by Peter August and Peter Paton
When someone has any question related to the natural history of wetlands in New England, THE authority who people turn to is Frank Golet. No one else in the region knows more about wetlands than Frank. He is a walking encyclopedia whose depth of knowledge is staggering, as it spans wetland flora and fauna, hydrology, geology, and regulations. Frank’s life and career have been dedicated to the study and protection of wetland ecosystems. In every aspect of his professional life–teaching, research, and service–Frank has excelled. It is Frank Golet’s balanced, focused, and passionate commitment to wetland ecology and conservation that makes him the deserving recipient of the 1999 Rhode Island Natural History Survey Distinguished Naturalist Award.
Since early childhood, Frank has spent his life learning about wetlands. Frank grew up in Moodus, Connecticut along the shores of the Connecticut River. His father was a commercial shad fisherman, hunter, and trapper, who also trained dogs and raised pheasants and quail. Growing up in a household that lived off the land, Frank gained an early appreciation for a land conservation ethic. He spent every waking hour outside of school exploring the fields, woods, and swamps on his grandfather’s land. One of his earliest hobbies was maintaining a Spotted Turtle collection, with up to 27 turtles. One of his earliest significant natural history observations, made when he was 9 years old, was that his best turtle collecting day was immediately following Hurricane Carol, because the very high water forced them out of local ponds. By the time he was 10 years old, he was a proficient fly-fisherman. By junior high he was an active hunter and trapped muskrats to earn spending money. His father managed land for the East Haddam Fish and Game Club, and Frank spent his summers during high school and college clearing trails, building duck blinds, clearing land, feeding pheasants, and planting food patches for game species. He gained a passion for wetlands during his childhood, and it has carried on through his academic and professional career.
Frank studied geology as an undergraduate student at Brown University, and wildlife biology (with a focus on wetland ecology) as a Master’s student at Cornell and as a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). His Ph.D. research focused on measuring the value of wetlands for wildlife habitat, and his assessment protocol was used across the Northeast.
Frank is now one of the leading scientists in the United States in wetland ecology, and has published some classic studies that are cited by scientists across the globe. He co-authored, with Lew Cowardin, Virginia Carter, and Ted LaRoe, a paper that changed the course of wetland science and conservation in the country, a classification scheme on wetlands and deepwater habitats that is widely used by federal agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service. His most recent tome is the definitive synopsis of the ecology of Red Maple swamps, the most common wetland ecosystem in our region.
Frank is meticulous in everything he does and perfect prose is the hallmark of Frank’s writing. Manuscripts and final projects proofed by Frank often are covered with more red ink than black. He is a notorious editor among undergraduates and graduate students in the University of Rhode Island Department of Natural Resources Science, where he has been a faculty member since 1972.
If you ask Frank Golet what his most significant contribution to science has been–the answer is immediate–it is his students. For each of the past 26+ years, 20-25 undergraduate and graduate students go through a grueling two-semester boot camp course in wetland science. They learn the geology, hydrology, botany, functions, and values of wetlands, as well as the policies and regulations that protect them. Graduates of his classes are the front-line of wetland research and management across the country. No fewer than 124 of his former students are professionally employed in wetland science by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the RI Department of Environmental Management, the Army Corps of Engineers, RI Coastal Resources Management Council, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a score of environmental consulting firms.
Frank’s commitment to wetland conservation has required that he work in a foreign habitat not characterized by poorly drained soils–the Rhode Island State House and the Floor of the United States Senate. Frank has been a key player in drafting wetland regulations in Rhode Island for two decades! His first assignment was a wetlands policy task force established by Governor Noel in 1976. In 1980 and 1985 he served on other wetland commissions established by Rhode Island government. Most recently (1995) he was appointed to a special commission to revise the RI Freshwater Wetlands Act which defines wetlands habitat and establishes the regulations that protect them. After no fewer than 53 meetings in Providence (starting at 7:00 am) and 350 hours of volunteer effort, a bill was drafted and introduced to the General Assembly. It failed, but this did not dampen the commitment of Frank and his many colleagues on the Commission. Slogging through thigh-deep muck and swatting clouds of biting mosquitoes develops one’s fortitude and bulldog-like tenacity. The wetlands bill has been revised and resubmitted every session since 1996. Frank’s authority on wetlands has taken him to Washington where, in 1991, he was asked to testify before the Senate Committee on the Environment on the implications of proposed changes to the national definition of wetland habitats.
Through the years Frank has trained many ecologists who are committed to the science and protection of wetland ecosystems. There are few people who have walked the planet who appreciate and know more about wetlands than Frank Golet. We are extremely fortunate to have such a dedicated naturalist in our midst.
Peter August and Peter Paton are on the faculty of the URI Department of Natural Resources Science, and both serve on the RINHS Board of Directors.