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Unexpected Lessons Learned as a Land Stewardship Fellow

“Well, honey, it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” I hear my mom’s voice say to me. A terrible childhood memory with the stomach flu floods my memory as I realize my chainsaw bar is pinched in yet another tree I’m attempting to buck up.

It’s amusing, I had actually never heard of this phrase before I started this job, and when starting to draft this blog it flowed onto the page as if it was a part of my daily vocabulary. It even took me months to figure out what it meant. Why hadn’t I heard of this phrase before now? (By the way, in case you’re like the version of me from eight months ago, buck up means to cut up a fallen tree into sections, usually 8 feet long, and remove the branches so the tree is easier to move.)

Felling trees, as safely and as tactfully as possible, and learning fun new words to taunt your dad with (to prove you now know how to use a chainsaw better than him, of course), are only a few of the skills I have developed since I began my Land Stewardship fellowship.

Example of a bucked-up tree

Example of a tree bucked-up into 8-ft logs.

A large part of my fellowship includes an independent project. These are just one of the many responsibilities my cohort and I are charged with during our time as fellows. They are our deliverables to take with us and reference in our future endeavors. My project, leading the revitalization effort of the visitor trail system, has had the most impact on my development throughout these last eight months.

I built the project from the ground up, despite holding essentially no existing knowledge on trail construction or maintenance. The process started by creating project management documents to define the project scope and timelines. Once there was agreement on the plan and scope, the implementation stage followed, and the process has even culminated into writing about it!

Much like the braiding and weaving of a river floodplain, projects do not unfold in a linear path. Applying conservation is messy. In university, I thought if I had learned all the principles and theories behind conservation, I would have no problems making decisions in the field. But, more often than not, there is no single right answer.

The perfect notch for felling a tree, cut with a chainsaw by Makayla.

I was shocked by how much time was necessary for good project management and adequate engagement of stakeholders. (Consistently throughout the process, is the best practice for this, by the way.) The immeasurable amount of time devoted to finding my vision, bringing all my stakeholders along for the ride, and then navigating ongoing conversations to reassure shared visions amongst all parties, was insightful, to say the least. These were “soft” skills I had not expected to develop during my time here – but they are likely some of the most important skills I will employ to be a successful conservationist moving forward.

On day one of project implementation, it was quickly understood that this would be, without a doubt, a messy process. The trail, physically, looked terrible. I was embarrassed one day when a visitor walked through. We had three trees on the ground, branches were everywhere, and fresh woodchips exposing our carnage.

Mud tracks from equipment used to clear trails.

The skill-building process was also bumpy. I pinched my bar many, many times. Trees would not cooperate with my five-step felling plan. I had high expectations about the skills I would develop during my fellowship, specifically, how quickly I would master a chainsaw. Days to weeks, perhaps, I thought. But then the trees and the saw humbled me.

When operating the grapple on the compact track loader, I repeatedly confused the open and close buttons on the joystick. I constantly dropped logs when I intended to get a better grip. Slowly, my skills developed. I only occasionally dropped logs mid-trip returning to the log pile. I only needed one wedge to recover a pinched saw.

Makayla driving the SVL and working the grapple.

In my previous experience, I only saw the “pretty” images of conservation. These were photos of restoration projects taken 10-20 years after implementation, and they were deceiving. I always imagined conservation to be about planting trees and removing the invasive species that don’t belong there. But, I had never been exposed to the process of applying conservation on the ground. What does the process look like during the implementation phase? Or immediately following project completion? It does not look pretty. There is slash, fresh woodchips, and disturbed soil showing the path of machinery.

This is all necessary, however. The visitor I was embarrassed to have seen our trails disheveled was probably thankful to have three fewer hazard trees posing potential injury on their fall hike. People can now cross-country ski and snowshoe next to each other in pairs, instead of in a line. There’s now better signage more clearly marking the way for visitors to experience the landscape Aldo Leopold and his family had transformed.

Practice, practice, practice! Makayla takes pictures of every stump she cuts to track her progressing chainsaw skills.

During my fellowship, I learned to trust the messy process of applying conservation. I learned to expect that it might look and seem worse before it gets better. (Thanks, mom.) I learned to trust that all skills take time to become proficient in, let alone master them. I probably have between forty to fifty hours of tractor seat time using a grapple attachment, but I’m still perfecting my tactics.

Closing in on project completion, there is now a physical product of my hard work I can appreciate in my free time on evening walks. Within a few seasons, the mark of the intense work employed here will fade and hardly be noticed, but the results will be enjoyed by all who visit.

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