The Future of Green Careers

~By Gina Sawaya, Class of 2017

If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me what I am going to do with my major, I would still be poor, but at least now I have a few ideas. As an Environmental Science major, many people are curious about what that means for my future career. I have wanted a green career for most of my life, but I did not know what that meant until this year. I am in a research lab in the Biology department, but, like a lot of students involved in undergraduate research, I still want information about careers outside the lab. When I found out about the EcoAmbassador program, I saw this position and felt relieved. I could get credit for doing career research? This position has allowed me to do job research not only for myself, but also for any student interested in a “green” career.

A green career can be defined in many ways, and a few sources have attempted to assign certain characteristics to these careers and quantify their impact. First, the Bureau of Labor Statistics explains that these careers can either be “Jobs in businesses that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources,” or “Jobs in which workers’ duties involve making their establishment’s production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources” (BLS 2010).

These sustainable activities are restated in a survey from the New Hampshire state government. Their report adds that a green company will offer a green product or service, or uses green processes such as “environmental management” (State of NH, 2011). Next, I found a few podcasts dealing with green careers, and one of the podcasts on a site called Green Biz explains that a green career “[reduces] environmental impact or [promotes] environmental restoration,” or it is a career “that affects, in a positive way, what’s referred to as people, planet, profit” (GreenBiz). A green career is one that helps the employees and customers, ensures decisions are being made with a focus on the environment, and helps the bottom line.


For my project, I interviewed nine professionals with green careers and posted them on the Cohen Career Center’s website. My interviews include two salesmen, an environmental consultant, a handful of directors of sustainability, a local government leader, and a science communicator. If you are interested in pursuing a green career, or just want to learn how to conduct an informational interview, please listen to my podcasts.

Through these interviews, I have learned a great deal about how to achieve a green career, and I want to tell you what I learned about networking. First, get a LinkedIn. Making a profile takes 10 minutes, and I promise it will make your networking so much easier. Then, join groups on LinkedIn with W&M alumni. Once you are in the same group, you can message alumni with jobs that you are interested in. Try to set up a phone call even for 20 minutes, and then ask them how they got to their job. I like to ask questions about skills, their past careers, and what they love and hate about their jobs. Become an expert on these informational interviews, and I promise that you will figure out what you are interested in. Plus, you may get a job offer from these contacts. These interviews were extremely valuable to me, and I hope that by listening to mine and conducting your own interviews you are able to find the green career of your dreams.

May 2, 2016

Why I Care: Renewable Energy

Video by Talia Schmitt, Class of 2018, featuring Talia Schmitt and Anne Davis.

April 30, 2016

Planting Trees in Ecuador

~By Talia Schmitt, Class of 2018 

Over spring break, I joined a group of seven William & Mary students on the college’s Branch Out service trip, TREE. We loaded on to an airplane and headed off to the dry forest in Ecuador to plant some trees. Clarification #1: The dry forest is different than the rainforest. The dry forest is located on the western coast of Ecuador whereas the rainforest circles around to include the eastern region of the country. Unlike the rainforest, known for its constant wet conditions, the dry forest, on the pacific coast, has both a rainy and dry season. When we went, it was the rainy season– green, lush, rainy and roughly 80°F. In the dry season from June to December, the land appears dead with no rain.  This dry season tricks many people who see the forest as “dead” anyway and therefore cut down many of the trees. Now, less than 25% of the dry forest is left, resulting in erosion and mudslides as well as the destruction of one of the most bio-diverse habitats on the planet.

Dedicated to preserving the dry forest, California residents Lucas and Jasper Oshun founded Global Student Embassy (GSE) in 2008. We know the story all too well where a white man comes into another community, finds a problem and tries to fix it, but as I learned more about GSE, I began to see why this organization is different.


Lucas partnered up with Ecuadorian science teacher, Mancho, and the two of them work on a program where students are the core labor and funding that supports this reforestation project. Lucas has set up GSE programs and eco-clubs throughout the U.S. especially in high schools and colleges in California. Mancho started high school eco-clubs in which Ecuadorian students prepare for reforestation throughout the year and then plant trees with American students in our springtime. Some of these Ecuadorian “eco-club” teens are even given the opportunity to visit the United States.

When we arrived in the beaches of San Clemente on the Ecuadorian coast, some of the first faces to greet us were those of Luis, Alvaro, Fiorella, Rolando, Evelyn and Christian—all Ecuadorian students and interns. Country boundaries rapidly faded as we traded a Salsa class for the “Cotton-Eye Joe” dance, exchanged language lessons and compared environmental actions.

Together, we planted over 500 trees in just three days in Bahia, Ecuador. For the first time, I felt the lumpy green skin of the Ceibo tree and ate a bright pink dragon fruit straight off the branch. The mosquitos swarmed and our arms carrying the fifty-pound seedling-boxes ached. There were some near-fainting experiences and the harsh sunlight reminded us that Ecuador is on the equator. Yet the feeling of rich soil in-between my fingers, the Spanish jokes and the look of the farmers after they saw our hard work were all I needed to keep planting.

IMG_6556 (1)

On the last days of the trip we left the bioluminescent-watered, pink-sea-shelled Bahia coast, and stayed in the old Andes town of Cuenca. There, I learned about the various groups of indigenous people in Ecuador like the Quechuas who wear two braids, a velvet skirt and dominant the traditional medicine corner of the market.  We explored the enchanted Cajas National Park with “Quinoa” trees the color of a red crepe myrtles and with waters so clean we drank out of them.

On the last days we reflected on the trip: the culture, the nature, the friends. All of the immense beauty humbled me and reminded me of my small size in the immense, dynamic and essential forests of Ecuador.


Check out Talia’s blog here and a video she made below!


March 23, 2016

Native Plant Nursery Saves Biodiversity on Campus

~ By Erin Chapman, Class of 2017

The fall weather felt pleasant as I hiked the trails in Matoaka woods, scrutinizing the leaves at the tops of oak trees through my binoculars and using a field guide to identify tree species. My mission was to find a scarlet oak, Quercus coccinea, and then collect as many of its acorns as I could fit into my bag. I wasn’t hoarding for my winter food supply – I was saving the tree biodiversity on campus.


I work on the Native Plant Nursery project (NPN) through the EcoAmbassador internship. The EcoAmbassador internship is a program operated by the Committee on Sustainability where students can apply to multiple on-campus sustainability internships and receive class credits for their work. I compare this experience to Captain Planet and the Planeteers. EcoAmbassadors are Planeteers and Calandra Lake, the EcoAmbassador coordinator, is Captain Planet.

My project is an initiative to restore declining native plant populations on the William & Mary campus. This is both for educational and conservation purposes. The educational reason is to replace species important to biology and environmental science courses that were lost due to ongoing campus construction and development. The conservation purpose is to support landscape efforts by providing native plants which require less maintenance to thrive compared to non-native plants, and that support native animal populations.  

The targeted species are:

  • Decumaria barbara (climbing hydrangea)
  • Ulmus alata (winged elm)
  • Quercus prinus (chestnut oak)
  • Quercus coccinea (scarlet oak)
  • Quercus stellata (post oak)
  • Quercus marilandica (blackjack oak)
  • Quercus michauxii (swamp chestnut oak)
  • Viburnum nudum (possumhaw)
  • Oxydendrum arboretum (sourwood)

 Field work is essential for this project – especially during the fall season when I was out competing with squirrels for acorns. The seeds and acorns collected are used to grow seedlings during late autumn. It’s the EcoAmbassador’s responsibility to find mature individuals of the targeted species and collect the seeds from campus property. By selecting seeds from trees nearby, rather than from trees of the same species in a different part of their natural range, our seedlings should be adapted to the local climate.

When I finally found a scarlet oak deep in the College Woods, I collected 97 of its acorns, using an acorn identification guide just to be certain. Acorns with holes weren’t selected, because holes indicate invasion by parasitic insect larvae, such as weevils.

I brought my sizable collection to the potting room in the green house where I performed a float test. This test separates the germinated acorns from the insect damaged and non-germinated acorns. All acorns are placed in a container of water for 24 hours. The ones that sink are viable and kept; the ones that float are discarded. All but four acorns passed the float test.

Scarlet oak is in the red oak family, a family comprised of dormant oak species, and therefore needs a cooling period in order to grow. This cooling period would be winter naturally, but in the NPN it is a refrigerator. Acorns from the red oak family are placed in the fridge in a plastic container filled with soaked peat moss for at least three months. It is vitally important to keep acorns (from all oak families) moist as it is imperative to their timely germination.


When I took the acorns out of the fridge a month ago, I was ecstatic to see the cracked acorn shells with green seed coat peeking through. My advisors (Patty Jackson/Greenhouse Manager and Beth Chambers/Herbarium Curator) and I set up two seed flats for our acorns and put them under grow lights. Most of them now have shoots – a few even have leaves! Soon, they will be transferred to their own individual tree pots.

Currently, the NPN has almost 100 tree seedlings growing at the nursery behind the law school. Once these seedlings reach a self-sustaining size where they no longer require protection against predation, they will eventually be landscaped onto campus property and carry the genetics of their ancestors into the future- hopefully, without any need for helping hands. Looking at the sprouts extending from my scarlet oak acorns, I remember Captain Planet’s words, “The power is yours.”

March 9, 2016

Restoring the Crim Dell

~By Alexander Gerard, Class of 2019

The Crim Dell is one of the most prominent landmarks on William & Mary’s campus, and even in Colonial Williamsburg.  Often the backdrop for family photos, its natural beauty in unmatched by anything on campus. Unfortunately, the Crim Dell is not as beautiful up close as it is from afar, and many people are not aware of this due to its charm.

Unfortunately, in reality the Crim Dell is in poor ecological health, and the structural elements such as trails and stairs are becoming unsafe. Many plant species found in the area around the lake are not native, the biggest offender being the bamboo that was actually planted near the Crim Dell decades ago. Bamboo can even be seen obscuring the bridge. Other invasive plants include wisteria and Japanese honeysuckle which have smothered native species on the trails.

In addition to the lack of attention to the invasive plants, much of the infrastructure in the area has been left to decay over the years. Plants have grown into the trails, blocking people from exploring the trails. Benches are nowhere to be seen, restricting the practicality of student use. In some places the stairs and bridges are falling apart, causing safety hazards.

Our group, SEAC Restoration, has been working on improving the Crim Dell for over a year. We have cleared large areas of invasive species and will continue to do so. We have also improved trails by clearing them of overgrown plants as well as working to make the trails more flat and accessible.

Restoration is continuing to work to fix these issues with the Crim Dell, and to make it a more central part of campus; we hope to make it a destination for students looking for something to do. We are currently working on a green fee proposal, or a request for money, to improve the Crim Dell.  We will continue clearing invasive species and replacing them with native plants. We are also planning to improve structures around the area such as the broken stairs, and to possibly build new infrastructure, such as educational signs.







March 2, 2016

De-stigmatizing the Climate Change Debate

~By Talia Schmitt (reposted from The Flat Hat)

The glacier calving in the Fjord of Eternity (Evigsfjord) - South Greenland. Courtesy of Talia Schmitt.

The glacier calving in the Fjord of Eternity (Evigsfjord) – South Greenland. Courtesy of Talia Schmitt.

As a sixteen year-old earth-lover, I was skeptical of climate change. “The earth is warming? Prove it,” I would say. They said this phenomenon was manmade. “How?” I would ask.

I cared about the birds and the trees, but didn’t understand this big change that people were telling me about: global warming. And so I probed, looked for evidence and conversations and now I can more confidently explain how the earth is warming and why the world is the way it is.

It is ok to be skeptical of issues. In fact, I think it should be encouraged, but with a caveat—we need to have open minds. Be open to science and the opinions of others. From there we can become the best students and teachers.

Unfortunately in this day and age everything has become political, and there is a social stigma attached to asking very basic climate change questions no matter which political party you stand with.

“What is Climate Change?” “How does it work?” “How are humans contributing to it?”

People may be fearful to ask these good questions whether they are democrats or republicans. Conservatives are fearful that if they ask these questions they will be portrayed as liberal. Liberals are fearful that if they ask these questions they will be seen as doubting their progressive roots.

If you fall into either of these categories, I dare you to swallow any embarrassment and ask these questions out loud – loud enough so that other people know that it is okay to ask them too.

Believe it or not, your most liberal or conservative friend might be earnestly wondering the very same thing. I grew up in circle of environmental advocates, but when the question “can someone explain the science behind global warming” came out, the room went silent. Unfortunately, people often race to the debate without understanding the problem. What we have to remember is questioning and curiosity are at the core of progress and education.

It wasn’t until I took a trip to Greenland with climate scientists in the summer before college that I really started to see evidence of climate change. They showed me the temperature data detailing climate abnormalities. I sent follow up emails questioning how they knew these changes could be attributed to man. Dialogue over phone calls and emails continued. Only after continued phone calls and emails am I now comfortable accepting and explaining climate change.

See a video of Talia’s arctic experience.

This type of skepticism is healthy. Climate change need not be framed as a debate, but rather a conversation– an opportunity for scientists to share their findings, and for the public to question, dig deeper and help find solutions.

In the College of William and Mary’s newest environmental blog Going Green (and Gold), that I am co-writing with the wonderful Jo Flashman ’18, we will share these conversations with you.  This is an opportunity for you all to learn about various environmental issues starting on campus and expanding around the globe. So let us know what you want to learn.  Email us, message us or talk to us on campus.
I am excited for this conversation to start on paper and hopefully continue in the halls of William and Mary.

Read Talia’s personal blog.

February 24, 2016

Go Outside – Doctor’s Orders

~By Rachel Wimmer (reposted from the William & Mary Blogs)

When was the last time that you went outside, and I mean really went outside, and completely submersed yourself in nature? How did you feel? Refreshed? Relaxed? Were you unquestionably happier? It’s not just you; there is an inherent connection between humans and nature that is deeply linked to our mental and physical health. The health benefits of spending time outdoors are so valuable that doctors are now writing prescriptions for their patients to spend time in a green-space. Dr. Dorothy Ibes, a professor at W&M who studies parks and public health and directs the Parks Research Lab, has established a Parks Rx program in the Greater Williamsburg Area to promote this practice

GWA Parks Rx is part of an international health initiative that gives healthcare providers the tools to prescribe time outdoors to their patients. Two years ago, Dr. Ibes was taken by an article on the DC Parks Rx program that had been launched 4 years earlier by a pediatrician who runs low-income clinics within the DC metro area. Dr. Ibes decided that she wanted to pilot the Greater Williamsburg Parks Rxprogram to promote these healthy behaviors in a community that she feels very connected to. Through support from W&M Green Fees, the Charles Center, and the Environmental Science and Policy (ENSP) program, she and her student researchers in the Parks Research Lab spent the last year and a half auditing 44 parks in the Williamsburg area, recording 50 variables from each park that can be used to help match patients with their “ideal park.”

“We went out there and said, ‘Okay, how many garbage cans? How many picnic tables? Are there bathrooms? Are they open? Are there drinking fountains? Are they functional? Do they have walking paths? How steep are they? Can you go biking?’ … You name it, we collected information on everything that we could.”

Dr. Dorothy Ibes with the healthcare provider interface and parks information.

Dr. Dorothy Ibes with the healthcare provider interface and parks information.

Patients from all walks of life and with an array of health concerns can benefit from participation in the Parks Rx program, and the entire prescription process takes just 3 minutes. A provider simply logs on to the database constructed by Ibes and her students, and enters the patient’s preferences: how far from home do they want to go? How do they want to get there? What activities do they want to do outside? What amenities do they think they might need while they are there? The program then matches the patient with an ideal park based on their preferences. The healthcare providers fills out a prescription form, designating a day, time, and duration to go to a park each week. The patient logs each park visit, records their activity, and then brings the log back to their doctor to discuss their experience and alter their program as necessary.

It’s not a replacement for medication,  but rather a “green supplement”.

The online interface used by healthcare providers to match patients with their “ideal park”

The online interface used by healthcare providers to match patients with their “ideal park”

So how exactly does being outside improve our health? “A lot of research shows that no matter what you do, if you do it outside, it’s better for your mental health,” says Ibes. This benefit comes from the mental health trifecta of being outside, being physically active, and being social.  Further, engaging in physical activity outside, especially if done with a companion, increases the benefits that you gain from the outdoors. “Every minute you spend outside is like money in the piggy bank. It’s for your mental health if nothing else.” So far, Dr. Ibes has trained doctors at Sentara® New Town and the Student Health Center on W&M’s campus, in addition to staff at the W&M Counseling Center, all of whom are very excited about the program.

wimmer 3

Summer 2015 Parks Research Lab student researchers, clockwise from upper left: Katie McElheny, Katie Johanson, Hannah Kwawu, and Hannah Cannon (not pictured: Robert Boyd and Tyler Treakle)

Not only does being outside have the power to encourage healthy behaviors, but it creates environmental connectedness and promotes environmental stewardship. It is important for us to protect park spaces as they hit all tiers of sustainability: social,environmental, and economic. Though most people tend to generally think of sustainability in terms of the environmental dimension, it is important to think about all three dimensions as they are interdependent. Parks may seem to be completely separate from the “wild nature” that we typically think of; however, they are important for maintaining ecological sustainability in developed areas and have been linked to an increased number of visitors to cities with green spaces. By having parks in cities, people can reap these benefits and become invested in sustainability and protecting natural spaces on a larger scale.

Perhaps, one of the biggest barriers between students and the health benefits of being outdoors is our addiction to technology. Being outside prompts non-directed attention that allows our brains to defrag after spending hours on end staring at our phones and computers. This constant directed attention towards our screens exhausts our brains and causes stress and anxiety. Even spending 5 minutes outside without being connected to our technology can have huge health benefits and help “reboot our brains.” So the next time that you are walking to class, put your phone away and just enjoy a little time outside to let your brain re-energize.

Looking for somewhere to start? Try one of Dr. Ibes’ Top 5 Outdoor Spots:

–       York River State Park: It has everything that you could want to do outdoors, it’s beautiful and can be explored by foot, bike, or boat.

–       Capital Trail: It’s great for biking, it’s off the street, offers beautiful Virginia scenery, and is very safe.

–       Freedom Park: Nice hilly trails, great for hiking.

–       College Woods and Matoaka Trails: Rejuvenating space close to campus for a quick escape, rent a free kayak or canoe from the boathouse and spend a little time on the water.

–       Sunken Garden: a great place to break for a little green time in the middle of campus. Take just a few minutes between classes, sit on the side, and watch the trees and the people for a little while.

Interested in learning more about the Parks Research Lab?

–       Check out their symposium on December 1,2015 at 3:30. Swem Media Center, RSVP at

–       Contact Dr. Ibes directly if you are interested in working in the lab. She is currently recruiting students from all disciplines to join the lab in Spring 2016, and will soon be soliciting submissions for summer fellowships.

February 10, 2016

EPA Director, Gina McCarthy Reflects on Paris Climate Deal

~By Talia Schmitt, Class of 2016

WASHINGTON- The director of the Environmental Protection Agency said on Thursday that the recently completed Paris climate talks were significant because unlike at previous conferences, a range of businesses and countries, notorious for their lack of environmental regulations, agreed that climate change is currently one of the most pressing international issues.

Just two weeks after returning from the United Nations Climate Talks in Paris, the EPA director, Gina McCarthy, said the number of players at the table including  corporations and nations allowed for a much more productive conference.

Individuals like Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, and private sector groups like investment groups interested in clean energy are enabling the US to reach their goal of doubling investment in energy research, which is currently at $10 billion. Ms. McCarthy said that at this conference, businesses realized that a strong international climate agreement was needed to create a clean, green economy.

“The right people were around the table saying the only way we are going to get those investments is to get an agreement,” she said.

McCarthy said that the United States utilities industries who are already working to meet the new power plant regulations set forward by the US, were at the conference to explain how they have adapted their operations to meet the new rules.

“It turned out that I needed to do a lot less talking then I thought, because I had the utilities there doing that talking. That is quite a change,” said McCarthy.

Ms. McCarthy, who has been the head EPA administrator since 2013, spoke at a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations about topics ranging from the recent Porter Ranch Methane Leak to Industry’s role in the EPA.

But in the bulk of her prepared remarks as well as in the question answer session, Ms. McCarthy emphasized the significant developments that helped yield the landmark international agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions.

In previous years, industry has stayed out of the conversation, or even denied the occurrence of climate change. What’s different now, she said, is the private sector is stepping up because companies, especially industries like agriculture, realize that their businesses are and will be effected.

“There was a clear understanding that this isn’t just the government’s challenge. This is an impact on business that is already being felt,” McCarthy said.

The Paris agreement aims to commit nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. All 195 participating countries have approved the deal. Of those, 186 countries drafted plans ahead of the December summit, to outline their greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The United States has committed to reduce their greenhouse gas levels produced in 2005 by 26-28 percent by 2025. The Obama administration put in place the Clean Power Plan- the first national standards to limit carbon pollution from power plants. President Obama has increased vehicle fuel efficiency standards to 54.4 miles per gallon for cars and light-vehicle trucks by 2025, nearly doubling the fuel efficiency standards compared to new cars currently on the roads.

These executive actions did not require congressional approval which, experts say, allowed the President to avoid any red tape, and meet his emission reduction goals.

However, even if all 195 countries including the United States follow through on their promises, the deals aren’t strong enough to combat the predicted rise in global temperatures; experts say temperatures will still rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius, resulting in some of the worst consequences of climate change from massive storm surges, to prolonged droughts.

Therefore, a large part of the agreement is the “ratcheting” up of regulations, or the improvement of a country’s climate plan every five years.

The United States leadership is something that she thinks distinguishes this year’s talks from previous ones.

“[The conference] put the US back in a leadership position in a way that we have not been for quite some time,” said McCarthy.

In the past, the US has rejected some of the largest international agreements to decrease greenhouse gas emissions like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Experts believe that the US’s rejection of this treaty, lead to the treaty’s failure.

Now, with not only the US at the table but other major economies like China and India, McCarthy says the conference was different.

By having countries come into the agreement with specific plans to reduce emissions, McCarthy says, countries were no longer starting at step one. World leaders also kicked off the conference rather than leaving their remarks for the end, which experts believe may have contributed to the sense of urgency felt throughout the talks.

“Every day after that was substantive instead a preliminary discussion…it was a vastly different way of structuring the meeting and it resulted in vastly more substantive discussion,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy mentions that many of these countries, historically infamous for being polluters, can no longer afford to just think about jobs, but must also think about the health and safety of its people when considering environmental regulations. Many countries are already forced to adapt, or change their practices, to meet temperature changes hitting now.

Countries like China and India which have acted as road blocks in the past, have changed their tune. They now recognize that responding to climate change will not only save its citizens from serious natural disasters, but also provide an opportunity to create an-internationally competitive ‘green’ economy.

“India recognizes that it is on the front line of disasters…so it’s not as cut and dry as we want jobs or we don’t want jobs. It’s about what do you do to protect your population at the same time,” McCarthy said.

She also believes this is an opportunity for countries to improve their economies through green technologies and jobs.

“This is all about shifting to a clean economy,” said McCarthy.

The urgency of Climate Change was very present, McCarthy says. There were no climate deniers at the conference, and no question of whether climate change is an issue.

“There was a certainty about the inevitability of needing to act on climate, and the immediacy of that need that was quite palpable and very different,” she stated.

McCarthy said that this conference marked a changing point for many people that Climate Change is not just a “tree hugger issue,” but rather one that is effecting communities and businesses now. She reiterates how all the people sitting around the table from industry, to faith-based leaders, to developing countries allowed for this “groundbreaking” agreement. This “positive energy,” she says will continue following the Paris conference.

Parts of Obama’s climate plan like the new regulations on the power plants are being held up in courts currently. Critics have brought lawsuits around the new regulations arguing that they exhibit government overreach. But McCarthy predicts that a decision will come out in the next few weeks, and she is confident that EPA’s new regulations will come out unscathed. This act among others would allow the US to meet their greenhouse gas reduction targets following Paris.

“2016 will really be for EPA a tremendous opportunity to move forward… in supporting this international effort which for the first time has a framing that could make it very successful and we intend to get it there,” McCarthy said.


Check out Talia’s blog here.

February 3, 2016

Crowdsourcing a National Wildlife Refuge

~By Patrick Williams, Class of 2016

Photo Credit: Openlands

Photo Credit: Openlands

During the 2015-2016 winter break I had the opportunity to work for a Chicago-based conservation organization called Openlands, developing communications materials which will promote one of their recent projects, Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. As I read up on Hackmatack, I was instantly sold on its ecological significance, its proximity to Milwaukee and Chicago (my hometown), and the fact that it will be a multi-use conservation site.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know what the heck a wildlife refuge is and my job of explaining its purpose took on an unexpected dynamic after the recent events at Malheur NWR in Oregon. Public perceptions aside, what makes the Refuge truly remarkable is not just the habitat it protects, but how it’s being built. Hackmatack is, in every sense, at the forefront of how we do conservation work in the 21st Century.

The National Wildlife Refuge System

blog 2

Most people’s exposure to the National Wildlife Refuge System is limited, or they recognize the name ANWR, but few can explain what it is. Teddy Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1903 and it has since grown into a system of over 560 conservation sites, encompassing more than 150,000,000 acres. Wildlife refuges are managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates as part of the Department of the Interior.

The primary goal of the Refuge System is to protect and enhance habitat for wildlife, while providing public benefit, such as educational resources and recreation opportunities. Hackmatack is the only such refuge within 100 miles of Chicago, making it accessible to over 9 million people who live within an hour’s drive. Additionally, Hackmatack sits on the Illinois-Wisconsin border and after gaining support from the congressional delegations of those states, as well as their respective governors, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar formally declared protected status for the reserve in August, 2012. However, earning that designation was only the beginning of the work ahead.

Of Global Significance

Hackmatack takes its name from the Algonquin word for the tamarack larch and it is one of the few places to see these trees in the Lower 48. The vast landscapes of the Refuge are home to 109 species of concern including bald eagles and the endangered whooping crane, who find shelter at Hackmatack along their migratory journey. It sits at the crossroads of the great forests to the east and the great plans to the west, making Hackmatack the site of some of the last remaining fragments of globally-rare ecosystems such as oak savannas and mesic prairies. The retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet during the Ice Age carved an undulating landscape of rolling hills and pristine waterways that shelter mosaics of wildflowers and tallgrasses. While Hackmatack sits on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, it is tied to a network of ecosystems that reach west across the Great Plains, east through the Great Lakes and north into Canada.

The story of Hackmatack is remarkable in its own right: 12 years ago a small group of locals gathered around a kitchen table to discuss their vision to preserve a landscape that truly mattered. Through their efforts of organizing their local communities and carrying their message all the way to Washington, they earned the designation for Hackmatack as a protected area. That designation further means that the Refuge is an essential patch in our national landscape and an integral part of our country’s intimate connection to the wilderness.

blog 3

Conserving Wilderness in the 21st Century

What’s been unique to Hackmatack this whole time has been the strategy for establishment. The locals who began the work carried this project from the ground-up, winning the support of the Federal Government. Rather than surveying a region and designating a small portion for preservation, this refuge had to been envisioned acre-by-acre.

Over the next few years, Hackmatack will link existing conservation sites into an 11,200 refuge. In order to develop the necessary scale to allow wildlife to thrive, a coalition of private partners are jumpstarting the process of building Hackmatack.

Private organizations such as Openlands are coordinating with Fish & Wildlife Services to acquire new parcels of land in order to grow the Refuge. They are also working with private citizens in the area to develop what are known as conservation easements, which promote best-practices on private property without altering existing land use. This means everyone from farmers to fisherman to families have the opportunity to provide a home to recovering wildlife populations.

The days of demarcating mass tracts of land for protection are over, but that doesn’t mean conservation work ends. Between private partners growing Hackmatack parcel-by-parcel and working with locals to brainstorm the best way to balance conservation with our own everyday needs, this truly a process of crowdsourcing a wildlife refuge. This type of conservation work requires us to see landscapes not for what they are now, but for what they can be in the future.

Projects like Hackmatack are not only how we will combat the effects of climate change, but they are also a way to preserve what our planet looked like before urbanization. What began as a conversation among friends quickly grew into an innovative strategy for conservation. It’s 12 years of work into the process of establishing a wildlife refuge, but Hackmatack is 10,000 years in the making.

January 26, 2016

Don’t Think Youth Can Make a Difference? Think Again: The Role of Youth at the Paris Climate Talks, COP21

~By Talia Schmitt

Sick and tired of hearing that ‘nobody listens to youth,’ or ‘one person can’t make a difference’?

If so, it is time for a trip to an international environmental conference. This past December, I attended the Paris Climate Talks or COP21. There, youth were some of the first to arrive and last to leave- never ceasing to demand serious climate action.

Nearly 5,000 youth arrived in France a week before official negotiations for the Conference of Youth, a meeting organized by youth organizations around the globe. Here people learned about the climate agreement and methods to take action.

This momentum led into the two weeks of official climate talks. Youth groups demanded strict government regulations to reduce the blow of climate change- recommending actions like sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, a temperature increase restricted to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, and decisions that consider both people today and those of the future.

There is a youth non-governmental organization, YOUNGO, which was formed six years ago to give youth a larger stake in the process. There are two members of YOUNGO who are allowed to communicate information out to the government officials. However both young and civil society groups are in the clear minority in the rooms where negotiations took place.

According to a member of the Sierra Student Coalition, Katie Gibson, only nine badges were permitted to the 70 incredibly well-informed members of the Sierra Club attending the conference. Youth, who made up about a quarter of the 70 members, were lucky to share two of the nine badges. But even with two badges, students in the coalition made it work switching up who received the prized badge every couple of days. And whoever went into the conference room that day tracked down negotiators, trying to get their ear and persuade them to support strong climate legislation. They were strong, persistent and when push came to shove, feisty.

“These are not things that I was not involved in creating so we have to leverage the space in a way that we are heard and understood and we are going to hold [government leaders] accountable. So that is why we are [here]. And we will continue to do this no matter what,” Gibson said.

With lack of accessibility into the negotiating room, youth found other ways to get their voices heard. Dyanna Jaye and Timothy Damon, leaders of SustainUS, a U.S. youth environmental advocacy group, said they generated attention around these issues through measures like demonstrations and social media.

“[Youth] are really calling countries to task,” Damon said.

One of SustainUS’s primary goals is to decarbonize the global economy by 2050. This would require equal amounts of “carbon sinks” or places to absorb carbon like oceans and forests as the amount of emission outputs. To demonstrate this concept, youth drew an “O” around their right eye to represent zero-net emissions by 2050.

Youth were instrumental in some of the largest demonstrations reminding political leaders that they were in Paris, and demanding action.  Actions included the placement of 10,000 pairs of shoes in a Paris square (representing the number of people ready to march for climate action and social justice), to “fracktivist” rallies where youth demanded that “oil stay in the soil.”

And the noise didn’t stop in person. Hundreds of thousands of videos, podcasts, tweets and posts flowed out of the mouths of protestors onto the walls of social media.

And the pinging of the phone followed me back to the youth hostel where I was staying. Youth from around the world ended up sharing bunk beds and stories. The girl who lay in the bed next to me was from India and the boy in the bunk above me had be displaced from his home in Alaska due to rising sea levels. We talked about the environmental challenges in our own communities and shared solutions for the future. These conversations only began in the negotiation rooms and continued throughout the night, until the light shinning through the windows reminded us that it was morning.

Jaye explained one of the most important roles of youth: their “international identity.” Negotiators put their domestic concerns as number one, which can prevent necessary global action, she said. But youth, she added, stick with the big picture. Damon agrees.

“There is a generational identity taking priority over national identity,” Damon said.

Damon acknowledges flaws in youth activism like a high turnover rate of students since nobody is paid for their work. Also, there was a clear majority of youth from the Global North, where the conference was held. Regardless of the flaws, he agreed with Jaye that the role of youth is fundamental. He recalled specific examples. In this year’s text, he worked with the Guatemalan negotiator to include the importance of “intergenerational equality concerns” in the preamble of the agreement. Other youth contributed to an “environmental education” component of the agreement.

And even when youth were quiet, their presence had an impact. During climate talks in Warsaw in 2013, Damon recalled that the youth put black tape over their mouths to represent their lack of representation at the table. As negotiators left the meeting, he remembers them coming over to the youth to ask about their concerns.

Youth are not only active at the conference, but also when they come home.

“While youth bring an international perspective, they are still domestic actors,” Damon said.

As domestic actors, youth can take what they learned from all of their experiences ranging from late night talks with the students sleeping in the bunk above them to the message of a girl speaking up at a rally.

I for one, look forward to bringing those lessons home.

Students represent what they believe is the relationship between the oil industry and the public.

Students represent what they believe is the relationship between the oil industry and the public.


Below is a video Talia made about youth participation at COP21.

Check out Talia’s blog here:

January 21, 2016

Next Posts Previous Posts


Welcome to Hark Upon the Green! This blog is a shared space for members of the sustainability community at William & Mary to write about sustainability topics on and beyond.

If you would like to contribute to the blog, contact

Make sure to visit Sustainability at W&M for all of W&M's progress on sustainability efforts.

Catch up with William & Mary Sustainability on Twitter at WM_GreenisGold
and on Instagram @wm_sustainability

To learn what William & Mary's Environmental Law Society is up to, visit their blog at


RSS WM_GreenisGold