Monday, November 05, 2012

Staff Spotlight: Bob Unnasch

In our 2012 annual report we visit with Idaho's Director of Science Bob Unnasch to chat about his 25-year-anniversary with the Conservancy and what keeps him excited about conservation. Read on for the full interview: 

Bob Unnasch spent much of his childhood outdoors. After feeding him and his brother breakfast, Unnasch’s mother would put the boys outside and say, “Don’t come back until it gets dark.” He quickly developed an all-consuming curiosity about the ways of the natural world. “I spent my childhood roaming around in the woods, becoming comfortable in the natural world, identifying all the birds and collecting snakes and salamanders,” he recalled.  

His interest never waned. Instead it inspired his study of Wildlife Biology and Ecology at Rutgers and then Stony Brook Universities. He wrote his dissertation on seed dispersal and seed predation in shrubland communities. During graduate school he began working part-time for The Nature Conservancy at its David Weld Sanctuary in Long Island, NY. More than a quarter century later, he still works for the Conservancy. 

Photo courtesy Art Talsma/The Nature Conservancy

In 2012, Unnasch celebrated his 25th year with the organization. After working at the sanctuary for four years he moved to Connecticut to serve as preserve director for the Ordway Preserves, where he lived next door to affluent and famous people including Keith Richards, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Soon after The Nature Conservancy’s national office recruited him to be the national director of monitoring and research. His responsibilities included leading the grazing management program, which brought him out West to Boise, Idaho. He has served as the director of science for TNC’s Idaho Chapter for four years. 

Tell me the story of how you got started at The Nature Conservancy. 
Twenty nine years ago I was in graduate school and our department was interested in identifying natural areas within the vicinity of the university to facilitate research. All the faculty doing ecological research in exotic locales and students who weren't interested in tropical ecology had no real place to do work. So a group was formed to try to identify places near the university. I was on that committee. As I explored areas around the university I stumbled upon a preserve that was owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, The David Weld Sanctuary, and I nominated that location as a potential site. The department was very excited about it because it was a private preserve and we didn't have to get permits to undertake research in it. We contacted the Nature Conservancy and they said, "That's great but the university has to provide a caretaker [for the property]." And so I volunteered to take that job as caretaker and that involved moving into a small, one-room cabin, sitting on a bluff overlooking Long Island Sound with a one-mile long beach that was piping plover habitat. It was surrounded by state parks on either side. Despite having no electricity, heat, or telephone we stayed there for four years.

What excites you in your day-to-day work? 
I have always been and remain committed to conservation, old school conservation - the conservation of species and habitat, biodiversity. I remain very excited to coming to my job, especially here in Idaho because what we do is we are still focused on conserving on plants, animals and natural communities. I think that's a valid life mission and that's something I always have and remain very excited about. 

What do you consider your greatest career accomplishment? 
Conservation Action Planning (CAP), which, for a number of years, has evolved. CAP was the first real transparent framework for doing conservation planning. My team and I designed the foundation and initial framework of this conservation action planning process. And CAP has now been implemented by hundreds of organizations in dozens of countries worldwide. 

Photo courtesy Art Talsma/The Nature Conservancy
What do you like to do outdoors besides collect data? 
In the growing season I'm an avid fly fisherman – have been my entire life. I'm also an avid birdwatcher. As a kid, I could lie on my back and see 15 to 20 species of warbler in a single tree. In the winter, I hike, tele-ski, and cross country ski. 

What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing science as a career? 
Anyone that I've ever known who's been successful in the natural sciences has spent enormous amounts of time outdoors understanding the diversity and complexity of the world. Sometimes students decide to study natural sciences because it ‘sounds interesting.’  Those students may feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the subject at the college level. So I always encourage students to find something that naturally interests him/her and figure out what subject encompasses those interests. Try to understand [the subject], try to understand all the interactions within that subject and then develop an emotional commitment to the study of it. That commitment is what will sustain you in your career. 

Can you tell me something that people would be surprised to know about you? 
Not only am your general natural historian but I also do medical research. I have a research appointment at the medical school in geographic medicine in the University of South Florida. 

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