Roland Clement died at his home in Hamden, Connecticut on March 21, 2015 at the age of 102. After serving from 1950 to 1958 as the first full-time Executive Director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, he went on to make his mark on a bigger stage with the National Audubon Society. While in Rhode Island, the roster of his friends, colleagues, and birding partners, which he talked about at the Survey’s spring lecture in 2008, was a veritable roll-call of our Distinguished Naturalists—David Emerson, Harry Hathaway, William Drury, Harold Gibbs, Doug Kraus, Elmer Palmatier, Irene Stuckey, and Elizabeth Dickens.
Roland was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, the oldest of seven children. He said that he first became interested in birds after coming eye-to-eye with a black-and-white warbler at the age of 8 while exploring the woods and trails near his family’s cottage at South Watuppa Pond. He joined the Boy Scouts at age 14, where working on his bird-study merit badge focused his interest in ornithology. In 1930, at the age of only 18, he was invited to give the spring lecture for R.I. Audubon at the Roger Williams Park Natural History Museum. There he was introduced to 13-year-old David Emerson, and they became life-long friends.
He kept up his interest in birds and birding through the 1930s, including a month banding birds on Cape Cod. In 1938 he began studying wildlife management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, but left in 1940 and returned to Rhode Island. He joined the R.I. Ornithological Club, which had been organized in 1939 while he was in Amherst. The membership included Dave Emerson, Bill Drury, Harold Gibbs, and Doug Kraus, among others. He edited the New England Bulletin of Bird Life in 1942, but then joined the Air Force, serving as a weatherman in Louisiana and Labrador. In both locations he took advantage of the available habitats to continue his studies of birds and other wildlife.
After the war, Roland took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled at Brown University, where he majored in botany and minored in geology. He completed his undergraduate degree and went on to graduate study in wildlife conservation at Cornell. During his time at Brown he led numerous programs for R.I. Audubon, was an instructor at a series of summer Conservation Workshops for teachers at Goddard Park, and organized the first Christmas Count that tallied over 100 species of birds. Among his dedicated students and field assistants during those programs was Grace Donnelly, who was a teen-ager at the time. Grace nominated Roland for the RINHS Distinguished Naturalist Award in 2008, writing “My older sister and I thrived on what Roland taught us. His impact has proven to be long-lasting. … The excitement of that Christmas Count persists.”
Roland became the first full-time Executive Director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island in 1950, and moved the office from Harold Madison’s home to the Arcade. During his tenure the Society’s visibility substantially increased, attracting new members. He tried to broaden their focus from birds to environmental conservation. For a time he had a weekly half-hour program, called “Wildlife in Rhode Island,” on local TV. He began running the fall Block Island Birding Weekends, which continue today. During those years he also taught at Brown and Rhode Island College. He returned to Labrador in 1957 and 1958 to complete some of the bird studies he had begun during the war. In 1955 he had the foresight to hire an educator away from Massachusetts Audubon to run school programs for the Society—Al Hawkes, who replaced him as Executive Director three years later.
Roland was invited in 1958 to join the National Audubon Society’s staff in New York City as membership secretary. He claimed to have accepted the offer “mostly to make ends meet.” He was quickly promoted to staff biologist, then to staff ecologist, and finally to Vice President. He was in charge of their sanctuary program during a major expansion, and was instrumental in the establishment of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida. The sanctuary program led to his being involved in several of their endangered species programs: whooping crane, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, California condor, and wood stork. He was deeply committed to Audubon’s battle against chemical pesticides, and was called “the best of Rachel Carson’s public defenders.” His last four years at National Audubon were occupied with studying conservation problems in Latin America and reporting on the destruction of tropical forests.
Some of his other achievements during his long and distinguished career include: Chairman, International Council for Bird Preservation; Chairman, Environmental Advisory Board to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Trustee, Environmental Defense Fund; U.S. Director, World Wildlife Fund; and Richard King Mellon Fellow, Yale School of Forestry.
Roland Clement had a significant impact for two decades on Rhode Island as a dedicated naturalist, teacher, and organizer. Then he took his talents to the national and even international level for another two decades. As Grace Donnelly said, his impacts have been long-lasting, and he is truly deserving of the 2015 posthumous Distinguished Naturalist Award.