Featured Article | Fall 2016: Conservation Leadership

Diversifying the Field of Natural Resources

By Maria F. ‘Masi’ Mejia

I have always had an interest in the outdoors. At four years old, I was playing with toritos (ant lions) in the dirt. At 10 years old, I was catching Gulf Coast Toads in my backyard to keep as pets. In my youth, I heard stories of abuelo Chevo, my paternal great grandfather, and abuelo Eduardo, my maternal grandfather, working cattle, training horses, walking senderos (paths) to see a herd of deer, or eating tunas (prickly-pear fruit). I was entertained with all their vaquero (cowboy) stories, including tales about hunting on the ranches when the work was done.

I wanted to be outside, just as they were working the monte (south Texas scrublands). The one experience I wanted the most was to go hunting. Unfortunately, we did not have access to hunting land, as Texas is over 95% privately owned. Then, I learned about the Texas Youth Hunting Program (TYHP). The program offers youth the opportunity to go on hunts that are educational, affordable, and safe, all while promoting the hunting heritage of Texas.

Learning to Hunt

At 13 years old, I enrolled in a hunter’s education course and was selected to go on my first TYHP hunt. My hunt would take place on the King Ranch, a place that Aldo Leopold had visited in 1947, calling it “some of the best jobs of wildlife restoration on the continent, [with] unparalleled opportunities for both management and research.”

Getting out on the ranch, I was actually more excited to be hunting than I was interested in the land itself. I now know that land management is directly tied to land ownership and a land ethic. As we drove through the many cattle guards into different pastures, I realized just how much land the King Ranch encompassed. We were driving through a pasture when my guide saw a flick of a whitetail. We got out of the truck and stalked my deer from 220 yards to 40 yards. My guide helped me set up a pair of shooting sticks which I laid my rifle on, took aim and… boom! I harvested my first deer.

aldo-leopold-outlook-fall-2016-inset-deer

Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

For me, the most captivating moment during the hunt was field-dressing the deer. As we did, the guide, a wildlife biologist for the King Ranch, took the time to name all the anatomical parts, including the heart, the different parts of the four-chambered stomach, and the scent glands which deer use to mark their territory.

I was elbow deep in deer anatomy and loving every minute. That was when I knew wanted to pursue a career in the field of natural resources.

As I matured into my late teens, I was involved in a five-day wildlife leadership camp called Texas Brigades. Texas Brigades furthered my interest in the field of natural resources as I took part in different camps focused on wildlife species and habitats (quail, deer, bass, coastal, waterfowl, and ranch). The connections I made while involved with Texas Brigades proved to be very valuable for my career trajectory. At these camps, I was shown different career paths that were available in the field.

College Years

When it came time to select a major in college, it was an easy choice. I chose a bachelor of science degree in environmental conservation of natural resources. I moved from my home in Laredo to Lubbock to attend Texas Tech University. My first class in my department was introduction to freshwater ecology. I arrived early on the first day of class, and as students trickled in, I was shocked to see not only that I was the only woman in the room, but also the only Hispanic.

At that moment, I realized the lack of diversity within the field. This did not hinder my success as a student; in fact, it motivated me to finish my degree and educate underrepresented groups on the importance of our natural resources within the community.

aldo-leopold-outlook-fall-2016-insetMy last semester of college approached, and like many students, I was unaware of what the future would hold. I was approached by Kerry Griffis-Kyle, a professor of natural resources management at Texas Tech, about a potential graduate opportunity with Tom Arsuffi, a professor and field station director of the Texas Tech center at Junction. The project would focus on underrepresented groups and natural resources.

I accepted the opportunity, and the following semester we designed a research project to examine the factors that influence natural resource professionals and students to pursue a career in natural resources in Texas.

Why Students Choose a Natural Resources Career

Our research looked at natural resource professionals who worked for state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations, higher education, and students whose contact information was publicly available in the state of Texas.

The research showed that most natural resource professionals and students in Texas were white males; 28 percent were females, and only 14 percent were ethnic minorities. Individuals across genders and ethnicities identified experiences they had as children, both formally and with their families, as important influences in their decision to pursue their career. These experiences in their youth helped fuel their genuine interest and passion in the field of natural resources.

The study also found that having an effective mentor who exposed students to field opportunities had a positive influence on their choice of natural resources as a profession. The reasons individuals questioned staying in the field were low pay and lack of administrative support in the field – and more importantly, workplace racism and sexism.

The results show that to increase interest in natural resource professions, we must give everyone a chance to experience the outdoors intimately as children, and avoid the assumption that only a certain segment of children will be interested. The profession also should work on mentoring students in high school and college to provide positive experiences, as well as educating ourselves better in workplace civility through diversity and inclusion training.

The Need for Diversity

The field of natural resources has historically, even recently, been a white male-dominated field. Just as we avoid monocultures in our wild spaces, we must aim for diversity of natural resource professionals.

Texas is a majority-minority state, where ethnic minorities account for 54 percent of the general public. However, ethnic minorities make up less than 15 percent of the natural resource professionals in the state. The conservation profession therefore must cast a wider net to engage a changing public, whether it is through informal science education or family activities in the outdoors.

As land stewards and natural resource professionals, we may not persuade every individual to become a biologist or ecologist. But through our efforts to engage the public, we may foster an appreciation for our natural resources.

Equally, we must provide inclusive environments to support individuals with diverse backgrounds. This means cultivating the interests and passions of incoming students and professionals to ensure that we retain these individuals in the field. Experienced natural resource professionals can be mentors to novice professionals to provide enjoyable experiences and instill natural resource lessons.

While I am a minority in my field in gender and ethnicity, the factors that influenced my career decisions were similar to other natural resource professionals. I have always had familial support in my formal education and my exploration of the outdoors. My mama allowed me to play in the dirt and catch frogs, and my family used the deer I harvested in a tamalada (a gathering to make tamales).

As natural resource professionals, we must provide opportunities for everyone to connect to the land — especially those with diverse backgrounds, as they are expected to be the United States majority by 2050. These opportunities should positively influence individuals to cherish the natural resources that provide clean air, clean water, and access to outdoor recreation.

As we approach opportunities to include the public in the care and conservation of our natural resources, we must remind ourselves of the public’s different backgrounds, knowledge, and perspectives. Keeping this diversity in mind and being inclusive in welcoming all kinds of people to the field, we can nurture an inherent need for nature.

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