Dr. Talbot, I Presume? Environmentalist Explores Nature and Changes Policy

Posted: October 6, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Lee Talbot in Laos
Professor Lee Talbot and his wife, Marty, (center) in 2007 standing in a clearing in one of the previously unexplored areas of the Laos watershed. They are holding flags of the Society of Women Geographers and the Explorers Club, representing the groundbreaking nature of their expedition. The group included one other researcher as well as Laos police, army and conservation patrolmen.

By Tara Laskowski

Lee Talbot is an explorer, an adventurer, a discoverer. When he’s not racing cars professionally or hiking in the Sierras, he’s backpacking miles and miles through undiscovered country in the jungles of Laos, finding previously unknown ethnic groups and animal and plant species.

“Why this young man must have boundless energy, exuberance and spirit,” you might say. Well, you would be right except for one thing — Talbot is 78 years old. Though he may be young at heart, he has more than 50 years of professional research and experience under his belt.

Talbot, professor of environmental science and policy at Mason, has been an instrumental force in changing environmental policy worldwide for the last several decades. He has had many credentials, honors and appointments in his career, and his accomplishments have made a difference in nature and government.

As an advisor for Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, he helped write influential environmental legislation such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, which the Washington Post recently called America’s premiere environmental legislation.

“Environmental policy is what I have worked on for virtually all my professional career. I want to see things done. I don’t just want to learn. I want to add to the world knowledge and answer interesting questions, but I also want to see the results turned into action to try to make the environment better or save some of it,” he says.

Exploring the Land

Beyond policy, Talbot likes to literally get down in the dirt and explore and discover biodiverse areas. During a project he oversaw as leader of the World Bank’s International Panel of Environmental and Social Experts, Talbot discovered a valuable stretch of land in Laos. He lobbied the government to get it protected, and for the last 10 years has traveled there to explore a different portion of the land, which is roughly the size of Delaware.

“It turned out to be one of the most valuable areas in the world from the standpoint of biodiversity and cultural diversity,” he says.

As the biggest uncut, intact piece of forest in Laos, the land held many treasures from an ecologist’s standpoint. Talbot has been photographing the area, taking samples of land and vegetation and contacting the local people.

“Almost nothing was known there. Many of the people we met said it was their first time meeting a westerner.”

thatched roof house in Laos
A thatched-roof house in one of the tribal communities in the Laos watershed.

Last summer, he and his wife Marty — who met in 1959 and six weeks later were on a two-and-a-half-year research safari in Africa — explored the last section of the Laos watershed.

Some of the ethnic groups they met were so remote they wore clothes made out of bark and used wooden spears for weapons. Some of the areas were so isolated it took climbing a 2,000 ft. cliff to get there. And some of the forests were so exceptional that Talbot is puzzled and intrigued.

“It’s wonderful country,” he says. “There’s so much to learn, and so often when you learn one thing you open the window on something totally different. That is fun. I like the adventure.”

Bringing Ecology to the Classroom

When Talbot decided to enter academia, he knew Mason was the place to go. He says the university’s entrepreneurial spirit is what drew him to want to teach here.

“I came to the university at a time when it was expanding rapidly. The predominant culture was much more entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary than traditional schools. I was impressed with that and decided I could make a difference here,” he says.

Talbot teaches in rotation eight classes he’s developed at Mason. This fall, he is teaching a graduate class in the overview of biodiversity conservation. In the class he covers a large portion of history and looks at some of the 131 countries where he’s worked over the years, but Talbot admits he doesn’t take his students on field trips.

“A lot of areas I go to, the governments do not allow people in,” he said. “Besides, I’m not sure whether a lot of grad students would be able to take it!”

Talbots with wildebeest in Africa
Lee Talbot and his wife, Marty, tagging a wildebeest in 1959 on a research safari in Africa.
Photos courtesy of Lee Talbot

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