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Watzin Wins Roosevelt Award

By Joshua Brown Article published September 27, 2006

Mary Watzin didn’t grow up on Lake Champlain. “But I feel like it is my lake now,” she said, having spent the last 15 years studying its waters and ways, “and I want to do everything I can to protect it.”

She seems to be succeeding. Watzin, professor in the Rubenstein School and director of the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory, received the Teddy Roosevelt Award—given to “those who have dedicated themselves to preserving Lake Champlain as precious resource,” the award citation reads—from the Lake Champlain Islands Chamber of Commerce in Isle La Motte on September 16.

“The reason we picked Mary is her outstanding research,” said Ruth Wallman, executive director of the chamber of commerce that established the award and co-hosted this year’s celebration with the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust and the Lake Champlain Land Trust. “She has done so much on the lake over the last dozen years to help us understand the blue-green algae that has been such a problem for landowners up in the northern part of the lake.”

Watzin, an ecologist whose research focuses on understanding how human activities influence ecosystem health, received the award as part of Isle La Motte’s annual “Teddy Roosevelt Day” celebrations, held at the historic Fisk Farm. There, on September 6, 1901, then vice-president Theodore Roosevelt declared: “the nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value.”

During that same visit, Roosevelt learned of the shooting of President McKinley, an event that soon lead to Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency—from which he launched an unprecedented era of land conservation in the United States.

“The challenge for my generation is not just to conserve what we have, but to aggressively restore some of what we have lost,” Watzin said as she received the award before more than 100 people including Vermont governor Jim Douglas. “By [Roosevelt’s] criterion, I’m not sure that the nation has always behaved that well. When we look at Lake Champlain today, no question, we see impairments.”

The most problematic of these impairments comes from excess phosphorus, pouring down from farms and lawns into streams and rivers—and then building up in lake water and bottom sediments; it’s a key culprit in the complex blue-green algae bloom that Watzin is helping to unravel.

“I see my job as not just doing research, but as translating science—for the purpose of better management of the lake,” Watzin said.

Past Teddy Roosevelt Award winners include U.S. senators Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords, Art Cohn, executive director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, state senator Dick Mazza, and, last year, the conservation organization, Friends of Missisquoi Bay & Conservation Baie Missisquoi.

“On the hundredth anniversary of TR’s visit to Isle La Motte, we established this award to honor people who have carried on his legacy of conservation,” Wallman said. “Mary has provided practical information and focused attention where problems are the worst. She’s a great friend to the lake.”