Generations of University of Utah students have strolled down a shady, brick-lined pathway on the western edge of campus known as Cottam’s Gulch. It’s named for the late Walter P. Cottam, a professor of botany at the University for more than 30 years and an outspoken advocate for conservation nationwide. Cottam’s efforts helped lead to the later creation of both Red Butte Garden and Arboretum and The Nature Conservancy. Because of him, the entire U campus is a state arboretum and serves as the arboretum portion of Red Butte Garden.
Cottam was born in St. George, Utah, in 1894, and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Brigham Young University. After completing his doctorate at the University of Chicago, he returned to Utah and taught at BYU for 12 years. In 1931, he moved to the University of Utah, where he spent the rest of his career and used the campus land for plant research.
Cottam’s early advocacy for conservation—especially his 1947 groundbreaking lecture, “Is Utah Sahara Bound?”—brought him national attention. In the lecture, he argued that overgrazing was turning Utah into a desert—an assertion that angered powerful farmers and ranchers. But time has shown the value of his research, and many of his suggestions have since been adopted. “It was largely through Dr. Cottam’s efforts that land practices changed and conservation became a reality in Utah,” the Deseret News wrote in his obituary in 1988.
Cottam was one of the co-founders of the Ecologists Union, which later became The Nature Conservancy. In Utah, he was instrumental in seeing that lands at the mouth of Red Butte Canyon were set aside for a research center, which later became part of Red Butte Garden. And at his request, the Utah Legislature established the State Arboretum of Utah on the University of Utah campus in 1961.
Cottam retired from the University in 1962, and toward the end of his career, his tireless work on behalf of Utah’s native landscape was recognized with many honors, from organizations such as the Utah Foresters Club; the Ecological Society of America; the National Council of Garden Clubs; and the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters.
After retiring from the U, Cottam began his work on the hybridization of oaks, combining two different species of oak to produce hardy hybrids, which can now be found all over the United States.
Besides Cottam’s Gulch on the U campus, the Visitors Center at Red Butte Garden is named for him. His classes on wildflowers of Utah are fondly remembered by generations of University alumni. And the U’s campus is graced by hundreds of beautiful trees from all over the world, many of which Cottam himself planted.
—Roy Webb BA’84 MS’91 is a multimedia archivist with the J. Willard Marriott Library.
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