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  • A Long Look Ahead: William L. Bray and Early Texas Conservationism
  • Char Miller (bio)

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Ecologist William L. Bray (1865–1953) was an expert on the vegetation of western Texas and one of the state’s first conservationists; he taught at the University of Texas and Syracuse University. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 90-105, Science Service Records, Image No. SIA2008-0060.

William L. Bray seemed called to the Edwards Plateau, the dominant landform in Central Texas. Not in the religious sense, exactly. He was botanist, not a minister. But the vast, uplifted, and semi-arid terrain was the scene of some of his most important work, research he approached with special fervor. The wellspring of his fervency was at once spiritual and scientific. Bray noted this link in an address at the May 1925 dedication of the University of Texas’s new Biological Laboratories Building: “It is unthinkable that a universe so vast, so wonderful, so beautiful, so orderly, and that a creature with power to discern and appreciate all this, should be matters of chance or without motive.” However centering Bray’s Christian faith was, its focus was “turned to the business of right living and acting in this present,” a social gospel that led Bray to pursue the “betterment of human environment and of social conditions.”1 Science thus played a formative role in shaping human affairs. For Bray, this meant that botany had utility, that it should be of use to society, an argument he had announced in his dissertation. Assessing “plant life in Texas as the product of its environment,” he wrote approvingly, “lies in the growing tendency to rely upon such study to furnish a rational basis for the exploitation of plant life in agriculture, horticulture, forestry, [End Page 251] agrostology, and various other economic fields.”2 Bray made the same case twenty-seven years later at the grand opening of the university’s new laboratory. Botanists, he argued, were “concerned in what way the plant world can be induced to yield toward material human welfare.”3 That was why he was deeply interested in the “practical benefits to the people of the State growing out of the service of botanical science,” a concept the title of his address highlighted: “Botany and the State.”4

Bray’s utilitarian perspective was consistent with the defining values of his academic discipline, its professional ethos and social advocacy. Established in 1894, the Botanical Society of America promoted botanical research in American universities and colleges that would be linked to the demands of industrial capitalism, affirmed the priority of academic expertise over amateurism, and publicly supported the creation of forest reserves as part of its utilitarian credo.5 Bray embodied these professionalizing commitments during his decade-long career at the University of Texas, from 1897 to 1907. While there, he mounted a series of robust botanical investigations and rigorous ecological analyses of two regions in the state led him to develop a sophisticated set of policy recommendations for their careful, scientific management. In particular, he made a strong case for the immediate application of conservation measures to control natural-resource exploitation on the Edwards Plateau of Central Texas and in the Piney Woods of East Texas to insure these regions’ ecological stability and economic productivity across time. Bray, in short, emerged as the leading academic advocate for the implementation of a state or national regulatory presence on the ground. He had no doubt such oversight of unregulated capitalism was necessary, even if little directly came of his convictions.

Bray’s zeal was manifest in his man-on-a-mission approach to life. Born [End Page 252] in Burnside, Illinois, in September 1865, the ninth of thirteen children born to William and Martha Bray, he was educated in local public schools. After high school, Bray earned a teaching degree at Missouri’s Kirkland Normal School (now Truman State University) and spent the next set of years as a teacher and administrator in Iowa and Missouri. Showing his inclination toward the social gospel, he took a twelve-month leave to direct the YMCA in Fresno, California. During his free time, the...