I work in conservation to ensure that everyone has access to wild and natural places. Nature has always been my escape – a place for inspiration, insight, and healing. As an adult, it’s where I go to rekindle my childlike wonder and marvel at the beauty around us.
I grew up in suburban Michigan. It certainly wasn’t wild, but it was wild enough.
My early childhood home backed up to a glorious undeveloped field. My favorite activity was running through the field pretending to be a horse. My obsession with horses ran deep and I begged my parents to trade in one of their cars for a horse. Shockingly, they did not. After time, the open field was sold and a new development popped up, transforming my playground into asphalt and cookie-cutter houses.
A move to the Detroit area brought new places to explore. Behind our yard was a creek just wide enough to ice skate in the winter. And the woods were just deep enough to hide the tree houses my brother and I constructed away from adult eyes. We were free to create and be curious.
With a lifelong love of animals, I always wanted to do something to help them. But after ruling out careers as a veterinarian or dolphin trainer, I was at a loss. Then I learned about Earth Day. My mom was a gifted and talented teacher and did a unit with her students on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. When she explained the movement to my brother and me, something clicked. I already loved science and getting outside. Now, I realized there were opportunities to make a career out of them. Since then, I haven’t wavered in my pursuit of opportunities to protect our earth.
During high school, I immersed myself in classes like wildlife ecology, veterinary science, and pathology. I was blessed with amazing science teachers and two of them were crazy enough to lead a group of 18 teenagers to Belize over the summer. For two weeks, we explored the jungle, caught iguanas, and snorkeled among the most abundant and colorful fish I’d ever seen. The experience changed my life and, along with a wicked sunburn, I returned to Michigan with a serious travel bug.
I enrolled at Colorado State University to study Environmental Health. In addition to the standard biology, chemistry, and physics courses, I learned about the intersection of humans and the environment with classes like epidemiology and human disease and the environment. The highlight was a semester studying tropical ecology in Costa Rica, including an ethnobotany class. Each Monday, a dozen of us would load into small boats to cross from the small town to an expansive tropical rainforest. Hiking a mile into the jungle, we’d meet up with our teacher (who lived in an open-air tree house!) and spend hours learning edible and medicinal uses of tropical plants. I investigated intertidal marine habitats and helped local schools develop projects to clean their local waterways. And I tried my hand at salsa dancing. It was a magical time.
After graduating, I had a brief stint at a land trust in Iowa where I saw first-hand the importance of protecting land, particularly large intact landscapes. Throughout a 14-year career at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, I worked to protect our coastal ecosystem by improving water quality and restoring habitats like seagrass and mangroves. I relished the chance to get in the field, snorkeling to monitor seagrass beds or counting fish on artificial reefs. The estuary program is a model in cooperation and has achieved phenomenal water quality improvements using aggressive pollution control measures and cooperation between the public and private sector, non-profits, academia, and citizens. Despite an increase in population, water quality in Tampa Bay is better than it was in the 1980s.
I am immensely proud of my time at the estuary program, but also wanted to engage in statewide issues. It wasn’t until I took the position of Executive Director of the Florida Wildlife Corridor that I began to explore Florida’s wilder areas. Inspired by the organization’s 1000-mile-long expeditions, I began spending more time in the backwoods, swamps, and river systems. I learned to appreciate the Florida not visited by tourists and developed a fervent passion for protecting the last wild and connected places. Today, I fight to protect those places by advocating for funding for critical water and land conservation programs, like Florida Forever, and working to stop destructive development, like the toll roads to ruin.
The wild areas continue to be my refuge. I delight in sharing them with others, but also crave time alone in nature. It’s where I reconnect with my soul and my spirit.
On April 22, 2020 we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This citizen-led movement ushered in comprehensive and extensive environmental policies that continue to serve as a model and foundation. Without the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other forward thinking actions, our nation would look very different. It is up to all of us to fight to uphold standards that protect our waters, lands, and our people. Conservation Voters are part of the fight and your role cannot be underestimated.
There are still wild places left in Florida, even among the most densely populated areas. A neighborhood park may have a butterfly garden or a pond where birds flock. If you listen closely now, there is probably a bird calling outside your window. I work to make sure that, wherever you are in Florida, there is a bit of the wild left.