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Robert E, Jenkins, Jr
September 30, 1942 - December 4, 2020


First, we simply need to be moving faster to coordinate the information that already exists, on file cards and computers, scattered around the world's major and minor museums and other collections. ... Second, these databases must be widely available and 'customer friendly'. We need to accelerate current efforts for international cooperation and coordination, so that common formats are increasingly agreed and used.

Robert M. May, "Conceptual aspects of the quantification of the extent of biological diversity." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, ser. B, 345 (1311), 29 July 1994, pp. 13-20

No person did more to respond to this challenge set by Lord May of Oxford than Robert E. Jenkins, Jr. Indeed, Jenkins began responding to it long before May laid it down.

In the mid-sixties, as a graduate student in biology at Harvard (and possibly before when he was an undergraduate at Rutgers), he experimented with the primitive tools for information management available in those days to the average person with a need and an inclination: a tray of cards with holes punched around the edges. Each card had data written in the center. A special device was used to create a slot or notch at the particular hole that categorized the data. A long thin rod or knitting-needle was then inserted through the desired hole to raise all of the cards -- cards with notches there would fall and thus be separated from the others. Wikipedia has an article on these systems, which it unsurprisingly labels "obsolete": Edge-notched cards.

From this humble beginning came the world’s largest network of biodiversity databases adhering to a common, highly standardized methodology.

Jenkins is also significant because as a scientist he was not primarily a researcher or an advisor or an author, roles which scientists traditionally take up or are forced into and which can to some degree marginalize them, though they might thus become well-known.

His career would be better described as a decisionmaker, and even entrepreneur, roles more commonly assigned to those trained in the law or business. He used information management as his main tool in achieving this position by designing it for decisionmaking and using it for that.

Biographical Details

Robert E. Jenkins, Jr. was born in a world at war, less than a year after Pearl Harbor, the second of four children. Growing up with a father who was an FBI agent, the family lived at various times in Pennsylvania, Missouri, upstate New York, and New Jersey. He was an outdoorsman and hunter and fly-fisherman his whole life. He was interested in conservation from a very young age. He's written that his "8th grade valedictory address [was] on the looming threat of species extinctions."

Large enough to play in the line of a football team, agile enough to be a pulling guard, he was sought by a number of colleges, including Yale. He was a good student, though he has said that it took him an inordinately long time to proceed to read. Perhaps this is why he eventually became both an especially analytical and voracious reader, the sort who will sit down and read all of some volume of an encyclopedia or all of the Bible or all of the works of Shakespeare.

He turned Yale down, however, to go to Rutgers, which his then girlfriend would be attending. This lasted not, but before he left New Jersey, he married the petite Diane St. Pierre, who had grown up in New York, in Glens Falls. (They have a daughter, Heather, and a son, Robert III).

He did not confine himself to football, but also went in for sweep-oar rowing. The crew was provided with one free meal, dinner, each day, and since weight and size are important in the sport the athlete could eat as much as he wanted. To save money, Bob had but one meal a day, a very large one. (Interestingly, when hard at work at TNC designing heritage program methology, creating new programs, raising funds, he had the same habit).

He is distinguished from other persons with the PhD also in his leadership skills and in his understanding of the political process. As a young man, he attended Boys State, and was elected to leading positions there. Much later, at one point during the Vietnam War, he participated in an effort to start a third party. The CEO sees him not as an opponent but as a like type.

He was accepted to graduate school in biology at Harvard, which he chose because he wanted to study under Ludlow Griscom, one of the most famous bird watcher/ornithologists in America, unaware that Griscom had died in 1959. (He was, however, invited to tea by Griscom’s widow). He came under the tutelage of Ernst Mayr, foremost evolutionary biologist since Darwin. (Amazing summary of Mayr's life/career " here.) He also studied with E. O. Wilson and played a role in broadening Wilson’s vision from myrmecology to conservationism, where as a philosopher he today has no peer.

His PhD thesis dealt with frugivorous birds, Ecology of the three species of saltators in Costa Rica with special reference to their frugivorous diet (1970). It entailed extensive field work in Costa Rica, where he and Diane lived in an RV. He was deeply interested in all of the fundamental issues of biology and ecology, but the continuing theme for him was the importance of conservation. He has always looked with a jaundiced eye upon scientists who wall themselves off from broader, practical issues, though he is capable of valuing their accomplishments.

Much about Bob birding, including Costa Rica, can be found here.

He had always been interested in the consequences and effects of population growth, for example, and developed neo-Malthusian convictions. Upon return to the US, while a postdoc at Harvard’s Center for Population Studies, l969 l970, he helped found a chapter of Zero Population Growth in Massachusetts, and was an enthusiastic participant in the first Earth Day (1970). During this year, he resided at and managed Harvard’s Estabrook Woods Research Natural Area in Concord.

In 1965, a grant from the Ford Foundation enabled The Nature Conservancy to hire its first full-time, paid president. A subsequent grant some years later created the position of Chief Scientist. Bob, one of forty-seven applicants, came top.

As he has made clear in a talk he gave a few years ago on the history of his career, he did not think much of TNC when first he got to know it. The businessman who had become its president had a "grab anything" strategy, which Bob found counter productive because it often pushed development onto lands more worthy of protection. Little or no information (let alone data) had been collected about existing preserves

His biography at this point is centered around development of the Natural Heritage Program network, a task which occupied nearly a quarter century. He was supported within the organization, particularly by Presidents Patrick S. Noonan and William D. Blair, Jr. He left this in the early nineties (see below) in order to establish The BioDiversity Institute, perhaps the first internet-based conservation organization, living on now through its "action project," The BioDiversity Conservancy.

Conservation Accomplishments

These can be summarized in terms of Lord May’s challenge: “coordinate the information that already exists” … make these databases “widely available and 'customer friendly' ” … “accelerate current efforts for international cooperation and coordination” … and create “common formats [which] are increasingly agreed and used”.

These are usefully presented in a different order, however. It also needs to be a central point that Dr. Jenkins’ accomplishments are not in the nature of “research,” so prized by the academic scientist. Rather they have been achieved with the very practical purpose of reorienting two major social institutions and influencing the actions they take: First, the conservation organization for which he worked, small in comparison to a government agency, even in its present size, but one capable of achieving much biodiversity preservation by working at the cutting-edge and with far greater flexibility than a cumbersome bureaucracy can achieve. And second, government, the most powerful actor in society. (The scientific establishment, itself heavily dependent on government support, can be considered a third target).

icon2 Common formats.
The need for, and development of, common formats and common methods sprang from the job that the Chief Scientist was supposed to do: assess – and prioritize -- the scientific merit of proposed land preservation projects.

As projects came across his desk, from across the country, he quickly found that if wanted to judge these by actual biological conservation goals, he was required to be an expert on the biology of all species and every ecosystem in the nation if he was to do his job. More than that: he had to know which species and which ecosystems were more important for conservation than any others. He knew biology at the macro level as well as anyone of his age, but America is the third largest country in the world (depending on how China’s disputes with its neighbors are resolved), with an environment that includes the Arctic and the tropics.

Its natural history traditions (and data), moreover, had remained highly local, despite several hundred years of effort. Biologists in Arizona, for example, knew, and had data on, the desert -mountain ecosystem there, but swamps in the southeast of the US or midwestern prairies were like foreign countries -- just as Arizona was to biologists in the southeast or the midwest.

Existing “natural area” surveys, in a line first summarized in 1927 in the publication of The Naturalist’s Guide to the Americas under the leadership of Victor Shelford, first president of the Ecological Society of America, were also highly local, or else just a skim of the surface. ESA, founded in 1915, soon split into a group concerned with theory and a group concerned with conservation. Shelford was in the latter, and after WW2, he left ESA to form the Ecologist's Union, which in 1950 changed its name to The Nature Conservancy. Early leaders were Charles Kengdeigh and Dick Goodwin.

They were also plagued by different formats -- so that one study, even of the same area at different periods of time, was difficult, or indeed often impossible, to compare with another.

Similar difficulties plagued TNC's internal "project packages," proposals to buy this or that piece of land. Although there was a common format, it was so vague ("project description") as to be virtually useless, and when it came to "data" there was none, or virtually none. The opinion of "experts" was sometimes alluded to, and "thought to be" was frequent, as was the word "important."

Nonetheless, natural area surveys and project packages were all that was available. Taking any data they contained and determining what should be protected by an organization like The Nature Conservancy, which was in the business of buying land to protect biodiversity, seemed the way forward. And doing more natural area studies seemed the likely future.

Accordingly, the first State Natural Heritage Program, launched in South Carolina in 1974, started with the idea of using existing natural area survey data and adding to it.

The opportunity in SC came about because the Governor, John C. West, had admired the Georgia Heritage Trust started by Jimmy Carter in the neighboring state. West felt a kinship with Carter because they shared many views, and they shared the label "New Democrat." He knew that TNC had worked with the GHT, and had done a good job in a number of ways, especially in acquiring properties, so he managed to find $100,000 in his budget and came to TNC to start something similar in his state.

The national office of TNC had no real idea how to use this money, but Bob, who initially viewed it as a burden he didn't need, eventually saw it as an opportunity to field test a number of the ideas he'd been working on. The GHT had had no real inventory component, beyond what he characterized as a " team that drove the roads to see what would jump out." Moreover, it included preservation of the state's cultural and historic heritage, fortunately not part of the deal with SC. But Bob was happy with the term "heritage" for what he had in mind, "natural heritage." The money was then made available to him, and thus the first state-oriented biological inventory was initiated in April, using "natural areas," and the ideas of collecting and computerizing data about them, and somehow prioritizing them, as fundamental concepts.

Over the next amazing twelve months, he'd also started natural heritage programs in MS, OR, TN -- and WV. It was WV that produced what Bob has called his "Eureka moment," resulting in a group of important new ideas and concepts. These were engendered, to some extent, just by the difficulty and frustrations of trying to use existing, and ab initio, natural area surveys to come up with a list of what portions of the landscape should be protected first and which could safely be given a low priority.

But it was actually the problems of (and expense of) implementing such surveys on a computer which was directly responsible. The complaint about cost derived from the fact that the machine had to read through the entire tape of natural area survey data to find data about one species. There was no such thing as modern random access to data. Reading the entire tape was expensive. The coordinator of the WV program complained that it was ruining his budget.

What if data were organized around species instead?

Eureka! (It is not known whether Bob, like Archimedes, was in his bathtub at the time):

-- rather than starting with natural areas and then trying to compare them, start with their components, and compare these. Natural areas become logical and defensible groupings thereof, and their importance becomes a function of what they contain.

In other words:

-- break biological diversity down into its "elements": species elements, on the one hand, and, on the other, natural community or ecosystem elements (which include among other things micro-organisms, so numerous that most have not yet been given a name, but which contain significant genetic diversity). These fundamental elements can be directly compared, no debatable boundaries, common formatting for and understanding of each and all.

And his further idea, seeking to prioritize based on relative imperilment, was that an element's imperilment is, for the most part, a function of how many of it there are. The total number of individuals of a species is important for this, of course, but so is how they occur. If a plant not thought to be particularly rare, for example, actually exists in only a few places, then the species is more imperiled, and of higher, priority than its numbers suggest. This led Bob to the idea of compiling data on individual element locations, "element occurrences" (or EOs, as they quickly became).

-- element occurrences: specific, mapped locations where discontiguous populations, or even a single individual, occur. Lifeboats.

For those thought to be rare, map each as a dot on a standard USGS topo map. Eventually this approach was modified by "ranking" all elements on a logarithmic 1 to 5 scale, so that an element ranked 5 was exponentially more abundant than a 1. Only those ranked 1 or 2 were inventoried and mapped. Later still, through discussions in the OPG, emerged the idea of giving each element three kinds of ranks, one each as to its status within its global range (G rank), its national range (N rank), and its subnational range (S rank).

A fundamental principle was that "element ranks" were strictly comparable, so that all elements, whether species of plant. species of animal, or ecosystem type would be prioritized using the same scale. The trifurcation of ranks, moreover, meant that a state or province could set priorities within its own boundaries, choosing for example to protect an element with a G rank of 4 because within that state or province it had the S rank of 1.

Bob had always been fond of a saying attributed to Confucius: "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names." Element, EO, Rank -- these are the right names.

-- common formats: one jurisdiction’s data must be strictly comparable with all other jurisdictions’ data, and common concepts and shared record formats are the way to make this possible.

Further still:

-- computer systems: develop computer software systems which incorporate these concepts. Continue to advance these as hardware and software improve.

-- create central databases, initially to provide standardization across the network as to element names, which varied significantly, even the scientific names, from place to place. Plant names were in particularly bad shape, but John Kartesz, a friend of the botanist Bob hired, Larry Morse, had undertaken a one-man effort of standardization -- using 3x5 cards stored under his bed; these were quickly computerized. The central databases were also used to maintain other data useful to the network and most often derived from individual programs.

-- central support: create training curriculums, continually supervise and assess the progress of each program for the contractual pilot period (usually two years), undertake ongoing technical development.

-- continuity: the effort must not, like traditional natural area studies, have a start date and an end date, but must continue beyond the pilot period as part of state government -- a transition which must be brought about; This ensures the perpetuity of the network, so that data is always current and always used for decisionmaking.

Bob established an Operating Procedures Group (OPG) as a forum for creating and documenting the core methodology which Natural Heritage Programs would use. The OPG existed from the earliest years of the Heritage enterprise. Originally, the group was informal and ad hoc. Records of discussions and decisions were not rigorously preserved. The name "OPG" came later. (The first memo still preserved addressed specifically to the OPG, however, is from January 1976). It's decisions were the basis of the Operations Manual (OM). There thus exists a continuous body of decisionmaking materials on Heritage methodology which stretches back to the beginnings of the development of common formats. Many of these documents reside, since 2009, at the Library of Congress, though they remain unprocessed as of 2021: LOC.

Early members of OPG included Hardy Wieting, Robert Chipley, Helmut Moyseenko, and Ken Wright, all of whom joined the Science Division just before or just after the first program was launched, and all of whom represented disciplines differently related to the role that Natural Heritage Programs were being designed to play. They were eventually joined by Larry Morse, a botanist who had acquired experience in information management, Keith Carr, a geographer who had become an expert in computer systems, particularly as they relate to information management, both of whom had very long tenures. Over the years, significant contributions were also made by Ann Lewis (the OM), Rob Solomon, Larry Master, Bennett Brown, Joe Jacob, Steve Chaplin, George Fenwick, Curt Soper, Craig Groves, Pat Bourgeron, John Humke, Dennis Grossman, John Nutter, Dave Mehlman, Shelly Rodman, Loring LaBarbara, Lyndon Woodall, Sandra Woodall, David Wilcove, Steve Taswell, who impressively documented and diagrammed all that had gone before, and others. Also by Richard Warner, Shara Howie and the Regional Information Managers, Audrey Godell, Margaret Ormes, Eugenie Drayton, Mary Klein, and Donna Riggs. Perhaps others should be added to this list.

Very significant input came from the states, where the common formats were being installed and used in what theorists sometimes call "real life." This input came from program "coordinators" (directors), data managers, and the botanists, ecologists, and zoologists. A good example, just one of many, is element ranking, which devolved from the "stratification" Bob learned Minnesota's botanist, Welby Smith, had applied to the list of the state's plants he'd drawn up.

Hardy formalized a process of regular visitation (usually monthly) by OPG members to state programs still in the pilot period not only to offer advice and assess progress, but also to observe data entry and to report to the OPG on any problems incurred in this. This was a means of advancing the methodology. He also formalized a process of supervision, loosely adhered to originally, and ensured that it included a workplan for each scientist, regular progress reports every two weeks ("biweeklies"), and created an Administrative Manual, an AM to pair with the OM. The contract between TNC and the state initiating each heritage program included a budget which contained not only money for the in-state staff, but also money for the national office of the Science Division, money used for these visits to the state, but also for continuing development of the methodology. This proved, over 50 states, and other jurisdictions, to be a very important resource.

One of the main consequences of the common formats and methods as they became widespread was that they enabled scientists, and the Chief Scientist in particular, to move from a passive, reactive, advisory mode with respect to others at TNC to an agenda-setting mode.

This was Bob's main goal.

Instead of merely adding comments to TNC "project packages," many of which represented decisions already taken, the scientist can now get out in front of the process and demand that the priorities demonstrated by the heritage system be pursued. These are the projects that would contribute most to the Conservancy's central goal of preserving biodiversity, and that contribution can be objectively, scientifically demonstrated.

icon2 Coordinate the information that already exists.
Even were it possible to do de novo field inventory of an entire state with a core staff of only several individuals, the data generated would be small in comparison with the treasure troves of specimens collected by scientists over many decades, largely for the purpose of taxonomy. Moreover, de novo inventory would be unfocused, expensive, and in immediate need of updating.

One of the major insights of the Natural Heritage system was that these existing collections -- "the information that already exists" -- created for purposes of taxonomy, could be utilized for the purposes of conservation if effective procedures for utilizing them in this way are worked out.

The procedure which developed under Bob's guidance was to capture locational data from all specimens of species of interest. This is done by examining the label attached to the specimen and reading any field notes associated with the specimen. The specimens need not reside in a collection within the jurisdiction where the data center is located; the only requirement is that the specimen was collected within the jurisdiction.

Other existing sources of information are also rigorously mined: peer-reviewed scientific literature; the “gray literature” of naturalist clubs, often richer in locational data than the published literature; environmental reviews; experts who study particular species, groups of species, or natural communities; and prior natural area studies.

The main consequence of this approach, aside from building a database as quickly as possible, is that when field work is undertaken, it has focus. It can be aimed at resolving ambiguities in the existing data, at reconfirming aging locations, and at exploring areas which have received insufficient attention in the past.

icon2 Widely available and customer friendly.
The genius of the State Natural Heritage Program approach is that it is not merely scientifically original, but consists also of a political and administrative structure which is responsible for making it “widely available.” And permanent.

Specifically, it began by exploiting, in its origin and growth, a feature of that most widely available institution – government. In the US, this feature had been created by the Founding Fathers: federalism. In the federal system, there are 50 primary jurisdictions rather than a single, monopolistic national jurisdiction. Each of these jurisdictions has primary legal authority over, among other things, the land and water within its boundaries (except for that owned by the feds), the authority to raise revenues to support activities affecting these resources;, and the authority to review decsions which affect them, as well to pass new laws providing protection.

Successfully exploiting federalism in the US means that there are 50 State Natural Heritage Programs rather than a single national program located in Washington, DC. Not only are the databases much more widely available in this way, but they are also deeper, more pertinent to local needs, and of immediate use to decisionmakers who have the greatest ability to affect biodiversity preservation. They are permanent because state governments will always need the data and expertise they contain. Much of this also applies to the provinces of Canada, and will apply to any other jurisdiction in the world where subnational entities have decisionmaking authority.

Federalism entails not only subnational primary jurisdictions, but levels of authority, so that different and even overlapping agencies are created. This feature also has been exploited by the Heritage network, in order to make its formats and methods even more widely available. One of the earliest (1976) entities to create a Natural Heritage Program was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned corporation created in 1933 for economic development in the Tennessee Valley, a region that covers most of Tennessee, large parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky, and small portions of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. The Navajo Nation is another prominent example, as are agreements with various national parks and reserves.

And military bases. As the network spread, the Science Division discovered that military bases have active resource management responsibilities -- and needs for exactly the sort of data the natural heritage program in the base's jurisdiction collects and processes. One of our great successes was negotiating a multi-million dollar contract with the Defense Department facilitating working arrangements between base and heritage program. A win-win: military bases are, of course, protected areas and often harbor species faring poorly outside its borders, species the resource managers really had no knowledge of, whereas the heritage program is always in need of funds to do further work.

The challenge was to keep the nhps/cdcs uniform. This challenge arose not simply because of geographic multiplication, but also because both the core methodology and its software implementations (particularly its software implementations) needed to evolve continuously in order to keep pace with what the OPG was learning from the experiences of each state program but also with rapid advances in technology. The newest program initiated always had the newest version of methods and software, and the task was to update all prior programs. A regular procedure evolved for doing this.

The New World network existing now in the 21st Century is so widespread that it can be compared to Balaenoptera musculus, the blue whale. It is a fully-formed creature of immense size evolving at a slower pace than in its early stages, but still adaptable. It is large enough to stare governments, the private sector, and others throughout most of the region in the face and to influence their maneuvers. It never ceases to move. It is accompanied by, and to some extent guided by, a number of pilot fish which seek to render service, among which are the Association for Biodiversity Information, renamed NatureServe, and BioDiversity Institute's "action project," The BioDiversity Conservancy, which is attempting to extend the Heritage network to China., Also The Nature Conservancy and other national and local conservation groups.

In order to grow to this size, of course, its methods and formats must be “customer friendly,” and so they have been. From the very earliest days the highest priority was given to methods and formats which present clear priorities, which are readily comprehended by staff and outside consumers both, and which in fact demonstrate the conclusions which are drawn from them. The way they have been built into existing environmental review requirements and procedures is testimony to their customer friendliness.

Customers not only in the US, but also in bilingual Canada and in Latin America have found them friendly enough to adopt and use productively. They are just now knocking on the doors of other continents, and early indications are good. The formats are easy to put data into and easy to report data out of. The methods for doing so are logical and readily followed, without squashing ecological complexity in order to make this possible.

It was not always so, either for the formats or the methods, particularly in the very early years. See below.

icon2 Accelerate current efforts for international cooperation and coordination.
The first Natural Heritage Programs outside the US were established in the Netherlands Antilles and in Costa Rica in 1982, both of which have now been subsumed into larger efforts. The first data center in Canada began in Quebec in 1988, and there are now data centers across the world’s second largest country, the most recent of which is in the Yukon. The name Conservation Data Centre (CDC) has come to be widely used for these.

Interestingly, the connection with TVA paid off internationally. In the 1950s, partly through efforts of David Lillenthal, TVA's long-time Chairman, a corporation was formed which sought to promote TVA-like projects in Latin America. One such was in the Cauca River Valley of Colombia. Several employees of the Cauca Valley Corporation eventually knocked on Bob's door at the Science Division and requested, and received, access to Natual Heritage Program methodology.

Today, the network stretches from Alaska and the Yukon to Paraguay. It is not, however, worldwide, and that is what Lord May calls for. Will it grow to Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia (Lord May’s birthplace), and the rest of the world?

Like all farflung networks, local conditions require special adaptations and at the same time threaten unity. Even within the New World, huge gaps remain which it is critical to fill. But the network which Bob is responsible for bringing into existence has the greatest potentiality of any system to become worldwide – the globalization of conservation information management and decisionmaking. Political problems and lack of resources remain substantial impediments.

Computers and Software

icon2 Computers.
It would be wrong to think that the Natural Heritage information management idea simply takes advantage of the development of computers in the latter half of the 20th century in order to leap ahead of natural area inventory methodologies.

The concepts described above, centering around comparable elements of biodiversity, their geographical occurrences and status, were in fact the primary advance. Indeed, the proper organization of manual files was a significant advance in and of itself, as was the development of standards for mapping element occurrences.

Nonetheless, the Natural Heritage information management idea made extensive use of computers (and software, for the two race along together) from the moment that idea arose. The first years involved systems which seem primitive to a modern user, though they were not quite as primitive as those cards skewered with a thin metal rod, but no doubt present systems also will seem primitive to future users.

Bob had participated and experimented with several systems, including one called NAIS (Natural Area Information System), before starting over with Natural Heritage. Once the element occurrence, or EO, record type in particular had been conceived and defined, the issue became how to implement it in a computer environment. The choice in those days was between IBM punchcards and IBM punchcards.

The original software implementation was in PL/1. This route turned out to have the virtue that it was what was available in the state governments, and the state governments were the customers. The first question out of the mouth of anyone in state government to whom the idea was pitched was, “Does it run on IBM computers?” State governments were dominated at this time by large, central mainframe computing centers, almost all of which were built around IBM 360’s (Tennessee was an exception: they had Amdahl computers, the first IBM mainframe clone). If Natural Heritage software did not run on those computers, then Natural Heritage would be wasting its breath.

This first approach had problems, however. One thing was that these computer centers were extremely busy issuing the paychecks for government employees and keeping track of the license plates. Processing data on rare plants and animals was not on the radar screen. Second, all this operated in batch mode, which meant delays of as much as a week between a data request and the requested results. Third, it proved easier to get data into the system than to get it out. The smallest key punch error produced unintelligible printouts. Finding the error was difficult. Fourth, report formats were limited and difficult to create, though the coding creating them could be shared from state to state.

The world began to use minicomputers. Largely because database software came with them, minicomputers from HP were chosen for future development of the Natural Heritage system. Few state governments had their own HP3000’s, but it was possible to find one somewhere near the state capital, where the Heritage program data center was located. For a price based on usage, telephone access using an acoustic coupler could be arranged. In one or two instances, the HP3000 was located far enough away that long distance charges were also incurred. This cumbersome system had many advantages, primary among which was that it did not operate in batch mode. When access to data was needed, it was only a phone call away. A mistaken query still produced meaningless, or incorrect, results, but the mistake could be quickly rectified.

The world then adopted the personal computer. Bob had followed the development of these long before they became available and eagerly interviewed anyone who appeared knowledgeable about them. After HP’s own personal computer proved a dead end, the IBM XT was tested by Ken Wright and thus chosen for the Science Division. The operating system was DOS and the database system was dBase, the dominant database software for the early PC. By the time this new system could be installed in a state, however, IBM had come out with the more powerful IBM AT, and that was installed in the West Virginia Natural Heritage Program.

A terrific improvement, but at this point limitations of another kind appeared.

icon2 Software.
It is the nature of a conservation database to have scads of data about some things and little or nothing about other things. It would be ridiculous, of course, to make it a goal that exactly the same amount of information be collected about each element of biodiversity; even more ridiculous to make this a requirement. The point of our effort was to identify priorities, and this required minimal data, just the name and rank, about elements known to be common or abundant, but as much data as could be obtained about elements thought to be of conservation priority.

dBase, however, imposed on each field in a record the requirement that it be of fixed length. The limitations imposed by this were exacerbated by the extremely small hard drives then available. The AT had a 20 MB hard drive (the XT had 10MB). It seemed that whatever length was chosen for a field like “EO-data”, the result would be unsatisfactory, highly unsatisfactory. Either the field was too short to hold the available data, or, if a longer length was chosen, space would be wasted in a great percentage of the database. A more complicated limitation involved the ways in which things are related to each other. dBase was a version of a relational database, where one-to-one relationships are stored. This works well when relationships are not complicated. But in “real life”, relationships of, say, a rare plant to the political jurisdictions in which it occurs can be multiple, and indeed the relationships of these jurisdictions to each other can be complex. Other variables pertaining to the plant can present problems as well.

Bob always kept track of developments elsewhere, and one of the more important persons he spoke with was Kerry Walter, who was developing a curatorial database for botanical gardens, BG-Base. Kerry was using Revelation, software based on the Pick operating system, where every field stores only whatever information is put in it and has virtually no limit.

Keith Carr, who joined us from the National Park Service, as director of computer systems in the Science Division, started trying to use Revelation for heritage, but found its limitations frustrating. Fortunately, he soon discovered and immediately started using Advanced Revelation to overcome these. ARev had the variable-length capability of its predecessor, but it also had multiple value fields, greatly reducing the architecture of data storage and optimizing data retrieval. It had many other pertinent virtues as well, among which were the fact that it could be implemented on a PC, and it could operate in a multi-user environment. It was a DOS-based system, but it had a simple and useful windowing feature.

The software seemed almost too good to be true, but Keith persuaded Bob that its merits were real. Bob was then commited to the creation of the Biological and Conservation Data (BCD) System using ARev. And indeed, he designed the C part, which involved an understanding of property law, pretty much single-handedly. He was committed to strategic planning, and he had been the leader on this for TNC. BCD would be the foundation for strategic planning. (In addtion, he originally conceived and promoted the idea of individual state field offices, which did not exist when he joined the organization, supported by national and regional offices, all of which would serve the central goal of biodiversity preservation, then a novel idea in conservation.)

BCD was to be the main tool for achieving his central goal. The intention was to combine heritage data (primarily biological) with ownership and planning data needed in the operation of the world’s largest private land-owning conservation organization. The B stood for the former, the C for the latter (the D was for “data”). The BCD system was developed over a number of years, and ultimately installed in all heritage data centers where it functioned to draw the network together into the tightest unity it had yet achieved.

The BCD System and the Natural Heritage Network were awarded the prestigious Computerworld Smithsonian Award in 1994.

In addition to the use of the BCD to draw the network together, actual computer networking software (in its WAN form rather than its LAN form) – and ultimately the internet – also played a significant role in the success of the Natural Heritage effort.

None of this occurred without difficulties and frustrations, of course. Indeed, Bob, who led the way in effectively applying computer systems and software to decisions about conservation priorities, would often sit at his computer wondering why it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. He would raise his hand, extend his index finger, cock his thumb, and fire imagined bullet after imagined bullet at the screen. Not too different from the cartoon created for The New Yorker by the insightful artist Tom Cheney.

Underpinings, Theory and Practice

icon2 Theory.
Bob's work has been motivated by neo-Malthusian beliefs, not crude pronouncements about arithmetical increases in population v. food supply, but a complex set of beliefs about consumption and the resource base. These views have not yet been put into a public forum by Bob in any complete way, and thus cannot be discussed in detail here. However, the website for his current organization puts it this way:

Biodiversity is the Earth's most precious resource. Every plant, animal, and other organism is of ancient lineage, highly adapted to the lands, waters, and other organisms with which it coexists. Biological species mediate the operations of the entire biosphere and give character and function to its varied ecosystems. Each species is a unique biochemical factory of enormous potential significance in practical human affairs, for food, medicine, pest control, research, and other purposes. Each species is also a source of beauty, interest, and philosophical reflection – and has as much right to existence and prosperity as we do ourselves. Try to imagine a world where we were alone -- no forests, no grasslands, no flowers, no fish, no bird songs, no lions or tigers or bears -- oh my!

Yet today, the biological riches of our planet are gravely threatened by an explosion of humanity and its technology. Pressured by this onslaught, biodiversity can only be conserved through wise decisions based on knowledge, which is limited by the vast complexity of the biological world and the poor job we have done in gathering, retaining and managing information about it.

It should also be noted that in The Preservation of Natural Diversity: A Survey and Recommendations, prepared for U.S. Department of the Interior (1974), Bob, who wrote Part I., begins with the sentence “America is losing ground.” and even before that quotes Aldo Leopold: “The first prerequisite of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces.”

icon2 Practice.
Conservation data increases with usefulness in direct proportion to its proximity to the landscape to which it pertains.

A principle such as this could be said to lie behind the efforts of Bob and his team. From the very first, the common formats of the Natural Heritage system were intended both for the state government agencies which had direct authority over the lands within their jurisdiction and for the local field offices of TNC which could work to protect whatever important biodiversity lay within the state.

This stands in contrast to any effort by a national agency to create such a system for the nation as a whole. It stands in even greater contrast to an international agency attempting to create a system for the world as a whole.


Not long after Bob and his team had completed establishment of permanent natural heritage/conservation data centres in all 50 of the United States, most of the provinces of Canada, and a dozen countries in Latin America, the following statement appeared, with which he has always been in agreement:
“There will be winners, and there will be losers among nations as the world moves into the next century. The next century will be the ‘Age of Biology’, just as this one has been an age of physics and astronomy. Specifically, those countries who best know how to correlate, analyze, and communicate biological information will be in the leading position to achieve economic and scientific advances.”  Robert M. May, The Australian Academy of Science Conference on Biological Informatics, July 6-8, 1998.
A much older statement, one by Gifford Pinchot and often cited by Jenkins as a maxim guiding his actions is: “The most important thing for the success of any undertaking is continuity of purpose.”

Bill Birchard's Nature's Keepers: The Remarkable Story of How The Nature Conservancy Became the Largest Environmental Group in the World, which can be read online or downloaded here, has in its index the following for Bob Jenkins: "clashed with Sawhill, 135, 137-138". The first of these concerns the beginning of John Sawhill's tenure as TNC's new CEO (he had come from McKinsey, as did his disgraced successor): "During the drafting of the mission for the new strategic plan, Robert Jenkins insisted "biodiversity”"go in the wording. Jenkins argued the Conservancy should adopt the new catchphrase of the global movement, a movement the Conservancy had invented. Sawhill and other top managers wanted plainer language: "To preserve plants, animals, and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and water they need to survive." A battle over the language ensued. Sawhill finally told the keeper of the mission for twenty years that the conversation was over. Jenkins stormed out." The second: He "showed hallowed veterans to the door. Jenkins, furious over differences with Sawhill on how to run the Heritage program, and whether to spin it off into a sister organization, fought his last battle with Sawhill. Riling his boss by telling him he didn’t know a bit about science, Jenkins left in a rage . . . ." This account is but partially correct. Bob had for some years before Sawhill succeeded to the presidency (due to another Mckinseyite who was on the Board) realized that as the Conservancy's state offices were given first-priority with respect to any funding source within their state, this created more and more difficulties for the fundraising goals he had. Funding sources were well-known for their adversion to giving two grants in the same year to the same organization. His solution was that his Science Division, under a new name, should become a separate organization, one allied with TNC but not a part of it. This would enable him to go to sources and apply independently for grants. A further part of this concept was that since the renamed Science Division would continue to supply services to TNC, TNC should be one of its primary funders, at least initially. Whether Sawhill was opposed to this idea, or simply lukewarm, is not clear, but his attitude played a key part in Bob's decision to leave TNC. Bob's departure dismayed staff, and Sawhill was visibly nervous about a potential for trouble, but Bob exited with mollifying speeches and without creating an uproar. It is interesting that, prior to Sawhill's ascension, and due to the board member, McKinsey had conducted one of its traditional analyses of the business of that organization called TNC. This analysis, conducted by younger, newer members of the firm, had concluded that TNC was simply the best environmental organization. It had a clear goal: the preservation of biodiversity. And it had created a system -- the natural heritage programs -- for measuring the degree to which it was achieving that goal. When Sawhill gave his first speech to the staff of his new organization, he said that he had decided what the primary goal of the organization should be -- to have a million members!


The term “Natural Heritage” came from Jimmy Carter, for his Georgia Heritage Trust, but Carter seems to have gotten it from Lyndon Johnson. Johnson used the term in 1966 in his Message to Congress, Preserving our natural heritage. Message from the President of the United States, transmitting programs for controlling pollution and preserving our natural and historical heritage. Johnson’s message concluded with the following:

To sustain an environment suitable for man, we must fight on a thousand battlegrounds. Despite all of our wealth and knowledge, we cannot create a Redwood Forest, a wild river, or a gleaming seashore. But we can keep those we have. The science that has increased our abundance can find ways to restore and renew an environment equal to our needs.
The time is ripe to set forth a creed to preserve our natural heritage--principles which men and women of good will will support in order to assure the beauty and bounty of their land. Conservation is ethically sound. It is rooted in our love of the land, our respect for the rights of others, our devotion to the rule of law. Let us proclaim a creed to preserve our natural heritage with rights and the duties to respect those rights:
--The right to clean water--and the duty not to pollute it.
--The right to clean air--and the duty not to befoul it.
--The right to surroundings reasonably free from man-made ugliness
--and the duty not to blight.
--The right of easy access to places of beauty and tranquility where every family can find recreation and refreshment-and the duty to preserve such places clean and unspoiled.
--The right to enjoy plants and animals in their natural habitats
--and the duty not to eliminate them from the face of this earth.
These rights assert that no person, or company or government has a right in this day and age to pollute, to abuse resources, or to waste our common heritage. The work to achieve these rights will not be easy. It cannot be completed in a year or five years. But there will never be a better time to begin. Let us from this moment begin our work in earnest--so that future generations of Americans will look back and say: 1966 was the year of the new conservation, when farsighted men took farsighted steps to preserve the beauty that is the heritage of our Republic. I urge the Congress to give favorable consideration to the proposals I have recommended in this message.
The White House
February 23, 1966

"Natural Heritage" was again used when Jimmy Carter set up the Georgia Heritage Trust while he was governor of Georgia (1971-75); Carter's trust dealt with both natural and cultural heritage. "Natural Heritage" was then picked up by the Science Division of The Nature Conservancy (which had worked with Georgia Heritage Trust). Under Bob, it launched in 1974 the network of State Natural Heritage Programs.

icon2 Selected Honors
• National Science Foundation fellowship in Evolutionary Biology, 1964-66
• Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1971
• American Motors Conservation Award, l978
• George B. Fell Award, Natural Areas Association, 1989
• Outstanding Non-governmental Conservation Biologist, Society for Conservation Biology, 1993
• Computer World-Smithsonian award (the “Oscars” of the computer industry) to BCD/Heritage in category Environment, Energy, and Agriculture, 1994
• Recognized by The Nature Conservancy, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, as one of 11 “Leaders and Legends” who contributed to its formation and success, 2001.

icon2 References
Much of the above, and more, is included in a talk Bob gave upon receiving NatureServe's first Conservation Award in 2010. A video of this talk is on YouTube (in four parts), starting with this link. These can also be accessed from NatureServe's page about the award. The full text of the speech (20 pages) is found here.










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Keeping an eye on biodiversity