Tom Jordan spent his academic career at the University of Minnesota Duluth figuring out the mechanics of some very inside stuff like nonlinear quantum dynamics.
But it's the professor emeritus' love of what's outside that drove his decision to invest in the Northland's biological future.
Jordan has donated the first $100,000 for a new Biodiversity Fund at the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation. Grants from the fund will be given to nonprofit groups who promise to help preserve and restore habitat and conduct research and education on biodiversity, which means diversity among plant and animal species in an environment.
"I'm not a rich man. I don't have a lot of money. But I don't have any heirs and I wanted to give back in some sort of meaningful way," Jordan said of his effort.
Jordan grew up in Duluth, graduated from UMD and earned his graduate degree at the University of Rochester, New York. After six years on the staff at the University of Pittsburgh, he jumped at a chance to return to Duluth to teach and research in UMD's physics department.
"I've always been an outdoor person, skiing and kayaking and hiking and sailing,'' he said. "But where I really came to understand what was happening around us is my activity (on the board of directors) at Hartley Nature Center. You could say I was getting environmentally educated along with the students there.''
Jordan, 74, has lived through a huge increase in global human population. There were about 2.1 billion people on Earth when Jordan was born. Now there are nearly 7.1 billion and global population is expected to reach as high as 12 billion by the end of the century. Jordan envisions serious problems by then maintaining other species across embattled ecosystems in the wake of increased human needs and demands.
"I try to put myself at the end of the century and think, what can we do now that will best help them solve their problems? What will they say then that they wish we would have done now?" Jordan said. "I came to the conclusion that the best thing we can do now is save the pieces. Every piece (of the natural world) we can save now gives them one more chance in the future. Every piece we lose now, it's gone forever. Extinction is forever.''
Projects eligible for Biodiversity Fund money also could focus on curbing impacts of climate change or invasive species, two big factors that already are limiting the number of species in the Northland. Invasive zebra mussels, for example, are killing off native clams. And a warmer climate might be a major factor in Minnesota's diminishing moose herd.
Only interest on the fund will be spent each year with the first grants, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, awarded this spring. Eventually, with additional donations and sound investments, it's hoped the fund's corpus will grow big enough to support tens of thousands of dollars of research and rehabilitation projects each year.
Jordan will join a diverse group of science and outdoor experts to form a committee deciding which applications are funded. Others include UMD scientist John Pastor; Kris Larson, executive director of the Minnesota Land Trust; Glenn Guntenspergen of the U.S. Geological Service; Community Foundation board member Claudia Scott Welty; and Duluth conservation activist Dave Zentner.
While the loss of biodiversity is a global crisis, Zentner notes, the survival of many species might be dependent on local action.
"Science confirms that we are losing our diversity of plant and animal communities. We will never make global progress unless we see the need to act'' locally, Zentner said in announcing the Biodiversity Fund. "Tom's vision gives us an opportunity to make a difference here at home.''
Holly Sampson, president of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, said several of the more than 300 different funds the foundation manages already award money to environmental and sustainability issues. However, she said, this is the most specific to encourage a richness of species in the region.
"Tom is just such a visionary on this that I think this may get our area out ahead of the curve on what things will look like, 10, 20 years down the road; as far as which species are in trouble,'' Sampson said. "It's going to complement things our other funds already do toward sustainability and Great Lakes issues ... but this will really be the most focused (fund) we have in this area.''