Operation Fresh Start, Arboretum, and Partners Open Doors to Conservation Careers

The Conservation Graduate Crew program will broaden access to conservation careers. Photo: Operation Fresh Start

The Conservation Graduate Crew program will broaden access to conservation careers. Photo: Operation Fresh Start

With today’s daunting environmental challenges, there is an ever-growing need for skilled and dedicated conservation professionals. But how can a more robust and diverse workforce be created when these jobs have been inaccessible to so many?

Seeing a need to broaden access to conservation careers, Operation Fresh Start (OFS) recently launched the Conservation Graduate Crew program. The Arboretum, a partner work site, hosted a kickoff event on October 27 at the Visitor Center. Other partners include Ascendium, City of Madison / City of Madison Engineering, Dane County / Dane County Parks, Groundswell Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

This partnership offers advanced-level training for young adults to prepare for careers in conservation and natural resource management. Crew members work alongside industry professionals and gain field experience in parks and natural areas throughout South Central Wisconsin.

A Grad Crew member uses a brush chipper at Skunk Cabbage Wetlands
A Grad Crew member uses a brush chipper at Skunk Cabbage Wetlands

In November, Conservation Graduate Crew members, led by crew supervisor Caroline Zimmerman, worked with Arboretum land care staff at various Arboretum sites and at outlying properties. Caroline says that these field experiences offer crew members land management training and networking opportunities. “It is always valuable to work alongside our partners. It allows my crew to build relationships with other conservation professionals and learn important skills. Our time at the Arboretum offered my crew chainsaw opportunities, brush cutter and plant identification practice, and trail building and maintenance.”

Extra help with land management and restoration work is always beneficial to the Arboretum, as there’s never a shortage of tasks to be done. But ultimately, the partnership hopes to create career opportunities for crew members. “We were really grateful to have the OFS crew on site over the course of three weeks,” says Arboretum land care manager Michael Hansen. “They spent some cold windy days removing invasive brush on the steep slope of Bolz Prairie, and they helped us move a brush removal project forward at Skunk Cabbage Wetlands. A few of them even helped with the construction of some new boardwalk near Gardner Marsh. We’re happy to partner with OFS to help crew members gain valuable hands-on experience and further their career options in conservation.”

Viable pathways to conservation careers are limited. A college degree, volunteer or unpaid internship experience, and professional references are often standard entry-level job requirements. These all take considerable time, financial resources, and personal connections – privileges for some but barriers for others. To overcome these barriers, alternative pathways and broader access to job opportunities need to be priorities.

Grad Crew members had the opportunity to hone chainsaw skills while at the Arboretum
Grad Crew members had the opportunity to hone chainsaw skills at the Arboretum

The Conservation Grad Crew program will help open doors. Crew members are paid for their work, and a college education is not required. They receive professional training and certification opportunities, including chainsaw training, pesticide applicator certification, and wildland fire certification. And OFS has a track record of providing opportunities for people of color as well as people from marginalized and low-income communities. The program is one of many efforts needed to address issues of diversity and equity within conservation.

Beyond the training, certifications, and networking opportunities, crew members take pride in their work and feel a connection to the land – points that create positive ripple effects. “My favorite thing that we did at the Arboretum was building the boardwalk. I found it very relaxing and thought the scenery was beautiful. It is rewarding knowing that I helped build something that people will use for a long time,” says Rob Heim. And Maddie Ross says, “I really enjoyed working on a remnant prairie. It was exciting to see so much biodiversity. It is cool to think that prairie used to cover so much of Wisconsin. I like that the work we are doing is helping preserve such an important part of our landscape.”

Win-win solutions are often touted in conservation but can be difficult to achieve. Yet the OFS Conservation Graduate Crew may benefit all involved. The Arboretum looks forward to hosting the same crew members next summer for their second round of work. And perhaps down the road some of them will join our staff, working to restore and conserve Arboretum lands.

—Scott Dyke, communications specialist