By Published: Jan. 25, 2022

Professor emeritus was recently awarded an outreach grant to assist in community efforts to mitigate environmental degradation on the Front Range

For more than 40 years, Tim Seastedt has studied prairie grasslands and alpine tundra.

A professor emeritus in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, Seastedt no longer lectures formally but has maintained his involvement with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Since retiring, Seastedt has more time to devote to Front Range ecological conservation and restoration efforts, and enthusiastically works with volunteers of all ages.

“What I enjoyed the most about teaching was working with students in the field,” he said. “Now I think of myself as a free-range ecologist. The trick of retirement is to keep doing what you enjoy and do more of it. So that’s what I’m doing.”

Laying out a vegetation monitoring plot for an alpine tundra restoration project at Summit Lake, CO.

At the top of the page: Seastedt (third from left) and Wildland Restoration Volunteers build erosion control structures to enhance sage grouse habitat and re-wet meadows in North Park area, CO. Above: Laying out a vegetation monitoring plot for an alpine tundra restoration project at Summit Lake, CO.

Seastedt is faculty advisor for the CU chapter of the Society of Ecological Restoration. He also directs an outreach program at CU Boulder assisting community efforts to mitigate environmental and climate change degradation on the Front Range, which was awarded a three-year CU Boulder Outreach award from the Office for Outreach and Engagement. A group of faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students participate in these activities and serve as volunteer educators while partnering with Wildland Restoration Volunteers (WRV).

WRV is a Colorado nonprofit that provides opportunities for people to come together, learn about their natural environment, and take action to restore and care for the land. Seastedt serves on WRV’s volunteer-led scientific advisory committee and previously served on the nonprofit’s board.

The group partners with the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement to bring underrepresented CU Boulder students into science fields and connect them as mentors with the WRV youth. The goal is to have 75% of youth participants come from low-income, minority or at-risk groups. Seastedt said WRV’s hands-on activities provide underserved youth access to the benefits of a connection to nature.

“We want them to know they can explore potential careers in environmental sciences and see possibilities for how they can make an impact,” Seastedt said. “We see ourselves as CU ambassadors with the youth group.” 

WRV volunteer activities include removing invasive plant species, planting shrubs, seeding grasses, rebuilding trails and reducing fuel loads in forests. These efforts enhance the ecological resilience of the Front Range.

“My most recent activities have involved evaluating the relative strength of the various ecosystem types in terms of their contributions to reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide,” Seastedt said. “And then considering whether we can enhance those contributions through restoration work. Is it something we can not only maintain, but improve? In many cases the answer is yes.”

Another facet of his restoration work is finding low-tech ways to repair damaged riparian areas (the area alongside the banks of rivers) and wetlands in Colorado’s increasingly arid landscape. The trick, he said, is to reconfigure the land to get the water up and out of troughs and gullies, and freely flowing onto the former floodplain. When culverts and conduits have been placed in natural gullies to direct runoff water to croplands and pastures, those directed streams are prevented from naturally flowing over the land.

One way of restoring wet meadows and small streams is Zeedyk rock structures, which are low-profile, hand-built constructions made of rocks, branches and soil that help slow and disperse water. These methods were used by the ancient Puebloans and were handed down to multiple groups in the Southwest.

 “Zeedyks are made to capture, spread and slow water in ephemeral runoff, reduce erosion and reverse down-cutting of ditches, what has been called ‘rewetting the sponge.’ They work nicely in the Front Range,” he said. “You can actually rewet the surrounding landscape and reap the benefits of having more water on the vegetation.”

Seastedt’s interest in ecology took root during summers spent at his grandfather’s remote cabin along the Platte River in Nebraska. He earned a BS in zoology at the University of Montana and worked with a wildlife research unit monitoring bears in Yellowstone National Park. While working on a master’s in biological sciences at the University of Alaska, Seastedt studied birds and bugs on the Alaskan tundra.

The trick of retirement is to keep doing what you enjoy and do more of it. So that’s what I’m doing."

In 1979 Seastedt received a PhD in ecology at the University of Georgia. For a decade in the 1980s, he had a faculty appointment at Kansas State University, conducting grassland research in the Tall Grass Prairie with a focus on the effects of fire.

“What I really wanted to do was big picture, ecosystem ecology,” he said. “That gives you a perspective you can’t get by studying just individual organisms. You have to put the subjects in the context of the whole system to really understand them.”

Since he enjoyed his master’s work on the Alaskan tundra, Seastedt jumped at the opportunity to direct the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research Program at INSTARR. While serving in that role for 12 years, Seastedt also stayed involved in grassland work.

Now his volunteerism provides learning opportunities for Colorado middle and high school students. In 2019, his efforts to engage the community in land conservation and preservation were recognized with the Chase Faculty Service Community Service Award, presented to a faculty member who provided exceptional educational, humanitarian, civic or other service in the community.

Seastedt continues to teach people of all ages about both the big and small aspects of the ecosystem that surrounds us, as well as adding to our knowledge of how to deal with important climate challenges. When asked how people can help make a difference, he gave four actions we can take: words, actions or lifestyle, financial support and votes.

“If we’re going to solve the climate crisis—it’s those four pieces of the puzzle,” Seastedt said.