LARAMIE - The paving of paradise in his hometown area in Pennsylvania turned Bob Berry into a conservationist and brought him and his family to Wyoming nearly 30 years ago.
"They have a parking lot there that can hold about 2 million cars," Berry said. "It used to be a pastoral community of forest and farms and now is completely developed with industrial parks and housing developments. There's not a single green area in the entire township."
Hoping to help Wyoming to a better future than the path taken by King of Prussia, Pa., Robert and Carol Berry of Sheridan have given the University of Wyoming $10 million to establish the Robert and Carol Berry Center for Natural History and Conservation.
It's the largest single cash gift ever received by UW, President Tom Buchanan said Tuesday at a press conference announcing the gift. It will be matched by state funds approved in previous legislative sessions.
"The university has been blessed by the generosity of these donors," Buchanan said.
In a telephone interview later from his home in Sheridan, Berry said one of his motivations in making the gift was to bring some balance to the university's research and teaching.
"There's so much emphasis on energy extraction in Wyoming and so little money and focus on wildlife," he said. "I'm hoping this will do much for Wyoming's wildlife."
Berry received degrees in business from Penn State and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and took over his father's United States Liability Insurance Group. After buying the Wolf Creek Ranch in Wyoming in 1978, he commuted to Pennsylvania for 19 years to operate the company, eventually selling it to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Berry has been a falconer since an early age and was one of the founders of the Peregrine Fund, which brought the peregrine falcon back from the brink of extinction. On his ranch near Sheridan, he is overseeing the captive breeding of rare tropical birds such as the orange-breasted falcon and the ornate hawk-eagle, in association with the Peregrine Fund, based in Boise, Idaho.
"We hope to begin re-establishing the falcon in Belize and Guatemala very soon," he said.
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His work with rare species in Central America brought him a medal from the president of Panama, and he has also been recognized as Landowner of the Year by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Berry is on the boards of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the Wyoming chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which is where he met Dennis Knight, a UW botany professor who was the first to attract Berry's attention to the university.
He is also experimenting with plants at his ranch. "We are working with a variety of cultivars that we hope will be beneficial to grassland birds," Berry said.
He hopes the UW center will have a strong emphasis on bird research.
"The center should help place UW among the world's leading research and educational institutions in the life sciences with a focus on ecology and ornithology," he said. "Like the canaries in the coal mines, birds are perhaps one of our best indicators of environmental health. In fact, one of the reasons the orange-breasted falcon is so rare in the tropics may be the inability of the birds to adapt to climate change."
The center will unite the Rocky Mountain Herbarium's extensive plant collection and the Solheim Mycology Herbarium, presently located in UW's Aven Nelson Building, with the university's zoology collections. The Wyoming Natural Diversity Database and the Nucleic Acid Exploration Facility will also be located in the 40,000-square-foot facility to be built on the north edge of campus where the old power plant is currently located, with completion expected in 2010.
UW zoology professor Craig Benkman, who currently holds the Robert B. Berry Distinguished Chair in Ecology, was one of the principal contacts in securing the gift for UW. Although the primary emphasis of the center will be on teaching and research, Benkman says he envisions that the facility will provide opportunities for tours and workshops for K-12 students and for undergraduates. The center will also feature some public displays.
The gift will enable UW to hire a curator and assistant to expand and improve the zoology collections.
"We will be working closely with state and federal agencies to be a repository for specimens collected for research going on in this state and region and also through our own research," Benkman said.
"It will be fabulous," he said. "It will be a real asset to the campus and the academic and research programs. By working with other groups, it will provide a resource for the entire state."