Leopold fellows, staff, and members of WPFAC tour Sand Valley Resort
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Fellowship Experience Fills the Toolbox

What do young people today need to be equipped as conservation leaders? It’s a hefty question, but the Aldo Leopold Foundation has undertaken the challenge of finding out. Their answer? While complex, it can be distilled down to seven key elements: Applied Science and Natural History, Communication, Conservation Philosophy, Finance & Fundraising, Leadership, Partnership Building, and Strategic Planning. These serve as a backbone for the extensive schedule of professional development opportunities for the fellows in the Future Leaders Program.

These opportunities are part of a highly sought-after and unique aspect of the program: fellowship workloads are structured to strike a balance of 80% work and 20% professional development. Each year, the cohort has a different composition, but they always draw from a variety of disciplines. As a result, individual fellows have varying levels of background knowledge around the seven key elements of the curriculum; however, the goal is to provide a well-rounded, thorough, and robust experience that provides innumerable benefits to all involved. I am a fellow in the program this year.

Leopold Fellows on a field trip at Durward's Glen

The 2019-2020 Leopold Fellows pose at Durward’s Glen on one of their Natural History field trips. Suzanne is on the far right.

One of our first workshops was about CliftonStrengths, an online assessment tool designed to help individuals identify what they are best at and give teams common language around deploying their strengths. While I was familiar with the model from previous workplaces, learning how the strengths of my supervisor and closest co-worker influenced what they naturally expected from others in the workplace was incredibly insightful. Likewise, I was particularly enthralled with the discussion around agency, standing, and significance during our organization-wide day of learning about ethics from a visiting professor, helping to fulfill the Conservation Philosophy curriculum component. It shed new light for me on one of my favorite philosophers of all time, Peter Singer, and opened doors for fascinating conversation when we broke into small brainstorming groups.

Another lesson that stands out was gleaned from the Land Ethic Leaders workshop, where I observed how essential it is to be up-front and clear about expectations when leading groups in constructive discourse. With learning opportunities at every turn, it can be hard to keep track of them all, but two other experiences remain particularly vivid: the Wisconsin Private Forestry Advisory Council (WPFAC) and the tour of Sand Valley Resort that followed.

View of Sand Valley Resort landscape

A landscape view of Sand Valley Resort in Nekoosa, WI.

WPFAC is a gathering of representatives from non-profit organizations, government agencies, and the forest products industry who meet to formulate recommendations for the State Forester and DNR about private forestry programs in the state. My role at WPFAC was to observe from the sidelines.

From such a vantage point, I was able to devote the time and attention necessary to perceive telling subtleties in the discourse. While Buddy Huffaker, our Executive Director, listened and contributed to the discussions, I took vigorous notes. At the end of the day, when reading through and attempting to amalgamate my scrawl, what jumped out at me were countless examples of artfully crafted and effortlessly delivered diplomatic framing.

Diplomatic framing? Yes. Phrases and ways of wording artfully employed to avoid defensive responses and to facilitate constructive collaboration. There were several masters at this in the room, and it was eye-opening to watch their efficacy. Here are a handful of examples:

  • “I’m hearing you ask…”
  • “Do folks feel like they need…”
  • “What are people’s comfort level with…”
  • “I would encourage…”
  • “Let me reinforce and build on that…”
  • “At what level do you envision the process being informed by…”

Since the WPFAC meeting, I have added many such phrases to my own tool belt. Although still a novice, I’ve begun experimenting with my new tools, sharpening them as I go.

Following the meeting, a tour of the grounds was offered by the hosting venue, Sand Valley Resort. It was wonderful to see how world-class golf and conservation meet and mingle there, inviting guests to explore both simultaneously. What I remember most though, was an anecdote shared with us by owner Michael Keiser, highlighting the resort’s emphasis on engaging all levels of staff in natural resource protection:

In addition to thinning pine plantations to make space for reversion to historic cover types, encouraging the growth of native plants in areas off the green is the norm at Sand Valley Resort. The dominantly sandy soil there sets the stage for lupine to perform its flowering spectacle, which then lures Karner blue butterflies to the scene. These endangered butterflies are lupine obligates, and thus depend on the plant for their survival.

Endangered Karner blue butterfly rests on the leaf of a lupine; flowering lupine to the right.

Left: The endangered Karner blue butterfly rests on the leaf of a lupine. Right: The lupine in bloom.

Because Sand Valley Resort recognizes the inherent value of protecting these butterflies, all levels of staff have been taught to keep their eyes peeled for lupine – caddies point it out to guests as they walk from hole to hole and groundskeepers guard it zealously. Michael Keiser knows when he sees a ring of strategically un-mowed grass around a lone lupine that the message is being taken to heart. He told us that seeing his staff show that level of commitment to conservation makes him proud. I smile whenever I think about him telling that story, and I see it as an exemplification of what it means to lead with a vision so strong that people can’t help but want to follow.

Not all workshops and field trips in the Future Leaders Program illicit such deep reflection, but it’s my nature to be contemplative; for example, some of the more hands-on opportunities have been Chainsaw Safety and Learn to Hunt. As the fellowship progresses, our calendars continue to be populated with time to learn! Upcoming workshops I’m especially looking forward to include Understanding Financials and Strategic Planning – essential competencies for conservation leaders that those of us just starting out aren’t often exposed to.

As a recent college graduate, the richness and intentionality of this fellowship have challenged me in ways I would have never imagined, strengthening my suite of skills in the process.


We’re accepting applications for the 2020-2021 cohort of Future Leaders! Deadline is February 15, 2020.

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