Ecological Society of America

Lessons of Lewis & Clark: Ecological Exploration of Inhabited Landscapes

The Lewis & Clark Expedition left St. Louis, Missouri in May 1804 and returned in September 1806.  They traveled more than 3,000 miles through uncharted territory.  Along the way, they observed, collected and described dozens of plant and animal species that were new to science.  A chief goal of the Expedition was to find a water-navigable route across the western continent to the Pacific Ocean.  A goal of equal importance, especially to President Thomas Jefferson, was to learn about the biological and geological resources of the vast northwestern landscape.  Lewis & Clark were also charged to make peaceful contact with the native people living along the route and to learn about their societies.  In short, Jefferson commanded Lewis & Clark to study the “soil and face of the country”. 

Thomas Jefferson was the first (and perhaps last) naturalist-scientist President.  He personally trained Meriwether Lewis in methods of scientific observation and measurement.  Jefferson’s vision and his detailed planning for the Expedition as a government-sponsored scientific survey set the stage for numerous later surveys and inventories of western landscapes.  These government surveys, and the information they gathered, form the earliest foundation of our scientific knowledge about the ecology and cultures of the western United States.  Moreover, the surveys were training grounds for pioneering scientists, and the starting point for government agencies charged with studying and managing public lands.  Examples are John Wesley Powell, who explored the canyons of the Colorado River in the 1870s and helped found the U.S. Geological Survey, and Aldo Leopold, who as a young forester helped survey the original National Forest boundaries in the Southwest in the 1910s.

Lewis & Clark’s voluminous journals and scientific specimens continue to enrich our understanding of early 19th century ecosystems and cultures of the northwest.  In recent years, ecologists, ethnographers, and historians have again tapped into this treasure trove and extracted new insights about ecosystems and people. The meaning and implications of the Lewis & Clark’s achievements extend beyond the specimens, facts, and artifacts that they brought to science.  For example, our understanding of the meaning of “wilderness” changed when Lewis & Clark reported their findings and contacts with the native inhabitants.  Not only did Lewis & Clark learn that the northwest contained numerous tribes, but ultimately the survival of the Expedition depended upon the help of the native people.  Our understanding continues to change today as we learn more about the past and current role of humans in modifying ecosystems. 

Altogether, the richness of the Lewis & Clark legacy in the ecological sciences of the northwest – and the lessons of the Expedition for future government sponsored science – sets the stage for an exciting and topical 2004 ESA Meeting.  Here, in Portland Oregon, attendees of the fieldtrips, symposia, oral paper and poster sessions will be surrounded by the landscapes and ecosystems that Lewis & Clark explored.  There are many ecology-related land management and policy issues challenging government agencies and scientists today in northwestern landscapes, and these topics will offer numerous opportunities for theme-related sessions.  For example, the waters that Lewis & Clark navigated are now troubled with disputes over agricultural-farmland uses versus habitat for native fisheries.  Management of the forests of the Pacific Northwest continues to generate controversy and scientific challenges over appropriate forestry practices and restoration in the context of threatened and endangered species habitats. Urbanization of wild lands is increasing very rapidly in many western states, with attendant problems of habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and increasing wildfire risks to people, human property, and ecosystems. Despite these problems, the region contains some of the largest examples of intact ecosystems in the country, and scientists, managers and communities are taking innovative steps to conserve them.

89th Annual Meeting


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