Michael Windham is just the kind of guy you'd want on your side if you were a 3-inch mustard plant that clings to craggy rock outcroppings at elevations from one to three miles above sea level, your whole life one big constant buck of the evolutionary odds.
For reasons known to Mother Nature and no one else, the world's only known stronghold, to use the term loosely, of the mustard plant also known as Draba burkei is along a small corridor of mountains in northern Utah.There are a few plants north of Ogden in a place called Chicken Creek. There are a few scattered here and there elsewhere, like gypsies, and finally, the largest collection - the New York City of Dra-ba burkei - is on and around Mount Ogden, site of the Snow Basin Ski Area.
All of which puts Draba burkei square in the path of, that's right, the sporting event also known as the Olympic Winter Games.
At the exact spot where they plan to blast rock at the top of Snow Basin to erect the starting gate for the Salt Lake Games of 2002 downhill course, a large Draba burkei development has already put up curb and gutter.
Wouldn't you know it?
It was about five years ago that world mustard plant authority Reed Rollins - he is to mustard plants what Stephen Hawking is to physics - suggested that a sensitive mustard species indigenous to the mountains of northern Utah might actually be TWO species.
Which, if true, would make each of them doubly sensitive.
That's when the Forest Service asked Windham, a botanist at the Museum of Natural History on the University of Utah campus, to look into it. Examine the mustard plants from a region in and around Logan and the mustard plants from a region in and around Ogden, and see if they were one and the same.
Windham went to work. He put the plants through the microscopic wringer. You name it, he did it. Enzyme banding. Check. Chromosome analysis. Check. Scanning electron microscopy. Check. And the coup de grace - DNA testing.
His findings: They are two separate species all right. Trust him. The odds are roughly 1 billion to one - about the same that it's O.J.'s blood on the glove.
Distinguishing Ogden's new strain of mustard plant isn't the first discovery for Windham, a bull of a man at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds with a certain Indiana Jones air about him.
In 15 years as a botanist, he's averaged about one new species discovery a year. He even had one of them named after him, a fern called astrolepis windhamii, although they look nothing alike.
Standing in his office with a poster behind him that says "Ferns are Ferntastic," Windham shrugs off any suggestion that he's the savior of Draba burkei, calling himself "just the scientist behind the scenes."
But considering that Draba burkei is part of "the tapestry of life," he is all for more testing - as are, to their credit, the Forest Service and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee - to make sure this isn't the strand that unravels the quilt.
I drove from Dr. Windham's plant-filled office to Snow Basin, a veritable genus-species paradise.
In the parking lot, Pete Miller rolled up in a four-wheeler. Pete directs the ski school in the winter and keeps an eye on the construction in the summer.
He's been around Snow Basin since 1953, but, still, he had to admit the rare mustard plant has taken him by surprise. "Never knew it was here," Pete said. "But I also have a hard time raising tomatoes."
I asked him where the downhill starting gate will be. "Right behind there," he said, pointing to a peak high above the valley floor.
I looked up at the high craggy rock outcroppings, the condominiums of choice for Draba burkei. Not far below, construction trucks rumbled.
To be continued ...