Over 40 college students from across the country, from Hawaii to Michigan to Washington, D.C. gathered on the edge of two-story containers in the Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown on Feb. 2. They learned how hundreds of salmon in the tanks were being raised and protected by initiatives that combined innovative engineering, water conservation and endangered species restoration. The Freshwater Institute was created by the Conservation Fund in 1987.
The students attended the tour of the Institute as part of the National Conservation Training Center's Conservation Career Symposium from Jan. 31-Feb. 3 in Shepherdstown. The conference was created to help young people pursue careers in conservation, and it partners college students with mentors, who are conservation experts, helping with career training and leadership skills.
Nate Hawley, a branch chief for Career Awareness at the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the National Conservation Training Center, coordinates the symposium. He believes these activities are important to the future of conservation efforts.
Hawley himself was always interested in nature. He remembers his mother calling him her "bug boy," because of his hobbies. He eventually earned a bachelors degree in conservation biology, and started out with a stint in the Peace Corps. Hawley, who has worked in conservation jobs protecting ecosystems and species in Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Saipan and Hawaii, wrote his graduate thesis on tropical butterfly ecology in Tobago. He said that his flexibility and willingness to work hard have given him opportunities in all areas of conservation service.
"There's a pattern kind of. I'm kind of all over the board is the pattern," said Hawley, "I've not been bored in my whole life really, especially with Fish and Wildlife and the Department of the Interior. "
He came to the National Conservation Training Center in May of 2011. His mission there is to help involve youth and engage them in conservation careers
Lindsay Hunt was one of the students who attended the Conservation Career Symposium. Hunt, a masters student in Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University, said she has been interested in saving animals since she was a child. One of her first efforts was the rescue of a toad when she was in elementary school.
"I went outside for recess and some boys had thrown a toad into a sewer in the middle of winter because they were curious to see how fast it would freeze. I did not appreciate that so I ended up going home and telling my mom," Hunt recalls. "We took panty hose and a hanger and made a net and scooped the toad out and took it home. We fed it crickets and everything until the spring when we let it go."
The Director of NCTC, Jay Slack, said childhood moments that connect youth with nature are important to engaging people in conservation efforts.
"The disconnect that we are experiencing from the natural world is alarming. When I was a kid we played outside all the time and spent a great deal of time creating things in the outdoors," said Slack. "So we are working hard to engage youth at the youngest ages."
Part of that effort is evident in the programs held at the National Conservation Training Center. The center has the feel of a college campus and was built to blend with the habitat it occupies. Steve Chase, Division Chief of Education Outreach, said the center is one of a kind, designed to be energy efficient and to blend with the natural landscape.
"NCTC was conceived as a project back in the late 80s, and in 1992 we completed a design for this campus, which is on 530 acres, and we developed about 100 acres," Chase said. "We wanted a place that was built by conservation professionals for conservation professionals. We wanted a place that would sit in harmony with the landscape and look like it had been here a long time - didn't just look like a new facility up on a hilltop. And we wanted a place that architecturally blended in with the local architectural vernacular of stone buildings and barns."
The National Conservation Training Center is the property of the U.S. Department of the Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service. The Department of Fisheries and Wildlife service has over 10,000 employees and includes conservation efforts domestically and internationally. The department's mission has adjusted over time and now has a more global perspective. Slack said the department has turned a corner.
"We are really now coming into a new era as an agency. Before we had really been focused on kind of managing the pieces of land that we had and working on individual species," said Slack. "We need to look at larger solutions."
Slack believes that due to things like climate change and urbanization, landscapes are changing. The importance of conservation efforts has changed from protecting a specific species or particular environment to a more global vision of how conservation efforts can and should impact habitats and ecosystems.
Slack said the agency is looking for people who have passion for conservation and can help pass that passion on to the general public. That is where the Youth Initiative comes in.
Students at the Conservation Career Symposium heard from Endangered Wildlife Biologists and experts from throughout the Fish and Wildlife Services. They received one-on-one feedback about their resumes as well as job interviewing advice.
Hunt said the interviewing activities were with professionals and were set up to serve as real experience. She said feedback was immediate and helpful.
"You could tell that all of the service people legitimately cared about your interests, what you were studying, who you were as a person and getting you involved and into the fisheries and wildlife services," said Hunt.
The activities were not all classroom based. Students toured the Freshwater Institute, participated in archery classes, and even went on morning runs with Hawley.
Most of the staff for the symposium said their love for the outdoors and enjoying outdoor activities helped drive them towards their careers. Slack said it is important to engage children at a young age before they develop habits that keep them from enjoying and experiencing the beauty of natural landscapes.
The Assistant Director of Operations of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Rowan Gould, spoke at the retreat. He said his lifelong love for fishing drove him towards a career in conservation services. His first jobs in the field involved fish hatcheries and diseases. Gould said the passion people feel towards conservation efforts is ingrained in the new generation of conservation scientists.
"Once you get into the fish and wildlife services, you see this bigger world of bigger problems, a bigger need, and that will grab you," said Gould.
Hunt said the main problem facing conservation today is getting the public to recognize the benefits of conservation for the future. She said in hard financial times it is difficult to help people see that what is financially good right now may not be the best environmentally.
"Getting the public behind conservation, [helping] the average person to understand why conservation is important, that's going to be the biggest challenge." Hunt said.
"Everything is connected; something that is happening in the Gulf of Mexico might not seem like it's impacting your daily life but things that happen in the Gulf of Mexico are affecting things everywhere."
Hawley said that this generation's overall understanding of the big picture in relation to conservation careers is comforting.
"Before I started doing student engagement activities at the college level I was a little worried," said Hawley "But every time I come and engage with these students, with these groups - the more and more I feel confident that everything is going to be okay."
For more information on projects and classes at the National Conservation Training Center visit their website at nctc.fws.gov.