By Cindy Rank
Ben Stout, father, teacher, friend, scientist, ecologist, activist and lover of life, died August 3, 2018. Since then there has been an outpouring of fond remembrances from a multitude of friends, acquaintances, and co-workers.
When I first heard I sent the following message to the WV Highlands Conservancy Board.
Sad news this morning as longtime friend, Conservancy supporter, activist and teacher Ben Stout died.
His enthusiasm for life and his love of our fresh water resources and all the critters who live in those streams invigorated and inspired all who knew him.
His determination to share his knowledge and expertise in support of communities harmed by polluting industries was boundless.
He gave unselfishly of his time, energy, knowledge and skills to protect the environment and the goodness of the world around us.
He will be missed
For me personally it feels as though a certain circle of life has been completed – I met Ben at Canaan and I last saw him at Canaan.
The first time we met was in the early 1990s during meetings of the Canaan Valley Task Force, a platform for discussions and negotiations initiated by Chris Clower of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other supporting agencies like WVDNR that culminated in the official establishment of Canaan Valley as the country’s 500th National Wildlife Refuge. Ben’s research and documentation of the increasingly negative impacts of human activity on the unique wetlands of the Valley added a certain urgency to the conversations and highlighted the need for greater protection of the area.
The last time I saw Ben was also in Canaan – just a year ago at the Highlands Conservancy 50th Anniversary celebration. He loved the area and enjoyed any time he could spend in the Valley, Dolly Sods, the Sinks of Gandy, etc. whether fishing or hiking or on a paddle board during the 50thcelebration. [see photo].
Interspersed throughout the 25 years between those events were a multitude of trips to southern West Virginia and encounters at meetings, on mine sites, and at public hearings across the state where Ben’s work and mine overlapped, and our mutual desire to protect the water resources of West Virginia was being challenged.
Ben was born and raised in West Virginia and taught Biology and Stream Ecology at Wheeling Jesuit University for the past 26 years. His environmental research, scientific publications, and testimony are widely recognized.
Among the many awards he received he may have been most proud of his recent and very prestigious induction in the first class of Fellows of the Society of Freshwater Science in 2017, an honor given in recognition of outstanding contributions inthe field of freshwater science.
Prior to working at Wheeling Jesuit, Ben taught at Southern West Virginia Community College in Williamson and Logan. He would later return to those communities to testify in Federal Court in our first mountaintop removal litigation on behalf of citizens arguing that valley fills stemming from mountaintop removal mining operations were a violation of the Clean Water Act.
He often said that was a life changing experience that led to even greater involvement with communities throughout West Virginia, southwestern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio where water pollution from industrial activities – mainly from coal mining and other coal related activities but also later from the newer unconventional gas well drilling – has devastated the people and the environment.
He loved life, his three kids, his students, and the world around him —- And he loved bugs – especially those tiny critters that live in small headwater streams and work hard every day to keep our freshwater streams healthy and happy.
It has been noted elsewhere that Ben’s career-long goal had been to “bring the voice of science to the people.” And boy did he.
His enthusiasm and joy were contagious…. He made science come alive when he talked.
Whether explaining the stream life continuum in court, or excitedly picking out tiny organisms from the very headwaters of Pigeonroost Branch to show Judge Haden there truly was life worth saving in that stream, or talking with reporters and filmmakers overlooking Hobet 21 or other mountaintop removal mine sites, Ben was at his best.
Whether listening to and talking with community members in Mingo County where the injection of toxic coal sludge had polluted their well water, or with community members near the toxic Little Blue Lake coal ash lagoon in northern WV and nearby PA, Ben paid attention to pockets of people who weren’t being heard, documented their concerns, and gave them a new voice.
Of all the tributes I’ve read the following from a co-worker at Wheeling Jesuit may have said it best:
“Ben made the biology degree go far beyond book learning. It was also great that Ben took his students into the back roads of West Virginia–it wasn’t ever just about the data. The work addressed the impact that compromised water quality has on human communities and wildlife habitats. Dr. Ben Stout’s legacy lives on through his students, publications, and audiences throughout WV and Appalachia who valued his voice and continue his work. What a pleasure and honor it was to cross paths with this wise soul.”