Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Chris Collier. Thank you to Chris for taking the time to share his experiences.
This post is part of our ongoing series on non-academic careers for ecologists.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, what sort of ecology did you do in grad school, and what do you do now?
My name is Chris Collier and I am the Conservation Manager for Black Swamp Conservancy. Black Swamp Conservancy is an accredited land trust and our mission is to protect and preserve natural and agricultural land in northwest Ohio for future generations. To date, the Conservancy has preserved almost 17,000 acres of habitat and working lands.
As an undergraduate I majored in Environmental Science with a specialization in Watershed Management. After graduation, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do as a career, and after finding the job market more saturated than expected I decided to go to graduate school. I completed a master’s degree in Biology (Ecology Track), with a focus in soil ecology and biogeochemical cycling. More specifically, my research was determining the effects of increasing nitrogen deposition on recovering biological soil crusts and associated soil communities in the Colorado Plateau.
How did you get into your current career?
I was introduced to Black Swamp Conservancy, and more broadly the land trust community, through my undergraduate internship program. Between my undergraduate and graduate degrees I worked as a consultant managing the Conservancy’s farmland preservation program. As I worked through my graduate program I was leaning towards pursuing a research ecologist career with a government agency (my research was a collaboration with the USGS) or a private consulting firm. Before I began actively looking for jobs, the Conservancy reached out to me with an open land protection specialist position, and it sounded like a good opportunity to work in full capacity with a group I had been involved with for several years. The timing worked out that I had wrapped up all my field and lab work and was able to take this position and finish my degree part-time.
Tell us a bit about your current position and how you got it.
When I started as a land protection specialist my responsibilities revolved around leading the Conservancy’s conservation, restoration, and stewardship initiatives. This involved initiating and managing land conservation projects, collaborating with regional partners, drafting and implementing property management plans, monitoring protected properties, and serving as the organizational representative to regional partnerships and local governments. Over my three years with Black Swamp Conservancy, the organization has grown in capacity and this provided me with the opportunity to become Conservation Manager. In this position, I still manage the organization’s conservation, restoration, and stewardship programs, but I am also responsible for managing grant funds, coordinating scientific studies on Conservancy lands, managing conservation staff and interns, organizing strategic planning, and leading outreach to citizens, local governments, and partnering organizations.
Working with Black Swamp Conservancy has provided me with several experiences that appear to be unique to this field. First and foremost is the almost daily opportunity to work with private landowners to protect their properties. These interactions with landowners have greatly helped me develop my communication skills. This continuing development has been key to successfully accomplishing the Conservancy’s mission with a diverse range of stakeholders. Conservation seems to be one of the few remaining areas that has some form of bipartisan support, and it has been a great experience learning how to bridge the aisle and work with individuals with wildly differing views and priorities. Working for a land trust has also thrown me into the realm of conservation finance, which is a field that I feel needs more incorporation into academic programs. Land trusts rely heavily on donations and grant funding, so it is vitally important that staff keep educating themselves on new ways to fund projects. I’d strongly recommend looking at the Land Trust Alliance and the Conservation Finance Network to see how organizations are developing new strategies to engage landowners and fund conservation.
Did you get advice (wanted or unwanted) from others about your non-academic career path? If so, what sort of advice did you get, and how did it affect you?
My graduate advisor was very open to non-academic careers and highlighted the various career paths his students had followed when I was weighing my graduate school options. This ended up being very important to me because I wasn’t set on a certain path and appreciated an advisor focused on developing professional skills versus funneling students to a specific career.
In what ways do you find your career to be a change from academia? Are there aspects of the career that were a surprise or a “culture shock,” or that have required some adjustment on your part?
The main difference from my career path versus academia is that our organization is not focused on completing research. Black Swamp Conservancy uses research to help determine project priorities, but active research takes away from our ability to accomplish our mission. Most of my time is spent negotiating and financing deals to protect properties, completing stewardship and restoration projects on protected lands, opening areas for public access, and serving as Black Swamp’s representative on regional conservation collaboratives. Even with my prior experience with the Conservancy I was not fully prepared for the lack of scientific research lead by the Conservancy. It took me some time to adjust to this change, but as I have become settled in my role I have developed a strong passion for working with landowners and finding creative solutions to overcome project roadblocks.
In what ways (if any) has your academic background helped you in your career?
My academic background provided me with skills necessary to excel in my career. Strong critical thinking, communication, and research skills are paramount in engaging landowners and community members to completing projects, staying on the forefront of regional conservation issues, and implementing strategies to make informed and resource efficient decisions. Since the Conservancy’s projects are largely funded by soft money, it is important to take on projects that address community needs to ensure future support while also making improvements to our region’s environment.
Any regrets about not pursuing an academic career path?
I have no regrets about not pursuing an academic career. While I can’t say I expected to end up working for a land trust, it has been a great experience and has allowed me to use my training in ecology to engage a variety of communities to support creating a healthier environment and promoting sustainable development.
Anything else you want to say to readers considering your career, or a non-academic career path more generally?
I would strongly recommend getting in touch with local conservation groups (park districts, land trusts, advocacy groups, citizen volunteer organizations, etc.) and checking if they have any internship or volunteer opportunities. Small non-profits are typically stretched for funding and find it difficult to bring on interns with anything more than mileage reimbursement, but they do recognize the strain this can put on people. Speaking to my internship experience, it was unpaid and the Conservancy did apply for a grant to pay a small stipend. When that grant failed they let me cut my hours to one full day a week so that I could make sure I was working enough at my part time job to bring some money in. It’s definitely not the ideal scenario, but these small conservation groups want to see you succeed and with limited resources this means they should be more than willing to provide flexibility to people volunteering their time. Besides internships and volunteering, some groups might have properties or have research needs that would be great for undergraduate or graduate projects. Land trusts are often lacking in capacity to think of or lead research that could be taking place on their protected lands, but they are often excited and willing to help students or groups that approach them with research ideas. Establishing connections with local environmental groups operating in your area is a great way to network, and can really help as you start exploring career options.
Thanks, Chris, this is an excellent post!
Many scientists find working the financial side of science issues distasteful. That’s really unfortunate because, aside from being imperitive – money is wealth and society’s wealth is hard won and hardly unlimited – its actually quite interesting.
I also really appreciate your emphasis on working with land owners. Several of my family members owned small orchards and had several heated discussions with oblivious activists and officials.
Slightly off topic, its important to remember that land trusts usually don’t pay property tax, so converting property to a trust has a direct negative financial impact on communities on top of the revenue and taxes generated by actual operations – in many rural areas this impact is significant.
Thanks again, chris
Thanks for the comment Jim! We’ve had that very issue with taxes come up when I’ve met with local officials before. Fortunately for our organization we own very little of the protected property in our portfolio. Most of our protected land is protected through conservation easements which don’t impact property taxes, so this has been important in helping us work extensively in some communities.
There are definitely some organizations that are feeling some community push back because they own so much land that is off the tax rolls. I think it is going to be interesting to see what solutions are thought of to mitigate this problem.
Hi, Chris, yes the prop tax issue can be pretty thorny. Nature conservancy, i think, is feeling some heat. Here in WA state this is also happening because state agencies are acquiring land for conservation. It’s an interesting issue tho bcz most people don’t think of it and the idea of buying land seems harmless, but it really does have consequences.
With regards to working with land owners, I’m sure that can be very rewarding if its done well. Most farmers are reasonably sharp, so if people sit down and talk to them, they’re open to making changes provided their concerns are taken seriously.