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Wyoming People

Range scientist Quentin Skinner retires

Written by Jennifer Womack

 By Jennifer Womack, WLR Managing Editor

Laramie – “I’ve always looked at Wyoming as my laboratory,” says University of Wyoming range scientist Dr. Quentin Skinner. Following a 34-year career of service to the state, Skinner has announced his retirement.
    “It’s the least populated state, it’s the headwaters of major river basins and it’s semi-arid high mountain habitat,” says Skinner. “So in my field, of range, I’m working with probably the most pristine section of the United States with the exception of maybe Alaska. It’s been a wonderful laboratory.”
    Raised in Pinedale, Skinner spent his summers wrangling dudes in the Wind River Range for his family’s outfitting business. Upon graduation he attended the University of Wyoming. He spent three years in Alaska serving in the military and returned to Laramie to carry out his graduate work. “I came to the range college in 1978,” he says. “We were made a department in 1979.” Skinner has taken advantage of the educational opportunities that surround him, receiving degrees from the College of Education, Arts and Sciences and multiple degrees within the College of Agriculture.
    During his tenure with the college Skinner has maintained work in three areas – teaching, extension and research. He’s been involved with over $24 million of research and had 38 graduate students. Somehow, amidst all his activities, he’s found the time to author three books, numerous bulletins and a deck of cards featuring western grasses.
     Skinner says UW and universities across the West have changed during his tenure at the college. “Extension is deemphasized and research is emphasized,” says Skinner. “There’s a lot of talk about how important teaching is, but I think it’s talk. Universities are in the business of conducting research and bringing in soft dollars.”
    Skinner says many universities, UW included, are changing to nine-month appointments. “The faculty is going to do what they can to pay themselves for those three months,” says Skinner. He says it’s an approach that undermines the colleges’ service to their states. “My major professor, Alan Beetle, and the set of professors I was under never worried about raising money,” says Skinner. “They were teachers and teaching and they did research, but the college and the university supported them. My generation of being a faculty member was right on the start of bringing in large contract dollars and conducting research programs you funded from outside sources.” Long-term Skinner says they’ll be fewer and fewer accomplished scientists teaching college classes. He hopes it’s an area Wyoming residents keep an eye on and comment to their legislators, governor and college leaders about their wishes.
    “I taught because I love it,” says Skinner. Graduates of the University of Wyoming range program across the nation have taken grass taxonomy and watershed management from Skinner. “They’re a good combination,” says Skinner of the two classes. “Grasses tell you so many ecological stories about conditions and trends. The two classes go hand-in-hand.” Skinner is fond of the students he’s had over the years and they feel the same about him.
    “Quentin and Bill Laycock are responsible for getting me into my master’s program, and the first thing I remember about Quentin is how passionate he was for every student he advised,” says Bob Budd, now executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund. “I presented him with a list of courses I thought I might like, and he took a pen to the list, crossing off about two-thirds of them. ‘You don’t need that.  Instructor isn’t very good.  You already know this,’” says Budd quoting Skinner’s edit of the list. “He marked about half of the remainder as classes I should take, and then added others I had not put on the list – limnology, stream habitat ecology, wildlife ecology – with a very clear pattern.”
    “‘You came back here to understand ecology,’ he said, and that is where he guided me,” recounts Budd. “It was a life-changing period, and could have been so much less without his advice.”
    Laughing, Budd adds, “Quentin is totally incompetent as a driver, so when you did field work, you drove, and he talked.  Mostly you drove and he pointed things out, apparently under the assumption that I was capable of driving and studying the landscape meticulously.”
    “Above all, Quentin is a coach,” says Budd. “He teaches like a coach. He acts like a coach. He cares very deeply for anyone on his team, and he is one hell of a coach. I think I got more out of my education as a result of Quentin than anyone has a right to ask for.”
    Budd, and five other graduate students under Skinner, completed graduate studies with work on Muddy Creek in southern Carbon County. “It was a perfect stream to build structures in,” says Skinner. “I picked the study sight on snowshoes in the wintertime.”
    Skinner says it was a success story not only because of the habitat work accomplished, but because of the classroom it provided. “We built a road in and it was a wonderful teaching tool. We had great tours out there,” says Skinner. He says the science was insignificant when compared to the partnerships that were formed and the educational opportunities provided. When he was working with the Turkish government, Skinner says every student who visited Wyoming was required to tour Muddy Creek. “It was because the villagers were the ones doing the work, not the government,” says Skinner.
    Skinner is equally passionate about his extension work and says he’ll continue collecting data on some of the Wyoming ranches he’s visited for multiple decades. “You can’t express what it’s like to go into the mountains with the Bousmans, the Turnells or Truman Julian. You can’t express the value of that kind of friendship. It’s really made me focus the last 20 years on my research to answer the applied questions I’ve needed in extension and now water quality.” Since 1996 Skinner has focused his work on water quality. As part of that he’s spent a great deal of time teaching conservation district personnel about watersheds.
    “He’s been pivotal to the watershed efforts of the conservation districts in this state,” says Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director Bobbie Frank. “He brought 30 years of experience and willingly shared it taking it beyond the University to the country.” Teaching a three-day watershed course to district employees Frank says, “I would venture a guess he taught Watershed 101 to 500 or better participants since 1998. He was always open for challenges. He’d say, ‘You can disagree with me, but you better show me your science.’”
    Skinner and his wife Arlene will call Georgia, near their son Quentin Daniel, home. The couple also has two daughters, one a Denver attorney and the other in Germany where her husband is stationed in the Air Force. “I’ve thought about what I can do that’s most beneficial for society and I think I’ve come to the conclusion it’s writing the grass field guides,” says Skinner who will spend his time photographing, writing and continue what he’s done best – educate.
    “Arlene and I, and the Skinner kids, all are appreciative of having the opportunity to be at the University and particularly pleased to be a member of the College of Ag,” says Skinner.