The first time Sam Ham ’74 was in the Galapagos Islands, he took a two-foot-long telephoto lens to capture nature up close. He was thrilled when, on a hike with a graduate student, he came across a stunning brown Galapagos hawk. Ham raised his camera, aimed, and discovered he was much too close. “I had to back up practically 50 yards to get it in focus,” he laughs, noting how “up close” nature in the Galapagos can sometimes be.
Ham, a natural resources professor at the University of Idaho, has been bumped by sea lions while snorkeling, has watched nesting sea turtles from a few feet away, and has stepped over a blue-footed boobie who set up house on a trail. This place, which has impacted so many people, has been impacted by Ham as well.
It started in 1998, when Lindblad Expeditions contacted Ham about finding a fundraising strategy to help preserve the wildlife park. So he took a seven-day cruise to interact with the tourists and experience it for himself. A communication psychologist, he tries to understand pathways and mechanics in communication that can influence people: how they think, feel, and if given the chance, behave. He calls this “making a difference on purpose.”
After the cruise, Ham had to quickly pull together a presentation for Lindblad, as well as for the president of Charles Darwin Foundation, the superintendent of Galapagos National Park, and marketing and public relations people. He suggested replacing the cruise ship’s baby grand piano with a wildlife interpretative center. He also urged sending educational material to visitors before they even left their homes. All of his ideas were aimed at educating people about the Galapagos before, during, and after their trip.
Then came the critical question: if we make these changes, how much can we expect contributions to increase? Sam hadn’t thought of that. So he pulled out of the air, “30 percent, I think we can get a 30 percent increase.”
The cruise line did what Sam suggested, right down to replacing the baby grand. But when the donations came in, the contributions hadn’t increased by 30 percent, but by more than 250. The donations helped wildlife agents on the two largest islands eradicate the feral goats and pigs that were threatening endangered tortoises and sea turtles.
A 1974 graduate in forestry management, Ham returned to Washington State University for his master’s degree in forestry and range management (wildland recreation) in 1978. He went on to the University of Idaho to complete a Ph.D. in forestry, wildlife, and range sciences.
Although Ham came to the Inland Northwest to attend college, it turned out to be a permanent move. “It was too good to leave. We find it stunningly beautiful,” Sam says. He and his wife, Barbara (’73 Fine Arts), like to lure big horned owls into their yard using tape recordings of live owl calls.
While the Palouse is home, Ham has worked in over 40 countries. He even taught himself Spanish to further his international work. “I wanted to save species, and there are more species in Latin countries than anywhere else in the hemisphere,” he says.
Now at the University of Idaho, Ham teaches courses in communication theory applied to natural resource management, wildland resource conservation, and international issues in nature conservation. He is the author of Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets, and has published more than 350 articles.
“Had I gone to school anywhere else, I don’t know what I would be doing. I guess it’s fate. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do,” says Ham. Richard Shew, a WSU professor in forestry and ranch management, validated Ham’s direction: to get people to love nature as much as he did. Shew was also interested in communication and the art of interpretation. But it was William Catton, one of the world’s first human ecologists and a WSU sociology professor, who taught him about sustainability.
A tour guide and ranger in the summers of his college years, Ham was first chief naturalist of Whitman County parks. He also designed and built the amphitheater at Kamiak Butte as a student in 1974.
“I love nature and wanted to make a living that way,” says Ham.
Last year, Sam Ham received the William C. Everhart Award for his contributions in environmental interpretation and communication, a cap to a long career of supporting and protecting great places in nature.