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Lawrence S. Hamilton

Larry Hamilton, emeritus professor of natural resources at Cornell University, who played a leading role in the worldwide conservation of mountain areas, passed away on October 6, 2016, at the age of 91.

Lawrence Stanley Hamilton was born in Toronto in 1925. He couldn't wait to get out of the city and started working in logging camps in the North Woods during the summers while he was still a teenager. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm as a pilot. Both his early connection to forests and his exposure to the horrors of war went on to shape the rest of his life.

After the war Hamilton enrolled at the University of Toronto to study forestry while also working as Zone Forester in Ontario. For postgraduate studies he moved to the College of Forestry at Syracuse University, completing his master’s degree in 1950 with a dissertation entitled “An economic analysis of the cutting of sugar maple (Acer saccharum Marsh.) in small woodlots in the vicinity of Syracuse.” This was followed by a doctorate in natural resource policy at the University of Michigan; his dissertation, completed in 1962, was entitled “An analysis of New York State's Forest Practice Act.”

Hamilton joined the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University in 1951 and stayed there for 30 years before becoming professor emeritus. He was an exceptional educator, advisor, and pioneer of courses in forest ecology, watershed studies, interdisciplinary collaboration, and international resource issues. In the early 1970s, he produced one of the first documentations of tropical rainforest deforestation (Venezuela) and mangrove destruction (Trinidad).

In 1980 he moved to Hawaii and spent the next 13 years as a Senior Fellow in the Environment and Policy Institute at the East-West Center, an institution which aims to promote technological and cultural interchange between people in the United States, Asia and the Pacific region. He traveled all over the region including Thailand, Western Samoa, Nepal, Indonesia, and Australia doing pioneering education in forest hydrology and tropical forestry, convening workshops and authoring hundreds of applied conservation publications.

While in Asia Hamilton became interested in mountains, recognizing them as unique and very delicate ecosystems, and suggesting that conservation efforts that work in many other environments can be devastating for mountains.

Since the 1970s he had been a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas (subsequently known as the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA)), but it was during the 1980s that he began to draw the Commission’s attention to mountains.

Hamilton and a small group of fellow scientists launched a concerted call for mountain conservation, publishing “The State of the World's Mountains: A Global Report.” They took their message to a wider audience as “An Appeal for the Mountains,” which was presented to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit) and became the basis for the mountain chapter in Agenda 21. This effort, and the ensuing awareness of mountain ecology, is the work of which Hamilton said he was most proud.

Over the next 25 years, under his leadership, the mountain theme became an important element of the WCPA’s work and he built a strong global network of mountain enthusiasts and experts. He brought them together in numerous WCPA mountain workshops including Hawaii (1991), Australia (1995), Canada (1996) and South Africa (2003).

On the ground he provided guidance and advice to mountain protected areas including parks and reserves in Australia, Bhutan, Canada, Ecuador, USA and Nepal. He championed tropical montane cloud forests, corridors of ecological connectivity, trans-border cooperation for conservation and peace, understanding of mountains as water towers, and the spiritual/cultural values of mountains.

His formidable paper legacy is to be found in almost 400 publications including: IUCN guidelines on Transboundary Protected Areas for Peace and Co-operation (2001) and Planning and Managing Mountain Protected Areas (2004); and Managing Mountain Protected Areas: Challenges and Responses for the 21st Century (2004). He made special mountain contributions to PARKS (1996), the IUCN Bulletin (2002), and a World Heritage publication (2002). From 1992 until 2015, he also edited 89 editions of the quarterly newsletter Mountain Protected Areas Update.

For his work Hamilton received the New York State Conservation Council’s Forest Conservationist of the Year award (1969); the Environmental Achiever Award from the UN Environment Program (1987); the IUCN/WCPA Packard International Parks Merit Award (2003); Hawai’i University’s Distinguished Scientist award for work on Cloud Forest Conservation (2004); the Gold Medal for Mountain Conservation Leadership from the King Albert I Memorial Foundation in Switzerland (2004); and Honorary IUCN Membership (2008).

In 1993 Hamilton and his wife moved to Vermont to be near family. They set up home in the small rural community of Charlotte where they loved the natural surroundings and the four seasons. They also liked the sense of neighborliness and civic participation, and Hamilton was proud to be a local tree warden. He also served for over two decades as a trustee of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Vermont where he shared his expertise through many local conservation initiatives. Just two days before his death, he was delighted to learn that they named the trail in the local TNC forest preserve the “Hamilton Trail.”

As well as the local engagement, bigger conservation issues continued to concern him. For example, in 2011 he travelled to Washington, DC to protest at the White House against the Tar Sands Pipeline Initiative. Beyond his conservation activism, he was also a pacifist and was an active member of Veterans for Peace.

Lawrence Hamilton’s life was grounded in a love of nature. He said, “If I can be responsible for saving one little chunk, I will have had a successful life.” In reality, his life’s work ensured the protection of mountain areas passing through whole continents, and their preservation as biological and cultural treasures for our future generations. He will be remembered for his vision, commitment, enthusiasm and youthful energy. Although not a geographer per se, his academic work and practical action was an inspiration to many, including members of the AAG’s Mountain Geography Specialty Group.

Larry is survived by his wife of 36 years, Linda; children Bruce, Anne and Lynne; as well as seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. 

Main sources:
New York Times obituary, October 2016
Obituary on IUCN website, October 2016
Blog by Gillian Randall, November 2011