Ecology steward gives a little more

March 27, 2011 

As a young boy, Rollie Geppert went to grade school in a one-room schoolhouse built on his parents’ rural Minnesota farm.

He followed his father’s simply stated advice: “Make your living with your head, not your back.”

So off to college he went, earning an undergraduate degree in forest management at the University of Minnesota and a graduate degree at Oregon State University studying under the guru of old-growth forest ecology, Jerry Franklin.

In the early 1970s, he landed at the fledgling Washington State Department of Ecology, serving as the only forester employed by the agency. He was one of the authors of the state Forest Practices Act, landmark legislation passed in 1974 that provided comprehensive regulation of the timber industry.

He later worked for the then-state Department of Game, pulling together in 1989 a slew of data used to map all the priority habitats and species in the state. It’s an evolving body of work that helps local governments develop their critical-areas ordinances required under the state Growth Management Act.

He capped off his career in the natural resources field in the governor’s Salmon Recovery Office working on projects to restore habitat and imperiled salmon runs.

When he retired in 2007, Geppert, 67, asked himself a couple of questions: “Who’s going to replace me, and where are these people going to come from?”

Then he started on a journey to find the answer.

THE NEXT GENERATION

“Rollie was an under-the-radar state employee and a great natural resource professional who accomplished much and is looking out for the next generation of natural resources leaders,” observed John Mankowski, a natural resources policy adviser to Gov. Chris Gregoire and someone Geppert hired to work with him back at the old Game Department 25 years ago.

The vehicle Geppert chose is the Ecosystems Scholarship Fund, which he established in 2010 through the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound in Olympia.

Geppert spends about 20 hours a week trying to raise money from friends, colleagues, timber companies, sporting groups, conservation foundations and others who share his belief that this natural resource-ravaged world needs bright, creative thinkers in the fields of natural resources and land-use planning.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” he said of his efforts. “I’ve never tried anything like this before.”

He also is using proceeds from the sale of his photo collection – he’s shot and catalogued some 300,000 images – to fuel the scholarship fund. I can testify to his skill with a camera, but better yet, so can longtime Olympia commercial photographer Steve Vento.

“We went on a trip to Yellowstone National Park together,” Vento recalled. “What a tremendous fellow and accomplished photographer. He’s at the top of his game.”

FIRST DONATIONS

One of the first contributors to the Ecosystem Scholarship Fund was Bill Ruckelshaus, the former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency director who became acquainted with Geppert while working on the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board.

“Rollie’s made an enormous contribution throughout his career in the natural resources field,” Ruckelshaus said. “The public owes a lot to dedicated state employees like Rollie.”

This year, with the scholarship fund in its formative stage, Geppert plans to fund the entire $5,000 scholarship out of his own pocket. The deadline is April 29 for applicants who must be at least a sophomore at the University of Washington, Washington State University, Western Washington University or The Evergreen State College pursuing a career in natural resources or land-use planning.

Geppert shared an abridged version of his career and vision for the scholarship over coffee last week in his home high on a hillside between Spurgeon and Eaton creeks southeast of Lacey. Then we went for a stroll on his 5-acre, heavily wooded property where the only sounds were birds calling on an early spring day and soldiers training at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

We crowded inside a treehouse he built for his grandkids with bunk beds and elaborate hatches for the windows and door.

He pointed out the 14 archery targets – some in the shape of deer and bear – he has set up on the property for him and his archery buddies to practice their sport.

He showed me the fire pit to gather around and tell stories; the brush pile he built to create habitat for small mammals; and the small, hand-dug wildlife pool fed by a hillside seep.

Suddenly, he was a kid all over again, roaming the woods like he did as a child on the family farm. Something tells me there’s still a lot of boy in this more than middle-aged man.

I wish him well in his search for donors to help students follow in his unassuming yet accomplished footsteps through the wonders of the natural world.

For more information about the scholarship and how to support it, go to www.ecoscholarfund.org.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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