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This page last updated February 08, 2009

In Memory 
Joy Belsky


Following a long illness, Joy Belsky died in Portland, Oregon on the morning of Friday, December 14, 2001.

Joy Belsky, booster for public land, dies

Michael Milstein
The Oregonian

Joy Belsky, a Portland range ecologist who rose to national prominence in a male-dominated field while crusading to boot cattle off public lands in the West,  died Friday of breast cancer. She was 56.

Belsky took on ranchers who she argued were letting their cattle  trample native plants and wildlife, public agencies that she believed discriminated against  women and fellow range scientists who she maintained were too timid to speak up against  practices that damaged the land.

In Oregon, she fought plans to shoot coyotes on the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge and forced federal land agencies to face scientific questions about the impacts of livestock grazing.

"Certainly she was out front on a lot of issues that were important to her and society," said Bill Marlett, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, which employed Belsky as a staff ecologist. "She had this unbridled spirit and integrity that she was not willing to compromise what she thought was right."

Born in Texas, Belsky received degrees from Smith College, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the University of Washington. She studied the grasslands of Africa for more than five years before poaching became so rampant she had to leave.

"The last few months we were there, they shot 17 poachers from helicopters," said her husband, Bob Amundson of Portland.

She later completed research at Syracuse and Cornell universities before moving to Oregon and taking a job with the Oregon Natural Resources Council and, later, the Bend-based desert association. She published more than 45 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters on African and North American grasslands, many of them blaming livestock grazing for upsetting the delicate balance of native plants and wildlife in the arid interior West.

That made her one of the most prominent American women in range management and earned her the ire -- and often the grudging respect -- of the mostly male ranchers and range managers who had long dominated the field.

"We have certain things we believe to be true and when someone like Joy challenges you on them, it forces you to think them through more carefully," said William Krueger, professor and head of the Department of Rangeland Resources at Oregon State University. "In that way, she probably made us better at the same time she made us angry."

An activist on many fronts, Belsky also sought a greater role for women in natural resource management and science. When she felt scientific conferences sponsored by federal agencies lacked women speakers, Belsky often sent organizers -- and congressmen -- a list of female researchers who were qualified to speak.

Survivors include her husband; her mother, Sally Belsky; and a sister, Janice Schwartz.

A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Sunday at Holman's Funeral Home on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.


In Remembrance


Profession or Area of Expertise

Grassland ecologist (Ph.D.), staff ecologist for a grassland/desert grassroots environmental organization

Biographical Sketch #1

Joy Belsky came on board with the Oregon Natural Desert Association in the Summer of 1996. As staff ecologist, she reviewed the scientific and legal adequacy of federal and state resource management plans and developed scientific bases for protecting natural ecosystems. Joy held a B.A. from Smith College, a masters in forest ecology from Yale University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Prior to moving to Oregon in 1992, she was an assistant professor at Syracuse University and senior research associate at Cornell University, where she also taught graduate courses in plant ecology and investigated the ecology of grazed ecosystems and the properties of tropical savannas in Tanzania and Kenya. She published over 45 peer-reviewed scientific papers and book chapters on African and North American grasslands and rangelands. From 1993-1996, Joy was staff ecologist for the Oregon Natural Resources Council.  

Biographical Sketch #2

ONDA Staff Ecologist Joy Belsky was born in Abilene, TX, where ranching and oil are supreme. It wasn't until many years later that she learned that the mesquite, thorny shrubs, and prickly pear that cover the West Texas landscape were not the original vegetation dominants, but had migrated there from Mexico after livestock grazing had decimated the midgrass prairies that originally covered the land.

Joy's job at ONDA was to review the scientific and legal adequacy of federal resource management plans and develop the scientific basis for protecting natural ecosystems. She held a BA. from Smith College, a Masters of Forest Ecology from the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and a Ph.D. in plant ecology from the University of Washington. Prior to moving to Oregon in 1992, she was Research Assistant Professor at Syracuse University and Senior Research Associate at Cornell University, where she taught graduate courses on plant ecology and investigated the ecology of grazed ecosystems and the properties of tropical savannas in Tanzania and Kenya. She published over 45 peer-reviewed scientific papers and book chapters on African and North American grasslands and rangelands.

Recent publications on western grassland conservation:

Painter, E.L. and A.J. Belsky. 1993. Application of herbivore optimization theory to rangelands of the western United States. Ecological Applications 3:2-9.

Belsky, A.J. 1996. Viewpoint: Western juniper expansion: is it a threat to arid northwestern ecosystems? Journal of Range Management 49:53-59. 

Belsky, A.J. 1996. Wild and prescribed fire in forests of the Intermountain West: A policy statement. Wild Earth, Fall, 1996. 

Belsky, A.J. 1996. Timber imports: Environmental concerns. In: Morrell, J.J. and G. Filip (editors). Importing Wood Products: Pest Risks to Domestic Industries. Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR. 

Belsky, A.J. and D.M. Blumenthal. 1997. Effects of livestock grazing on stand dynamics and soils in upland forests of the Interior West. Conservation Biology 11: 315-327. 

Belsky, A.J., A. Matzke, and S. Uselman. 1997. Survey of livestock influences on stream and riparian ecosystems in the western United States. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation: 54:416-531.

Gelbard, J.L., and A.J. Belsky. (Draft) Contributions of livestock grazing to exotic plant invasions in rangelands of the Intermountain West. To be submitted to Conservation Biology in the Fall of 1999. 

By and About


In Remembrance
(email sentiments for posting here to


    ONDA web page

  • I am very sorry to learn of Joy’s death. She was a wonderful, vibrant person; the world is poorer without her.

    In addition to her contributions to range management and conservation that are the focus of the obituaries, she also did fine basic science. Her American Naturalist article on the question ‘does herbivory benefit plants?’ has become a classic. It reviewed the literature and ‘knocked a lot of sense’ into what had been a rather speculative subject, demonstrating that there was, in fact, almost no evidence that herbivory can have a positive effect on the plant that is being eaten (although herbivory may indirectly benefit that plant’s competitors). That was a major contribution to the field! Her African papers are excellent scientific studies, too.

    Norma Fowler
    Professor, Integrative Biology
    University of Texas at Austin


  • Joy was ONDA's staff ecologist and one of the most knowledgeable, dedicated, passionate grasslands advocates in the United States. In addition to being an excellent and accomplished scientist, Joy demonstrated an amazing commitment to the meaningful protection of the West's drier landscapes. She was a true champion of underdogs, of the sometimes-charismatically-challenged creatures that comprise the vital bedrock of intact, healthy, functioning arid-land ecosystems...bunchgrasses, cryptobiotic crusts, coyotes, junipers, redband trout, Washington ground squirrels. In her much-too-short but incredibly action-packed career, Joy eloquently identified and described the ecological travesty wrought by livestock grazing in the Intermountain West; her myriad peer-reviewed papers (45 in all) helped form the scientific foundation for the need to end livestock grazing on public lands.

    Joy was, in a word, remarkable. Other words that have been used to describe her during these past couple of days include: warm, brilliant, inspiring, tenacious, spirited, stubborn, loving, funny, openly passionate, and one heckuva role model.

    It was an enormous honor for all of us at ONDA to be able to work with Joy these past five years. We'll miss her very, very much. And we promise that we'll try like heck to pick up where Joy so ably left off.

    Gilly Lyons
    Grassroots Coordinator, Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA)
    Portland, OR


  • Joy and I were postdocs at the same time in Sam McNaughton's lab. Although she and I disagreed about her interpretations of Sam's work (and later my work), it is a shame to lose her so early in life. Her conservation efforts are much appreciated. Safari njema, Joy!

    Linda L. Wallace
    Professor of Botany
    University of Oklahoma
    Norman, OK


  • I've always admired Joy because of her commitment to use rigorous science in the cause of conservation and her willingness to ask hard questions and to persevere even in the face of intense opposition. Even though I didn't see her that often, she was an inspiration to me. She will be sorely missed.

    P.A. Harcombe
    Rice University
    Houston, TX 77251

  • While I did not know Joy very well, only a brief acquaintance for information on the impacts of grazing, I think that she would welcome these thoughts of how we might remember her...


    I am a thousand winds that blow,
    I am the diamond glints on snow.
    I am sunlight on ripened grain,
    I am the gentle autumn rain.
    When you awaken in the mornings
    I am the swift uplifting rush,
    Of quiet birds in circled flight.
    I am the soft star that shines at night.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry.
    I am not there.
    I did not die.
    For as long as man remembers me
    I am not dead,
    But dwell in thee.

    May she rest in peace in a place where the cattle don't graze on public lands.

    Greg Schneider
    Danville, CA


  • Dr. Belsky was a conservation ecologist who studied and wrote of herbivore / plant interactions in Africa and in North America as well as other conservation issues related to arid lands management. Some of her most important work related to the destructive impacts of livestock grazing in arid lands, and is critically important in management of those lands to the benefit of all sorts of wildlife taxa. To my thinking, Dr. Belsky's greatest attribute was her outstanding ability to understand the scientific process and understand research methodology and its proper interpretation and application. She was able to understand the subtleties of research design and show why some research, including peer reviewed publications, did not actually demonstrate results claimed for that research. In particular, perhaps her most famous scientific contributions centered around the important question of whether herbivory actually benefits plants or whether plants tolerate herbivory. This question may seem unimportant to the layman, but in the world of arid lands management, the dynamic issues relating to that question make a world of difference in conservation management. With the endangerment and decline of numerous species of birds, raptors, fishes and other taxa due to poor aridlands management, it is significantly important that the issues researched by Dr. Belsky continue to receive attention and application.

    In honor of Joy Belsky, I would like to share a neat poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns, called "Goodnight and Joy." In the past, when I read this poem, or hear it sung by Scottish folksinger Dougie MacLean, I have thought of American conservationist John Muir and his famous action of climbing into a tall tree and riding out a severe, thundering winter storm in utter exhuberation. But I will now think of Joy Belsky as well when I hear this song, because her name is included in the poem itself and because it seems to echo some of her own greatness of personality and of a wonderfully significant life of service to her fellow man and of the ecosystems of which we are a part.

    Here is: "Goodnight and Joy" by Robert Burns

    The year's wearin tae the wane
    And day is fadin west awa
    Out raves the torrent and the rain 
    And dark the cloud comes down the shaw
    Let the tempest taut and blaw
    Upon his loudeswinter horn
    Goodnight and joy be with you all
    We'll maybe meet again the morn

    O we hae wandered far and wide
    O'er Scotland's hills o'er firth and fell
    Many a simple flower we've culled
    And trimmed them wi' the heather bell
    We've ranged the dingle and the dell
    The hamlet and the baron's ha
    Now let us take a kind farewell
    Goodnight and joy be with you all

    Though I was wayward, you were kind
    And sorrowed when I went astray
    For o my strains were often wild
    As winds upon a winter day
    The far I led you from the way
    Fergie a minstrel since for a
    A tear fas wi his parting lay
    Goodnight and joy be with you all

    Submitted with grief, but immense appreciation for a splendid scientist and person. Joy Belsky will be missed and never forgotten

    Stan Moore
    San Geronimo, CA


  • Words cannot express my gratitude for Joy, what she stood for and what she accomplished. I have come to rely on her for her insight, her work and all that she did to bring light to our cause. Her loss is a great loss to us all. I will miss having her there.

    John Carter
    WWP Utah
    Mendon, UT

  • She was one of the first scientists to take on the bogus "holistic ranching" paradigm and challenged its progenitor, Alan Savory, in scientific journals. Joy was also one of the most articulate and knowledgeable researchers on the critically important issue of cryptobiotic crusts.

    While the no-grazing movement has lost an invaluable leader, Joy has left a legacy of pioneering spirit and scientific courage that is rare among PhD-level scientists and perhaps rarer still within the mainstream environmental movement.

    Joy Belsky will be missed!

    David Orr
    Moab, UT

  • It is so hard to think of a world without her, she has been such a tremendous force in my life for so very long. To begin to appreciate what an influence she has been in our world, one need only go to Google and search under Joy Belsky.

    Beth Painter
    Santa Barbara, CA

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