August 02, 2010

Estella Leopold Receives Prestigious International Award

Last week, generous Burke Museum supporter and University of Washington professor Estella Leopold was awarded the prestigious International Cosmos Prize, which recognizes "Those who have, through their work, applied and realized the ideals which the Foundation strives to preserve how ... we as human beings can truly respect and live in harmony with nature" (Read a Seattle Times article about the award here).

Estella, 83, has been teaching and conducting research for more than 60 years, 35 of them at the UW. Among many other accomplishments, she pioneered the use of fossilized pollen and spores in North America to understand how plants and ecosystems respond over eons to such things as climate change. In 2005, she helped create an endowment at the UW in support of plant fossil research, the Estella B. Leopold professorship and curator of paleobotany at the Burke Museum, currently held by Dr. Caroline Strömberg, who studies Cenozoic evolution of grasses.

Estella is also famous for pushing the federal government to form the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument to preserve part of a spectacular paleobotanical site in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. This area had been on private land and had been a commercial collecting site since homesteaders opened small quarries in the 1870s – visitors could collect a few meters from the train that brought them up there from Colorado Springs. For over 100 years, fossil leaves, flowers, fruits and a huge variety of insects were collected and sent to university museums, as well the Smithsonian, America Museum, and the Denver Museum of Natural History (The Burke actually holds Estella’s own fossil collection).

In 1968 a real-estate developer planned a subdivision of small holiday homes on top of the fossil beds. Estella, with Vim Wright and Beatrice Willard, formed the Defenders of Florissant and fought in court for legislation to protect these fossil beds. It was a tough fight, but in August 1969 a bill was passed to establish 6,000 acres as the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. The first thing you see when you walk into the one-room visitors’ center at the National Monument is a picture of Estella.

Congratulations, Estella!

Posted by: Dr. Liz Nesbitt, Paleontology