Having recently completed the Land Stewardship Fellowship and with some time to reflect, I attempted to summarize my experience with the hope that it will be useful to those considering to apply. Please note that it is impossible to mention every detail, but I tried to include the best. And, of course, everything here is just my humble opinion. (Spoiler: It was thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding, though highly dependent on one’s own input.)
1. The Day-to-Day Work
You will get familiar with operating all the machines (pictured) in all types of weather conditions, from heat to snow, from mud to puddles. Getting stuck and then being rescued by your supervisor is part of the deal. (Or was it just me?) These are used to mow trails, prepare fire breaks, and generally as a means to transport materials. For those interested, there will be ample opportunities to maneuver the trailer as well.
2. Controlling Invasives
Acronyms GM and RCG will become very familiar to you (also known as garlic mustard and reed canary grass, respectively, and EAR means emerald ash borer, by the way). I looked at my year’s statistics and counted a total of 141 person-hours spent on garlic mustard alone! All this, of course, in the dear company of abundant mosquitoes (it’s a pretty swampy area) and ticks (if you’re unlucky). But don’t let that put you off, as all the repellents and head nets are provided, and the mosquito season doesn’t last that long anyway. Other unwelcome plants you will be dealing with include, but are not limited to, bird’s-foot trefoil, sweet prairie clover, Japanese hedge parsley, and buckthorn.
3. Time in Prairies and Forests
As an undeniable bonus, however, a lot of your time will be spent in the beautifully restored prairies (hand-planted by stewardship fellows of the early 2000s), which are a feast for the eyes and senses of any true conservationist. Once you see the compass plants towering over the prairie, the story by Leopold takes on a new meaning. And so do the multiannual phenology observations to which you will be giving a hand. Personally, I was so inspired by the spectacle put on by the wildflowers that I committed to write a series of blog posts to capture the prairie ‘evolution’ throughout the months. If you are more interested in forestry, it is a significant part of the fellowship, too – from learning the characteristics of oak savanna and how to identify trees in winter to (optionally) getting involved with My Wisconsin Woods, a collaborative project managed by some of the staff members.
4. Get Acquainted with Wildlife
If you are most interested in wildlife, don’t despair. The Aldo Leopold Foundation takes an active role in citizen science projects and monitoring. My co-fellows and I enjoyed conducting woodcock surveys, Wisconsin marshland bird surveys, and monthly anuran surveys. We also took part in trapping small mammals for a neighboring prairie restoration project. Last but not least, there is a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera on the property (a project of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) – a sure source of surprising captures (October ones with me in them are on the right). And for hunting enthusiasts (like Leopold himself) there is an abundant deer population in the area – just saying.
5. Not All Days Are Spent Outside
On a rainy day, you might find yourself learning about truck engines or the intricacies of welding, making pine coasters or going through drone photos. However, most likely you will be reading for your next assignment. A big part of the fellowship is gaining experience and fine-tuning your skills in a number of key areas judged crucial for future success in the conservation world. (The program is indeed called Future Leaders Program.) This year involved lots of assigned readings, monthly discussions, and specific curriculum sessions and field trips on topics ranging from communication and leadership to natural science, partnership building, and fundraising. One such field trip (pictured) was to the University of Wisconsin–Madison with Senior Fellow Dr. Stan Temple to view a small fraction of the materials in the Leopold Archives. We also took several surveys to identify our strengths and discover ways to capitalize on them. Overall, the Aldo Leopold Foundation really wants fellows to succeed, and they will go out of their way to help you – from connecting to people in their very extensive professional network to job shadowing and attending professional trainings and conferences. And many of the staff have been in your shoes – several (including the Executive Director) started out as fellows, too.
6. Beyond the Land
Similarly, there will be some immersion in other areas of work beyond land stewardship, sometimes taking shape as joint work with your education and communication co-fellows. They will come on field days with you, and you will learn how to handle the front desk, phone calls, and visitors, as well as how to create social media posts and more. We also each had the opportunity to lead a project corresponding to our interests. Mine, for example, was organizing and coordinating volunteer crane counts during six weeks in November and December. If you haven’t yet witnessed the crane congregations on the Wisconsin River, you are in for a treat! It definitely left me with some very memorable moments.
7. Location, location!
You’ve come to the right place. Have images of the ‘dairy state’ of Wisconsin? Well, it’s more than that! Your beautiful brand new accommodations in the Future Leaders Center will treat you to regular sightings of woodchucks, turkeys, and deer right from the window. You’ll be within walking distance (less than a mile) to the Wisconsin River and the Leopold Shack (a National Historic Landmark). And your commute to work will now mean two-minute walk downhill! While the nearest grocery store (in Portage or Baraboo) is a 20-minute drive, it’s beautiful and scenic and provides ample opportunities for biking, walking, and running. (I think a majority of fellows gave running a try during their term, quite possibly, literally, in the footsteps of John Muir, August Derleth, and of course Leopold, who all called this part of Wisconsin home.) Surrounded by natural beauty – Devil’s Lake State Park is just one of the many protected sites in the area – you’ll learn that the term ‘Driftless region’ is the basis for the unique scenery and the reason why geologists made some great discoveries in the Baraboo Hills.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Foundation also has a reciprocity agreement with a number of attractions in the area, including the boat rides in Wisconsin Dells, the Circus World Museum in Baraboo (highly recommended!) and the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin to name a few.
8. An Active Conservation Community
Last but not least, there is a very active conservation community with a track record of success stories (of which we learned about on the field trips with Curt Meine to, say, the Coon Valley or the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant, now a restored prairie). There are also plenty of events organized or hosted by the Aldo Leopold Foundation itself – think book presentations, open houses, and workshops – including Land Ethics Leaders, a featured program already counting thousands of graduates (of which you’ll be part). Then there are events by the friendly neighbors of the International Crane Foundation (that has its own cohort of interns) and the local chapter of The Nature Conservancy. You will meet each other, for sure, at the informal summer volleyball tournament, among other gatherings!
The list of things I haven’t mentioned is still long – from cranberry, ginseng, corn, and cow chip (sic) festivals ‘Up North’ to trivia nights in town, from leading stewardship walks for visitors to giving Shack tours to your friends, from shadowing a forester to kayaking down the Wisconsin River –
in brief, the fellowship can open doors to a myriad of possibilities and experiences, and it’s up to you if you will choose to explore them. As with most things in life, the more you give the more you get back. One thing I can guarantee is that you will be in a very friendly and welcoming environment and that the foundation will be there for you. If you look forward to getting your hands dirty in all kinds of weather, to spending a year away from big cities, to learning from some of the best in the field and discovering new sides of yourself – apply! And good luck!
Want to learn more about the Future Leaders Program or view the fellowship opportunities?