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Remembering Don Kennedy

Don Kennedy speaking at Jasper Ridge in 2007

Don Kennedy has a multitude of legacies.  Perhaps none is more important than his role in protecting Jasper Ridge when it mattered most.  Several of the most significant turning points in the conservation and management history of Jasper Ridge took place under Don Kennedy’s leadership as chair of the biology department from 1965 to 1972 and as president of Stanford from 1980 to 1992. Don ardently and steadfastly advanced the research, education, and conservation potential of the area.

Don Kennedy at Jasper RidgeOne of JRBP’s most critical junctures occurred in the mid-1960s when Stanford restructured its biology department and dismantled the programs most associated with Jasper Ridge lands. During that time, Don became acting chair and then regular chair of the biology department. In a period of seven years, he nearly doubled the faculty in population biology; he strenuously pushed the university to give the biologists permanent, formal, and complete control over Jasper Ridge; he personally engaged in assuaging opposition to closing park operations; and he secured funding to give research programs a viable, protected presence on Jasper Ridge. By the end of his tenure as chair, a proposal for formal designation of a preserve was firmly planted on the Board of Trustees’ doorstep. Within months of Don stepping down as Biology chair (to direct the program in Human Biology), the Board of Trustees, in January of 1973, formally designated the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.   

Another critical juncture began in 1980 during Don’s first year as president of Stanford, when the Mediterranean fruit fly (Medfly) was detected in Santa Clara County. The discovery of this agricultural pest triggered almost immediate moves to eradicate the Medfly with pesticides applied wall-to-wall, including Jasper Ridge. Don once again went to bat for Jasper Ridge and succeeded in exempting the preserve from pesticides that could have proved a disaster for conservation and research.

At both of those junctures, things could have gone very differently without Don Kennedy.  The following adds some background on why his leadership was critical.

In 1956, four years before Don arrived at Stanford, the Board of Trustees approved a recommendation from an advisory committee to designate 765 acres (about two thirds of the present JRBP) as “academic reserve.” The Trustees’ action shelved a 1953 proposal that Jasper Ridge lands be assigned to residential development, but it did not ensure permanent protection of the land and biota. The advisory committee had noted that two disciplines were engaged in research on the proposed academic reserve land— “radio propagation and field biology” —and considered those disciplines equally dependent on extensive, undeveloped land, with neither discipline having “first rights.”  This meant that when Paul Ehrlich joined the Biology faculty in 1959 and began studying the Bay checkerspot butterfly on Jasper Ridge, there was no guarantee of long-term protection of the serpentine grassland or any part of Jasper Ridge.

The next several years created greater uncertainty, as Stanford began restructuring the biology faculty and curriculum by levels of biological organization, from molecular to population.  Stanford’s evolutionary biologists and systematists were advocates and architects of the new view of biology, but the restructuring coincided with a decision to dismantle Stanford’s Division of Systematic Biology and its Natural History Museum, two moves with uncertain consequences for field biology.  During the tension associated with restructuring, Don became acting chair (then called “executive head”) of biology and later regular chair. With Don as chair, Stanford’s emerging discipline of population biology expanded from its origins in systematics, and its presence at Jasper Ridge took off. The rebound occurred in part as a result of new faculty appointments—Hal Mooney, Ward Watt, Marc Feldman­, and Joan Roughgarden—forming a population biology faculty of world-class reputation.

Along with building the population biology group, Don heeded their calls to secure Jasper Ridge. Beginning in 1968, he argued strenuously that, “To make Jasper Ridge a really effective, working component of this Department two new features are absolutely essential. First, the area must be entirely under our control…Second, we need permanent buildings.” As department chair over the next four years, Don led efforts to obtain partial endowment of Jasper Ridge, and to respond to criticism from all directions, including displaced equestrian groups, some neighbors, the general public, and Stanford administrators concerned about the loss of potential income from leaseholds or development. The stage was set, and the Board of Trustees designated Jasper Ridge a biological preserve in 1973, an act of immense foresight and consequence.

Don went to bat for Jasper Ridge again in 1980 when the Mediterranean fruit fly (Medfly) was detected in Santa Clara County. The US Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Food and Agriculture responded immediately to the Medfly outbreak with eradication plans, creating a crisis for Jasper Ridge almost overnight. The agencies’ response began with ground-level measures, including pesticide application, but escalated in 1981 to aerial spraying with the pesticide malathion. In retrospective analyses of the Medfly outbreak and response, entomologists from U.C. Davis wrote that “The threat to Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve was one of the greatest potential Medfly disasters” because of the risk to long-term research on the very topic of controls on insect population dynamics. That disaster was averted when, as president of Stanford, Don Kennedy backed the biologists and JRBP administrative director Alan Grundmann, and succeeded in exempting Jasper Ridge from pesticide application.  Outside JRBP, weekly spraying continued for 20 weeks or even longer in some areas.  Studies by the U.C. Davis entomologists determined that the spray significantly altered host-parasite interactions, based on comparisons between Jasper Ridge and sprayed areas in the adjoining town of Woodside.  Some aerial spray drifted into Jasper Ridge, but it was a small amount and occurred during the least vulnerable life stage of the butterflies Paul Ehrlich’s group was studying.  The research, the butterflies, and a host of other insects were saved.  

At those two critical junctures and many others, Don Kennedy made all the difference in the world.  Jasper Ridge will be in his debt always.