Natural history, the focused attention to the non-human world, is in decline. In research, in education, and in society, people are spending less time in contact with natural systems and managers often lack access to critical natural history information. These changes have far reaching consequences for how we interact with the natural world, and our ability to predict the responses of natural communities to perturbation.

Natural History – in the arts, humanities and sciences – must be revitalized and re-defined if it is to remain relevant in the 21st century. The Natural History Initiative is focused on that revitalization, and to date the Initiative has organized four linked workshops dedicated to the re-imaging of natural history, and used these workshops to build community among a wide range of naturalists, to catalyze and organize a wide range of initiatives and projects led by the participants, and to create the Natural Histories Project, a multi-media web-space built on interviews and photographs of the participants, where naturalists around the world can listen to and interact with conservations on the future of natural history. The Natural History Initiative is a collaborative initiative involving the Natural History Network, the University of Washington Department of Biology and College of the Environment, Prescott College, The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, and

The Workshops

The workshops we have held seek to expand the conversation about the loss, transformation, and rebirth of natural history in society, education, environmental research, and environmental management. Each of the workshops below was 4-5 days in length and included 25-35 participants.

Workshop I: Natural History and Society

January 24-28, 2011; Rancho de la Osa, Arizona

This workshop focused on creating community among diverse leaders in the study of nature perception and the importance of nature for human and societal development.  We identified information gaps and developed action plans and funding directives that address changing attitudes toward nature.  In particular, we focused on answering the following questions: “What are the gaps in our understanding of connections between childhood and adult exposure to nature and conservation perceptions?”, “What types of research would be most effective in filling those knowledge gaps?”,  “How have our perceptions changed in the past 100 years, and how should we address changes in the next 100 years?”, “How can we develop effective incentive structures at various levels to increase natural history knowledge and awareness?”,  “Where and how can technology work in favor of nature appreciation?” and  “How do changes in nature delivery systems, increases in screen time, and shifts in cognitive foci change nature appreciation?”.

Participants: Nancy Baron, Dan Campbell, Arya Degenhardt, Tom Fleischner, Ed Grumbine, David Inouye, Peter Kahn, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Mimi Lam, Clare Walker Leslie, Gene Myers, Gary Paul Nabhan, Robert Michael Pyle, Karen Reagan, Kirsten Rowell, Brian Scavone, Laura Sewall, John Tallmadge, Josh Tewksbury, Mitch Thomashow, Saul Weisberg, Tom Wessels, Patricia Zaradic

To hear conversations from this workshop, visit the Natural Histories Project.

Workshop II: Natural History in Environmental Research and Management

March 21-25th 2011; Pack Forest Conference Center, University of Washington

Our ability to understand, preserve, and predict changes in biodiversity depends to a large degree on our ability to collect, organize, and disseminate natural history information. Yet our capacity for these endeavors, and the incentive structures necessary to sustain and this work, are in decline. This workshop established a forum for mapping the importance of natural history in these domains and developing action plans that will support a re-emergence of natural history in research, conservation, and natural resource management. By answering questions such as, “How should we support the collection of natural history information?”, “Can we define core data gaps that must be filled for effective management and conservation, and if there are, how should those gaps be addressed?”, and “What incentive and support structures can be developed to create public and expert participation in global databanks?” we began development of a network of universities, organizations, and individuals committed to re-imaging the role of natural history for the 21st century.

Participants: John Anderson, Jon Bakker, Tosha Comendant, Cliff Duke, Peter Dunwiddie, Harry Greene, Stephanie Hampton, Jim Kenagy, Doug Levey, Gary Machlis, Dick Olmstead, Bob Paine, Mary Power, Gabrielle Roesch, Haldre Rogers, Kirsten Rowell, Anne Salomon, Liam Stacey, Alan Tessier , Josh Tewksbury, Terry Wheeler

To hear conversations from this workshop, visit the Natural Histories Project.

Workshop III: The Role of Natural History in Education

March 21-25th 2011; Pack Forest Conference Center, University of Washington

The study of natural history has all but disappeared from many parts of education. At this workshop we focused on increasing dialog about natural history across all forms of education and establishing a collaborative forum for the development of action plans surrounding natural history for education communities. By developing a network of universities, organizations, and individuals committed to building and re-imaging the role of natural history in 21st education curricula, we began to address the dearth of natural history education in our schools.

In order to advance this goal, we sought to answer the questions, “How do children learn about their world?”, “What are the most effective strategies for integrating natural history into educational curricula?”, “What are viable strategies for retaining and replenishing natural history in higher education?”, and “Can we merge education and research through natural history data collection?”

Participants: Tim Billo, Maria Coryell-Martin, Larry Davis, Pete Feinsinger, Tom Fleischner, Bob Fuhrmann, Martha Groom, Steve Herman, John Horner, Noelle Machnicki, Teresa Mourad, Greg Murray, Julia Parrish, Traci Price, Karen Reagan, Jennifer Ruesink, Steve Trombulak, Trileigh Tucker, Ken Voorhis, Saul Weisberg.

To hear conversations from this workshop, visit the Natural Histories Project.

Workshop IV: Synthesis

June 20-24th 2011; North Cascades Institute, Washington

Natural history is a broad subject, both within and beyond the sciences. While some of our greatest naturalists are scientists, many of the best-known icons of natural history are writers, poets, artists, and politicians. Equally important, some of the most important contributors to the diverse connections between people and nature are photographers, outdoor-clothing manufacturers, and activists. Solution sets for the complex problems outlined by this initiative will not be found without the direct involvement of a broad spectrum of society – from large and small university leaders, businesses that rely on recreation, donor-funded environmental nonprofits, and nature centers around the country. All of these “interest groups” are invested in the connection between people and nature, and these interests are not far from the interests of land stewards, conservation biologists, and environmental foundations. In fact, they often support these interests, but leaders in these groups are rarely given the opportunity to work collaboratively toward joint solutions to address the complex of problems surrounding the loss of natural history from our schools, from our universities, and from our free time.

In this synthesis workshop, we brought together the most dynamic ideas and insights from the previous three workshops and forge working collaborations with leaders from a broad swath of society – outdoor oriented businesses, donor-funded NGOs, the arts and humanities, foundations, and informal and formal educational institutions. Our goal was to build a diverse network that can collaboratively design and help implement actions and initiatives that will re-image and revitalize natural history for the 21st century and beyond.

Participants: John Anderson, Amanda Barney, Dee Boersma, Richard Conniff, Arya Degenhardt, Tom Fleischner, Jerry Franklin, George Gilchrist, Harry Greene, Jon Jarvis, Estella Leopold, Carlos Martinez del Rio, Gary Nabhan, Reed Noss, Julia Parrish, Sarah Rabkin, Karen Reagan, Kent Redford, Kirsten Rowell, Julie Stein, Josh Tewksbury, Mitch Thomashow, Steve Trombulak, Sacha Vignoiri, Doug Walker, Saul Weisberg, Patty Zaradic.

To hear conversations from this workshop, visit the Natural Histories Project.


Major funding provided by

The National Science Foundation

The College of the Environment at the University of Washington


Josh Tewksbury, Kirsten Rowell, and Tom Fleischner

Logistics: Karen Reagan


The Natural History Initiative would like to thank Rancho De La Osa, The Pack Forest Conference Center, and The North Cascades Institute for logistical support.


Get Involved

Your tax deductable donation to the Natural History Network will help us expand these conversations and keep the conversation going. To learn more about how you or your organization can co-sponsor a workshop and help develop the Natural Histories Project, please contact Josh Tewksbury, or by phone: (206) 331-1893. And please also consider joining and supporting the Natural History Network.


Photographs by Benjamin Drummond

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The Natural History Network
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