, pollution, habitat loss, and species eradication that would become the focus of international conservation efforts for decades to come.

Dasmann made an impassioned plea for sustainability on a planet with limited resources. In addition to his academic career, Dasmann did pioneering work in the 1960s with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), where he helped launch the Man and the Biosphere program. For most of the 1970s, he worked in Switzerland as a senior ecologist for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Dasmann's efforts earned him many major international awards, including the top conservation medals of the World Wildlife Society and the Smithsonian Institution. The prestigious Order of the Golden Ark, which recognizes the world's most distinguished conservationists, was bestowed on Dasmann by the Dutch government in 1978. He became an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1984 and received the Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Conservation Biology in 1988.

Born in San Francisco, Dasmann was fascinated by wildlife from an early age. His college education in biology was interrupted by World War II; he served in New Guinea and Australia, where he met his wife of 45 years, Elizabeth Sheldon. Soon after his return to the United States, Dasmann enrolled at UC Berkeley to study zoology under famed wildlife biologist Starker Leopold. He received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Berkeley, and in 1954 embarked on a distinguished career in teaching, research, and public service. Other than a brief appointment at the University of Minnesota, Dasmann's academic roots remained planted in California soil. He was a professor of wildlife management at Humboldt State University for eight years before joining the faculty at UC Santa Cruz in 1977. He retired from UCSC in 1989.

Dasmann's talent for outstanding scientific research was matched by his desire to change the world. A gifted writer, Dasmann was equally at home in the field, the classroom, and the policy arena. He translated his passion for nature into a vision of planet preservation years before the public began to grapple with concepts like conservation and overpopulation.

Dasmann's research took him to Africa, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, and California. He was an early advocate of conservation policies that respected the knowledge and circumstances of indigenous people, and his early call for a vision of bioregionalism that minimized human impact on the land helped lay the groundwork for the field of environmental ethics. Dasmann fought for the title of his influential text Environmental Conservation at a time when the phrase was unknown, and his pioneering work on game ranching in Africa fostered the field of ecodevelopment and helped make ecotourism a household word.

Earlier this year, Dasmann published his memoir, Called by the Wild: The Autobiography of a Conservationist (Berkeley, CA: University of California, Press, 2002). The book reflects Dasmann's desire to give credit to others, but in fact Dasmann is one of a handful of visionaries who gave life to the worldwide environmental movement.

Although informed by complex scientific observations, Dasmann's vision of conservation was based on one simple fact: Resources are finite. Yet successful conservation strategies aren't simple, and Dasmann always fought for policies that took into account the full complexities of biology. At the Conservation Foundation, he recalled recently, a senior official was always chastising Dasmann, saying "Dammit, Dasmann, you keep making things too complicated! We're just trying to get some land set aside, and you keep adding all these complications!"

The public-relations challenges environmentalists face today are similar to those Dasmann faced as a graduate student studying deer populations in northern California. Despite convincing data that predicted a population crash unless the number of deer was reduced, preferably by liberalizing hunting regulations, Dasmann and his colleagues were unable to build the necessary public support among deer hunters, who believed a doe hunt would lead to extinction. As a result, the deer population did indeed crash in the mid-1960s.

For Dasmann, like many scientific researchers committed to using research to inform public policy, the challenge of swaying public opinion persisted throughout his career. There was little satisfaction in being able to say, "I told you so."

"I'm not much for tying myself to trees or putting sand in gasoline tanks, but my feeling is that we need some fairly radical social and economic restructuring to address some of these issues," Dasmann said during a 1989 interview. "I'm a tentative optimist, but I can't see any rational basis for my optimism sometimes."

Dasmann's most recent efforts focused on creation of the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve (GGBR), one of 300 international sites designated by the United Nations for protection and access. The GGBR consists of more than two million acres that extend from the Bodega Marine Laboratory north of San Francisco to Jasper Ridge near Stanford University and 30 miles offshore to the edge of the Continental Shelf. The reserve is managed by nine separate entities, each of which helps protect the wide variety of native species and natural habitats that characterize the coastal region of central California while offering recreational and educational opportunities for many millions of visitors.

Dasmann is survived by his daughters Marlene Dasmann of Santa Cruz, Sandra Dasmann of Santa Cruz, and Lauren Chamberlain of Tucson, Arizona; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. His wife, Elizabeth Sheldon Dasmann, died in 1996.

A memorial service is pending. Contributions in Dasmann's memory may be sent to the attention of Lia Hull at the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve Association, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-5020.