Investing in the Future

Groundswell Conservancy Spearheads a New Program With Operation Fresh Start

Group photo of the inaugural Conservation Graduate Crew

The first Conservation Graduate Crew working at Patrick Marsh in January. Photo by Ben Jones.

The conservation field is populated predominantly by people who are white, upper-middle-class and older. Lack of diversity in the field, however, does not necessarily indicate a lack of commitment to conservation and the environment by people outside these traditional demographics. In fact, many under-represented groups, including low-income communities and communities of color, have a strong history of conservation. But the barriers to becoming conservation professionals are high and role models are few, making it a career that many people never even consider.

Dr. Mamie Parker, a biologist and conservationist who was the first African American woman to serve as the Assistant Director of Fisheries and Habitat Conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview1 with The Nature Conservancy, “I never saw a Black person that actually did something like become an environmentalist or become a conservationist. Still, I was encouraged to be a scientist because of my grades. In college, I studied biology and eventually found conservation role models and started some internships in the Fish and Wildlife Service, and my career started shortly after that.”

Creating a Viable Path to a Conservation Career

Dr. Parker’s experience is hardly unique in a field where data shows that more than 90%2 of conservation scientists and foresters are white. That’s part of the void Groundswell’s new Conservation Graduate Crew is hoping to fill — making connections and providing role models to inspire a new generation and broader representation in the field.

“People of color or from disadvantaged backgrounds seeking to enter the conservation field often face multiple barriers,” says Jim Welsh, former executive director of Groundswell Conservancy. So before he retired, Welsh set out to change that with help with a grant from MCF.

“We’ve actually been talking about this idea for several years,” Welsh explained. “But after George Floyd was murdered, we wanted to move beyond just putting out a statement about condemning racism or supporting Black Lives Matter and actually do something about it.”

Tapping into Groundswell’s relationship with Operation Fresh Start, Welsh worked with Brian McMahon and Cory Rich to together develop a Conservation Graduate Crew. “Operation Fresh Start already has a conservation crew program,” Welsh said, “but there wasn’t a career pathway in place for the crew members who wanted to pursue a job in conservation.”

Putting the Pieces Together

So McMahon and Rich began to develop the Conservation Graduate Crew curriculum while Welsh tapped into his contacts to find partners who could help provide an additional year of experience for the crew members.

The Graduate Crew will provide up to five crew members with four weeks of training on topics including chainsaw safety, pesticide application, prescribed burning and trail building. After completing their training, crew members will spend between seven and 12 months getting professional work experience with partner groups including Dane County, the City of Madison, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the UW Arboretum, The Nature Conservancy, the Ice Age Trail Alliance and Groundswell itself.

Member of the Conservation Graduate Crew burns brush

Photo by Ben Jones.

The Conservation Graduate Crew program is designed to not only provide the training and experience participants need to become job-ready, but also to help them develop professional networks. “When the crew comes and works for one of the sponsor organizations, they won’t just be doing the work, they’ll also be building connections in a field,” Welsh explained. “Through those connections, they’ll start hearing about job openings and will have references when they apply for those jobs. And they’ll have the confidence to compete for the openings.”

Getting to Work

The first Conservation Graduate Crew began work this fall in partnership with the Wisconsin DNR, City of Madison, Dane County, UW Arboretum, The Nature Conservancy, Ice Age Trail Alliance and Groundswell Conservancy to complete important conservation projects at local parks, trails and natural areas.

The crew spent a chilly morning in January burning brush at Patrick Marsh in Sun Prairie. Crew member Zion Sanders, 19, of Cottage Grove, is happy to be putting his love of the outdoors to work. “I like to hunt and fish so this is a perfect fit for me,” he says.

“This is important work,” explains Welsh. “Our goal is to support an emerging generation of conservationists here in Dane County. Thanks to MCF for helping to make it work.”


1 conservation-and-racial-justice/

2 DATA USA reports that in 2019, 94% of conservation scientists and foresters were white:

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