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Stewardship Tales: West Meets Midwest

A summer fellow from California answers the question: Why Wisconsin?

When sharing my summer plans to spend six weeks as a land stewardship fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, WI, the usual responses I heard were: “Why Wisconsin?” Or “How did you even find that place?” Or “What will you even be doing?”

Truthfully, I was not entirely sure how to answer those questions.

I am a southern California girl, born and raised in San Diego, and only recently moved to northern California to attend the University of California, Davis, to study wildlife, fish, and conservation biology. Typically, rain is for the winter and humidity is only felt (and complained about) a few days a year. But this summer, ocean breezes were traded for green fields and summer storms.

Before participating in the foundation’s land stewardship program this year, I lacked field experience, and was unsure what to expect once I got here. I found out very quickly that this would not be a typical internship, where one learns more by watching than by doing. Being a stewardship fellow meant engaging in many different projects, which, for someone just starting out in the conservation field, was a good learning opportunity.

Here are the things I learned.

Wisconsin is Not Just Woods

Before coming here, I was asked, “Is there anything besides woods in Wisconsin?” I knew the answer was yes, but could not think of any other types of habitat to mention. However, after learning more about the natural history of the area, I discovered that southern Wisconsin was historically tall-grass prairie and oak savanna. Furthermore, these ecosystems are disappearing, making the restoration work being done by the foundation even more important.

Leopold Fellows Eva Ballering, Krista Schmidt, and McKenna Hammons

Krista Schmidt (center) with her co-fellows on the summer 2016 land stewardship crew: Eva Ballering (left) and McKenna Hammons (right).

For instance, I know that the timber marking, stump treatment, and invasive species removal I did will help open habitat for threatened, grassland bird species. Contributing to something that is actively making a difference is rewarding work.

There’s No Denying the Existence of Mosquitoes, Ticks, and Poison Ivy

Bushwhacking through the foothills of arid California does not compare to tramping through the woods of Wisconsin when it comes to things that will irritate my skin. I doubt I have ever been this itchy before, from the mosquito bites that will not disappear to the small patches of poison ivy rash. Nevertheless, I am glad to know that I can handle working in climates and conditions different than those of the arid west.

Culver’s Vs. In-N-Out

Having grown up in a suburb of a large city, spending an extended amount of time in a different atmosphere was both exciting and relaxing. I saw the Circus Parade in Baraboo, explored Devil’s Lake, floated down the Baraboo River, and heard a lot about hunting season. I enjoyed exploring the area, eating good food, and taking advantage of a slower pace of life.

As for Culver’s [a favorite local hamburger chain], to avoid a riot I will not disclose my opinion on how it compares to In-N-Out Burger. However, a cooler full of Culver’s butter burgers, cheese curds, and concrete mixers may have made it back to California with me.

Wisconsin Has Cacti

Prickly pear cactus

Photo of Prickly Pear Cactus by Joshua Mayer (flickr.com)

I had no idea there were cacti in Wisconsin, let alone native cacti, but lo-and-behold, there is the Prickly Pear Cactus. This cactus grows in sand prairies and on sunny bluff faces.

Throughout my fellowship, I learned how to identify many plant species. This is something I found fascinating, as I was not familiar with many names of plants before coming here. It was also useful, since plant identification is important in determining habitat types.

Aldo Leopold: More Than Your Average Conservationist

I knew Leopold  was a conservationist, and a pretty influential one, but wasn’t aware of all the impacts he had. Turns out he developed this little thing called the land ethic, created the field of game management, and worked on some of the oldest prairie restorations in the world. I learned that the Shack Prairie is the second oldest prairie restoration in the world. It was inspiring to work on the same land that Leopold himself managed and wrote about in A Sand County Almanac.

It’s Important to Check the Weather Radar

In California, “chances of rain” rarely develop into anything. But during summer in Wisconsin, storm warnings are taken seriously and checking the weather is actually important, as it can hugely affect the work lined up for the day. There were multiple times where plans were interrupted or altered due to an incoming storm. Being able to adapt to things that are uncontrollable was a good lesson to learn, not just for field work, but for life in general.

Plans Have a Way of Changing

leopold-fellow-krista-schmidt-driving-tractor

Krista learning how to drive a tractor.

Speaking of adapting, plans in the field change. A lot. This can be due to weather, lack of adequate equipment, or a faulty plan to begin with.

For example, when putting up a gate with other summer fellows, we realized our cable was too short to build the gate to our original plan, so we developed a new strategy. Problem solving skills and an open mindset are important in field work.

I’m Exactly Where I Want To Be

Entering college, and even leading up to this fellowship, I knew I loved being outside and was passionate about conservation. But was unsure about the type of work I actually wanted to be doing. After completing this fellowship, I know going forward it will greatly affect my interests and career path.

Even if I do something besides land management, the lessons I learned here, such as Leopold’s land ethic, habitat restoration, and plant identification, will prove useful. I look forward to sharing my experiences and spreading the influence of Aldo Leopold back home in California.

Featured image at top by Laura McArthur