It’s not every day that you’re introduced to a Chief Emeritus of the U.S. Forest Service—but coincidentally, that’s what happened on my very first day of work at the Leopold Foundation. I was starting a summer fellowship, charged with the task of sampling one of the Foundation’s restored prairies as part of a long-term research project. On my first day, I walked into the Leopold Center on a bright June morning for an orientation with Steve Swenson, the foundation’s Director of Conservation.
As we toured around the building, we ran into Executive Director Buddy Huffaker chatting with a guest in the kitchen. Steve introduced me to Buddy, who introduced me to his guest, Dr. Michael Dombeck. Dr. Dombeck happened to be visiting the foundation that day, and he greeted me warmly and expressed real interest in my upcoming summer work. Then we dispersed and went our own ways. It was just another day at the office for Steve and Buddy, but it was not lost on me that I had just met one of our country’s most respected conservationists, the only person to lead both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. At that point, I knew the Leopold Foundation was different than most other organizations.
In total, between my summer internship and subsequent term as a Land Stewardship Fellow, I spent about 690 days working both inside and outside the offices of the Leopold Foundation. I didn’t meet Forest Service Chiefs every day that I was there (and definitely not on the days that we sprayed garlic mustard from dawn until dusk), but in that time, I watched literally thousands of conservation professionals pay visits to the foundation and tour the Leopold Center and the Shack, both for work and on their own time.
I also met hundreds of non-professionals who came to the foundation for most of the same reasons that conservation professionals pursue their work—because they feel an awe of nature and a wish to give back and make a real connection to our natural communities. Professionals and non-professionals alike journey to the Leopold Foundation to see and feel the work of people who can, did, and continue to fulfill an endeavor of the spirit.
Because of this underlying quality as a place welcoming to everyone, the Leopold Foundation offers common ground to people who may not normally cross paths in day-to-day life. Throughout my tenure at the foundation, I sat in board meetings with construction CEOs and civil rights activists; I learned about Leopold from internationally recognized ecologists; and I flew to New York City to assist at a land ethic event hosted by a Fox News anchor at the Beretta store on 5th Avenue.
I burned prairies and woodlands for university professors, DNR employees, a retired NFL player, hunters, artists, and the family that founded Great Dane Trailers. I attended summer harvest parties with the Leopold family and spoke on the phone with a local man from Riley who told me stories about his memories of Aldo. I pulled weeds with volunteers and worked alongside my fellow interns every day. These people, all so different, showed me many perspectives that each had an influence on my own developing land ethic. They converged into a practical and very personal definition of conservation, all my own.
This period of growth during my fellowships and undergraduate program opened my mind to acknowledge new ideas and challenge conventions. When I started my education, I knew that eventually, I wanted to pursue a master’s degree. I envisioned myself testing hypotheses related to restoration ecology or spending my field seasons capturing wildlife for my very own population study. However, as my definition of conservation evolved, I became intrigued by elements of the field that I had previously written off as uninteresting or even unethical—specifically, the role of hunting in conservation.
I first heard a botany professor mention hunting as a tool to conserve plant communities, allowing me to consider it as a potentially viable management tool. After becoming friends with a group of young conservation professionals connected to the Leopold Foundation, all of whom enveloped hunting as a significant way to connect with the natural world, I got the chance to further understand hunting from a land ethic perspective. I started learning to hunt and found that it became as meaningful to me as it did to them.
Intrigued, but still suspicious of whether hunting is truly ethical, I chose to devote my graduate research to understanding this question. As I studied the problem of declining hunter numbers in the United States, I became more familiar with the positive and negative impacts of hunting on wildlife populations, its vital role in historic conservation ideologies, and how this history has played out in our current infrastructure of state and federal conservation programs. As with most controversial topics, hunting is more complicated than it appears on the surface. It can be viewed from many different perspectives.
In my graduate program, I tried to take what I learned from the Leopold Foundation to gain a fair and objective understanding of one tiny cog in the mechanism of Conservation. I used both quantitative and qualitative methods to explore hunting, first by using capture-mark-recapture (a classic statistical method used to examine wildlife populations) on a non-traditional species—human hunters. Now, I am using in-person interviews with female hunters to understand hunting through the lenses of feminism and social change.
Even after I left their employ, the Aldo Leopold Foundation has been a constant supporter in my journey. They’ve partnered with me on grants, looped me into opportunities relevant to my research, and supported me through professional relationships and personal friendships. They have, without question, helped me find a niche in the conservation community where I feel I can make gradual, unique, and real change.
Although I had not yet finished my Master’s degree, I was hired by Wisconsin DNR as a limited term employee almost a year ago. In July, I accepted a coveted permanent position with WDNR as a Recruitment, Retention & Reactivation (R3) Coordinator. (A student in our Hunt for Food class asked me this week who I had to kill to get a permanent position, and I refrained from saying “a lot of deer….”) I now work with a team to help hunting, angling, and the agency evolve with our modern social values.
In my work, where I sometimes feel lost in how things appear on the surface, I try to always keep a big picture in mind with the question of ethics at the center. What is the right thing for conservation? What would Leopold do? I constantly reflect on his success as an enduring conservationist, and I think it was his skill in seeking out diverse perspectives to fully understand a problem or solution that made him unique. The Aldo Leopold Foundation cultivates leadership by fostering this diversity in perspective, and their training has given me the tools to make this a way of my thinking. For that, I am grateful.
Feature photo, top, shows Emily with Turkish visiting fellow Ufuk Ozdag during a prescribed burn.