The University of Arizona

Who was Volney Spalding?


Volney Spalding and the birth of the world's very first restoration ecology project


The Desert Botanical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution opened for business on the seventh of October, 1903. Within weeks, it had a visit from Professor Volney Spalding, a distinguished, partly disabled professor from the University of Michigan. Why was he knocking on Tumamoc Hill's brand new door?

In 1877 Professor Spalding had taught the world's first forestry course. He wrote botany books. And, at a time when America's forests in our northeastern regions were decimated, disappearing and seemed doomed, Volney Spalding became a tireless, effective advocate for forest conservation at the national level. So what was Spalding doing in the Sonoran Desert?


     Dr. Spalding had a debilitating case of infectious arthritis, perhaps the sort transmitted by a tick bite. Maybe Lyme Disease? His physician had recommended our climate but Spalding did not want to retire. Carnegie's new Desert Botanical Laboratory seemed like a gift from heaven. So he became its very first visiting scientist and then retired from the University of Michigan the following year.
But the lab seemed to be a mismatch with Spalding's interests. When it opened, it was devoted to understanding what allows desert plants to survive despite extreme heat and drought. In fact much of what we call physiological plant ecology was born on the Hill, too. But there was little forest to conserve. Our beautiful stands of blue paloverde? No problem. Our abundant acacias, mesquites and foothills paloverde? Spectacular but safe. So Spalding prepared to give up forest conservation and join the Desert Botanical Laboratory's physiology effort.
His resolve lasted for about a year and a half.
Spalding, his wife Effie and an attendant at a California sanitarium


In the spring of 1905, Spalding had a flash of inspiration. He had worked on the Hill long enough to wonder at the astounding variety of plant species and habitats. Sure, the plants were not maple trees or pine trees, but they were plants, many of them woody plants. He wanted to describe and understand the interactions between all these different species. He wanted to find out what would happen to their populations in the course of many, many years. And so, Spalding set up 19 permanent study plots around the property. Each one was a square, 10 meters on a side, with its corners marked by iron pipes set in concrete. He photographed the plots in detail so that each individual plant could be identified. In a hand-written letter (now at The Arizona Historical Society), Spalding announced his new calling to the director of the Desert Botanical Laboratory. Most of Spalding's plots — today the world's oldest ecology study plots — still exist and still get studied on the Tumamoc Hill Ecological Reservation.

Soon Volney Spalding detected a serious problem with his plan. Burros, goats, horses and cattle ate everything he was trying to study. Not a new story, actually; they had been chewing up the Hill since the 1850s. But Spalding had not realized the full impact.

How could he study the natural plant ecology of Tumamoc Hill if most of the study subjects were destroyed by introduced grazers and browsers? What was natural about that? In the final analysis, Tumamoc Hill was far from pristine desert habitat. Tumamoc Hill was an overexploited victim of man's cleverness and lack of good stewardship. One can imagine the flame of devotion to conservation flare back up in Spalding's soul.

What to do? His proposal was simple. Keep the critters out. And while he was at it, he might as well remove the stone quarries from the property, too! Why not?

It was done in 1906. The Carnegie devoted about 20% of its entire 1906 laboratory budget to putting up an old-fashioned, cedar-post and barbed-wire, 5-mile-long fence around all of the Tumamoc Ecological Reservation. That fence excluded human uses and let Spalding begin a careful study of the recovery of plants in his study plots. 

And so was born the world's very first restoration ecology project. Nature for nature's sake.

  • To look at.
  • To study.
  • To appreciate.

But not to exploit. Not even to use. It was a revolutionary idea and it was born on Tumamoc Hill.

Read more about restoration ecology: William R. Jordan III & George M. Lubick (2011). Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration, Island Press, Washington, DC