Community rallies behind college professor

The community has voiced support for San Juan College professor emeritus Ken Heil, whose herbarium budget is projected to be cut by more than half in the upcoming school year

Joshua Kellogg
Ken Heil, curator of San Juan College's herbarium, stands for a portrait at his home in Farmington Thursday.
  • The budget for San Juan College's herbarium is expected to be cut by more than half in 2016-2017.
  • Officials say they are scaling back operations at the herbarium and looking for external funding.
  • The herbarium's curator, Ken Heil, was recently presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • Residents, faculty and head of New Mexico Oil and Gas Association have voiced support for herbarium.

FARMINGTON — Members of the community and a state oil and gas organization have thrown their support behind a part-time professor at San Juan College who manages the college’s herbarium as budget cuts threaten to significantly reduce funding for his department.

Ken Heil, a professor emeritus at San Juan College, curates the college’s herbarium, which stores about 65,000 samples of preserved plant specimens from New Mexico and the Four Corners. Heil's knowledge has been tapped by government and business alike to identify threatened or endangered species at proposed work sites.

Heil started working at San Juan College around 1980 and retired in 2011, but has continued working part-time to maintain the herbarium. And he occasionally teaches a course.

Heil is responsible for founding the herbarium and growing it into the third-largest in the state behind the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University. The herbarium contains the largest collection of plant species samples for the Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo Nation tribal lands, Heil said.

The herbarium's $20,000 budget is projected to be cut by more than half — $12,500 — for the 2016-2017 school year, according to Ed DesPlas, the vice president for administrative services.

Heil said his salary was about $15,000, and he expects it to be significantly reduced if he renews his contract for the upcoming school year.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” Heil said.

DesPlas said the college is scaling back operations in the herbarium — which means Heil will have fewer hours for curating — and is looking for external funding to supplement its budget.

“We have to find ways to fit our operations in the budget while preserving the core of our operations,” DesPlas said. “It’s not something we want to cut but we have to reel back on expenses.”

The college board approved a proposed budget of $51.7 million for the 2016-2017 school year — a drop of $2.1 million from the current school year — due to declines in oil and gas production tax revenue, state funding and student enrollment.

Heil was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards on April 22 in Albuquerque.

The awards program was created in 2015 to recognize the hard work of New Mexicans dedicated to restoring and protecting the state’s heritage and environment, said Jill Turner with the New Mexico Environment Department.

The creation of the award was inspired by Heil’s lifetime commitment to the betterment of the New Mexico environment and he was its first recipient, according to Turner.

“It’s kind of humbling,” Heil said about receiving the award. “It’s exciting.”

Ken Heil was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards on April 22 in Albuquerque.

Andrea Cooper, the president of the college’s faculty association, shared news of the award at Tuesday's college board meeting.

“What he has accomplished is astounding," Cooper said.

Cooper said concerns voiced by faculty, students and the community may have been heard by the board, which discussed seeking external funds for the herbarium at Tuesday's meeting.

Ilyse Gold was one of two people who spoke during Tuesday’s board meeting about the importance of Heil’s knowledge related to curating the herbarium and its future operations.

The herbarium is a valuable resource for government agencies and oil and gas companies that need to determine whether endangered plant species are located on potential work sites, said Gold, a former Bureau of Land Management employee and consultant at Nelson Consulting.

She also presented board members a copy of a letter written by Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, stating Heil and the herbarium support the oil and gas industry in a number of important ways.

Henke said in his letter that Heil provides a crucial service by providing scientific information and identification of federally listed plant species that could affect the permitting and development of energy resources.

Michael Ottinger, the college’s School of Science, Math and Engineering dean, said Heil provides a nice service to those seeking advice by researching any potential endangered plant species but he added that neither the college nor Heil receive any income from the consulting.

“My primary concern is student instruction, we want to keep that going,” Ottinger said. “Our focus needs to be on educating our students. When budgets are small, we can’t provide all the free services we have been.”

Gold said she is concerned that without someone qualified to curate the herbarium, it will fall into disarray.

Ken Heil, curator for San Juan College's herbarium, stands for a portrait at his home in Farmington on Thursday. The budget for the herbarium is expected to be cut by more than half for the upcoming school year.

Heil is concerned the herbarium will be relocated to another college or donated to UNM or NMSU.

Ottinger said the herbarium will remain on San Juan College’s main campus and the college is lining up a professor to help curate the flora library.

In the future, DesPlas said the college is interested in pursuing external funding to bring the herbarium back to its $20,000 operating budget.

College board Vice Chairman John Thompson — an engineering manager at Walsh Engineering and Production — said if government agencies and oil and gas companies are using the herbarium and Heil’s expertise to resolve environmental assessments, they could help contribute funding to the department.

“It’s something we need to look at and if the government is reaping the benefits of these efforts, we’re always looking for sources of revenue,” Thompson said.

Heil said he is not interested in continuing his contract at a lower pay or in pursuing external funding for the herbarium. He is currently looking to put his house up for sale for a possible move to Las Cruces or Phoenix with his wife Marilyn.

"There is nothing holding us here now," Heil said.

He’ll spend the remainder of his contract, which ends on June 30, teaching the next curator how the herbarium works.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.