Our Stories


Professor Joe Bowersox

Related Material


Professor Joe Bowersox Earns SOLV Citizenship Award

Long before Willamette Professor Joe Bowersox was the Dempsey Chair in Environmental Policy and Politics and director of the Center for Sustainable Communities, he was just a kid on a minibike, racing around a dirt track near his parents' home in rural South Salem.

It was during one of those rides when he encountered something that shaped the entire course of his future: a Chinese Pheasant.

As the bird launched into the air, dodging the minibike, Bowersox considered his intrusion into the creature's space. "This belongs here, and I really don't," he thought. He felt as if he overstepped his bounds. Ashamed for nearly killing the pheasant, Bowersox put away his minibike — and thus began a career dedicated to the environment.

His tireless commitment to improving Oregon's communities and to furthering environmental and sustainability research and policy has earned him a 2010 SOLV Citizenship Award. He is one of four to be recognized by the nonprofit that works to improve Oregon's environment.

Bowersox joined Willamette in 1993, and he teaches courses in environmental politics, policy,  forestry, and ethics.

His research focuses on forest and fire policy, water policy and sustainability. He has served on state watershed councils and worked for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden on forest policy. His publications include articles on water policy, forestry, fire policy and environmental political theory.

Shaped by his environment

A long family connection to the land is part of what led Bowersox to that dirt track that changed the scope of his life. His great-grandparents were farmers and foresters. His father turned down a position with the Rand Corporation as a theoretical mathematician and moved to Salem because he didn't want to raise his family in Monterey, Calif.

Instead, the elder Bowersox became a teacher. Summers became time to explore the country in the family's station wagon. They picked a direction and drove.

"I remember going to Yellowstone, Glacier and along Canada 1," Bowersox says.

At home in the country, he was two miles from his nearest friend. He would explore the back pasture after school, sometimes on his small minibike. The meeting with the pheasant ultimately led him to the focus of his work: the intersection of human culture and the natural world.

He was drawn to political science at Oregon State University and pursued his master's degree and doctorate at University of Wisconsin-Madison. "By the time I finished, I wanted to do something broader," Bowersox says.

Shaping our environment

He has added to his political and scientific toolkit by taking courses in environmental law and Geographic Information Systems. In addition to his extensive academic contributions on issues of environmental policy, Bowersox founded the Salem Sustainability Network, serves on city task forces and regularly speaks to political and community groups.

"We need ecological, social and economic literacy to put the pieces together," he explains. It is this balanced perspective that he seeks to advance in his public policy work.

Bowersox was a driving force behind the purchase of Willamette University Forest at Zena, 305 acres of forestland that the university uses as a research station. "One of the things we can do at Zena is to balance healthy ecosystems with healthy economies," he says.

He envisions Zena as a resource for human-scale, sustainable agriculture and forestry. "It's about how you do it, and what you leave behind," Bowersox says.

This work provides educational opportunities for students through clubs or the Summer Sustainable Agriculture Program.

As director of the Center for Sustainable Communities, Bowersox helps provide grants for sustainability projects and bring fantastic speakers to campus through the Dempsey Lecture Series — including attorney and environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Alumnus Jeff Bennett '10, who built a wind turbine with a CSC grant and was featured in Sierra magazine, said Bowersox "leads by example, showing us by charging first into the poison oak, fighting off the white-faced wasps, and listening to his students after he has lit a spark in them."

Bowersox will be on sabbatical next year, working on a book-length project about forests and fire management.