Billick in process of leaving as RMBL E.D.

Board interviewing replacement candidates in July

By Mark Reaman 

After almost 25 years as executive director, Ian Billick is stepping away from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). The RMBL board is currently conducting a search process for his replacement. He will officially leave RMBL in about a year on June 1, 2025. His first association with RMBL was in 1988 as a student.

“I won the life lottery when I arrived in Gunnison County 37 years ago, meeting my wife and raising our two boys here,” Billick said. “As for this decision, there is what passes for a lull in major projects and with our youngest son graduating from high school in June of 2025, I decided to take the window of opportunity to change things up a bit. I like to do that at least every 25-40 years or so.”

Billick has been involved with RMBL since the late 1980s. He worked as a research assistant in 1989-1990, worked on facilities in 1991 and did the field work for his PhD (from UC-San Diego) at RMBL from 1992 to 1997. He and his wife Jennie were winter caretakers from 1996-1997 and he served on the RMBL Board of Trustees from 1993-1995. He taught summer courses in 1998 and 1999 and stepped into the role of executive director in the fall of 2000.

During the last couple of decades, RMBL has seen extensive growth. Billick said that the amount of research days (like skier days) has increased from 9,000+ days to 15,000+ days, adding hydrology and atmospheric research to traditional strengths in ecology and evolutionary biology. 

“The number of scientific publications per year has doubled to about 60. The research is more collaborative and the infrastructure intensive,” he explained. “We’ve added data from sensors, drones, planes and satellites to the notes that scientists collect in the field. The field research is integrated with all the modern techniques, including genomics, isotope work and spectroscopy. Historically the research was primarily funded by the National Science Foundation. Now we see projects funded by the Department of Energy, NASA and NOAA.

“We shifted the undergraduate education program such that every student does a research project, approximately one-third of which leads to a scientific publication,” he continued. “We added the two-week high school course, and we now actively support programs in the Crested Butte and Gunnison schools.”

RMBL’s board president Dr. Dan Blumstein said RMBL has been fortunate to grow under Billick’s guidance. “Ian was a visionary and transformative leader during his nearly quarter century as the executive director of the RMBL,” he said. “He oversaw the renovation of old housing as well as the construction of new lab space, new housing, the visitor’s center and the billy barr community center. Through his leadership we imagined and constructed a spatial data platform that helps us better understand at unprecedented spatial scale microclimates through the valley. He oversaw the increase in the diversity of research and researchers conducted at the RMBL—we maintain our strengths in ecology, evolution and behavior and now have many newer researchers studying atmospheric sciences, hydrology and geology in the valley. 

“This intellectual expansion has helped us increase the value of the work that we do to understand vital ecosystem and biodiversity processes and create the opportunity to link earth systems sciences and atmospheric sciences to develop a better understanding of the world around us,” Blumstein continued. “And, through his leadership, we have started planning for an expansion to a year-round campus in the Village at Mt. Crested Butte that will provide needed housing, office and lab space. We hope to build a visitor’s center that will provide an accessible way to celebrate and share the knowledge that RMBL has created and curated. Specifically, under his leadership, RMBL has seen the annual investment in science jump dramatically, with Billick personally obtaining $10+ million in grants from the National Science Foundation to support research, in addition to grants brought in by scientists. 

Among other things, this has helped build seven new buildings, including the Gothic Research Center and the billy barr community center, and supported eight major renovations of historic buildings. RMBL’s land holdings have increased from about 300 acres on three properties to 700+ acres and 18 properties including adding North Pole Basin. Operational revenues have gone from $415,000 in 2001 to an estimated $2.8 million in 2024 with year-round payroll growing about 15 times.

“As a sign of how things have changed, we built three new cabins in 2004 to house 10 people at a total cost of about $250,000,” he said. “We are now building a new washhouse with five shower stalls, and it’ll cost more than $500,000. My sons make more hourly working as baristas, even corrected for inflation, than when I started as the director at RMBL with a PhD.” 

In terms of land management during his tenure, the Gothic Townsite has a conservation easement limiting development of the townsite, the US Forest Service has created a special management area around Gothic prioritizing research/education, Snodgrass has been removed from ski area permit boundaries, and planned residential density for the North Village which sits at RMBL’s doorstep, has been reduced about 80%.

With all of that, there is no one thing of which he is most proud. “The collaborations we have built with Los Angeles Community Colleges that ensure a wide diversity of students have opportunities to come to RMBL is one point of pride,” he said. “Along with a lot of land conservation/management to keep research and ranching in balance with recreation, overhauling RMBL’s financial model to put it on a strong financial footing including an increased endowment/reserve fund, integrating RMBL more fully into the CB community (e.g., Visitor’s Center, docents program, school programs, the Explorer’s Club), and to helping steward a vibrant community that has changed lots of lives.”

As for next steps, he is looking at the private sector while continuing to utilize science. “I’m exploring business opportunities with local partners to support field research and land management building upon integration of all the emerging techniques for observing the earth, from satellites to iPhones,” he said. “Jennie and I also have vague plans to raft the Grand Canyon.”

There have been 11 directors, with RMBL’s founder Dr. John Johnson, Sr. serving from 1928 to 1958. Susan Lohr, Dr. Robert Enders and Dr. John Johnson, Jr., each served about 10 years. Billick started as the director in October of 2000. 

As for next in line, the RMBL board of directors is actively seeking his replacement. “Ian is irreplaceable, but we’re currently searching for a new executive director,” said Blumstein. “The Board is tasked with hiring a new ED, and we’ve created a process by which RMBL members and scientists can provide meaningful feedback about the candidates. We’ve identified four excellent finalists that we’re bringing in for in-person interviews in mid-July. We’ve been making strategic investments in our excellent year-round staff that will help the new ED grow into their new role. The new ED will lead us through our centenary celebration in 2028 and help us develop future strategic plans. We’re sad to see Ian move on and we’re excited to see where this process brings us in the future!”

Billick said he is appreciative of his time at RMBL. “It’s been a real privilege to have been in this role at RMBL — wonderful people working at the top of their fields, a beautiful location and science that makes a difference,” concluded Billick. “I appreciate all the support the CB community has offered, of myself, our family and the larger RMBL community.” 

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