The Refuge System’s new Wilderness Fellowship Program provides opportunities for college students to gain career experience while becoming stewards of the wilderness experience. The first class of 10 fellows is spending six months immersed in wilderness areas of national wildlife refuges.
Fellows take training courses, develop an inventory and monitoring strategy, and produce baseline data about wilderness characteristics. About 20 million acres of the Refuge System are designated wilderness — meaning land is undeveloped and bears few signs of human activity. Wilderness tracts exist in 63 refuges across the country. More than 18 million acres of Service-managed wilderness are in Alaska.
"From the moment I set foot on Izembek Refuge, I was surrounded by the beauty of an untamed world— a world of fierce winds, endless tundra, jagged peaks of Holocene volcanoes and icy glacial streams,” wrote Anco in a journal entry from the refuge. “I will never forget fishing in Russell Creek alongside a juvenile grizzly bear or watching hundreds of salmon swim upstream.”
He also learned to associate “blue clouds” with fair weather. Situated at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, where two weather systems converge, Cold Bay, Alaska, near Izembek Refuge, is the cloudiest city in the country, according to the National Weather Service. So the closest residents come to seeing clear skies is spotting blue pockets between clouds — or “blue clouds,” as the locals call them.
Corey earned a master’s degree in ecosystem science and conservation from Duke University, along with a certificate in geospatial analysis.
Rachael Carnes, 26, (Oklahoma) monitored wilderness character at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota and Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan. She collected and analyzed data to quantify aspects of wilderness character. The measures were entered in a database that will permit the charting of potential changes in resources over time.
“Wilderness is a bog,” wrote Carnes about her impressions of Agassiz Refuge. “It is a sleepy swamp where the only audible sounds are produced by birds and insects, and footsteps are absorbed in the moss-covered ground. It is the only place I have felt truly alone and seen such clarity in the night sky.”
Carnes also worked on invasive species control (releasing biological control agents for Canada thistle) and duck banding to monitor wildlife populations. Carnes has a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University and a certificate in geographic information systems (GIS). For her master’s degree project, Carnes conducted a geospatial analysis of favorable wolf habitat and potential corridors in four Southwestern states.
Erin Clark, 31, (New York) analyzed the character of wilderness and helped excavate a prehistoric marine reptile at Montana’s Charles M. Russell and Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. “Can you imagine stumbling across the fossil of a prehistoric marine reptile stretched across the channel of a stream deep in the wilderness?” said Clark. “As a Wilderness Fellow, I got to be part of the team that helped a paleontologist expose and extract the complete skeleton. It looks to be a species never before found!”
Besides developing criteria to chart changes in wilderness character at Charles M. Russell Refuge, Clark helped prepare the refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan, which will drive refuge management and priorities for the next 15 years. She also worked closely with groups such as the Montana Wilderness Society and the Wilderness Society to host refuge hikes and communicate refuge positions.
Clark received a master of forest science degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her master’s research investigated the impacts of prescribed fire on plant diversity in central Oregon's ponderosa pine forests. Before pursuing a career in conservation, Clark spent seven years in the magazine industry, beginning at Sports Illustrated and later handling digital content for several dozen Time Inc. magazines.
Ben Edwards, 23, (North Carolina) assessed the character of wilderness at Nebraska’s Fort Niobrara and Valentine National Wildlife Refuges, participating in the annual bison roundup at Fort Niobrara Refuge and kayaking the Niobrara River. He has also collected grazing vegetation samples, conducted stream flow measurements, and sprayed invasive weeds.
Edwards is a 2010 graduate of the University of North Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences. He is particularly interested in the management of aquatic resources.
He has studied invasive lionfish at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina; analyzed oceanographic data from a deep sea coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico; evaluated wind energy potential off the North Carolina coast, and spent a summer tagging dogfish sharks in the Gulf of Alaska with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Kelly Lockman, 27, (New Jersey) worked at Kofa and Havasu National Wildlife Refuges in Arizona. She helped devise measures to monitor potential changes in key elements of Kofa wilderness. She also surveyed bats, removed invasive species, managed desert bighorn sheet and help rehabilitate brown pelicans — a previously endangered species. And she savored her introduction to the desert wilderness.
“Camping without a tent in the desert? That is crazy — or is it?” Lockman wrote in a journal entry from Kofa Refuge. “There is no better way to experience Kofa Refuge Wilderness than forgoing the tent and lying under the stars, in awe of the clarity of the Milky Way and constellations.”
Lockman is a master’s degree candidate in environmental studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a freelance landscape designer. While earning a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture at Rutgers University, she studied abroad in a German studio that focused on public spaces and architecture in Munich and Berlin.
Molly McCarter, 23, (South Carolina), also worked at Kofa Refuge, as well as Imperial and Cabeza Prieta Refuges in Arizona. While McCarter’s primary assignment was to create a wilderness monitoring protocol for these refuges, she also gained experience in wildlife surveying, endangered species recovery, brown pelican rehabilitation, and invasive species removal.
Before her fellowship, McCarter was a science educator at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill. She earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies in 2011 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Monica Patel, 27, (New Jersey) assessed the character of wild lands at Great Swamp and Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuges in New Jersey and Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. At each refuge where she worked, Patel helped develop a program to track potential changes in wilderness conditions, including such aspects as opportunities for solitude, primeval character and conditions where natural processes prevail.
In 2011, Patel earned a master’s degree in environmental management from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. Before her fellowship, Patel worked with Fire Island National Seashore in New York to develop a coastal adaptation strategy.
Julia Pendergrass, 22, (Colorado) worked in the National Resource Program Center in Fort Collins, Colorado. The Center oversees the inventorying and monitoring of the 550+ refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Pendergrass was involved in database development and staging for habitat assessments nationwide.
“Wilderness areas are important,” says Pendergrass. “They are some of the last truly undeveloped, natural places that we can still enjoy, and I am glad to have been part of a program that helps to protect that.”
Pendergrass expects to earn her bachelor’s degree in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology from Colorado State University in 2011.
Matthew Strausser, 24, (Texas) assessed the character of wild lands at Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He examined how factors including development, climate changes, oil and gas exploration, and refuge management degrade or improve wilderness character. His evaluations incorporated data on such phenomena as salmon runs, glacier size, forest fire frequency, bear attacks, visitor numbers, pollution amounts and road traffic. He also relished opportunities to photograph and explore the salmon-packed rivers, glacial valleys and spruce forests spread across Kenai’s 1.3 million acres of wilderness.
“Canoeing through crystal clear lakes on the Kenai Wilderness,” he wrote in a journal, “we came across loons that dove into the water and darted below our boat, playing beneath it just as I’ve seen dolphins and porpoises do in Florida.”
Strausser, a master’s degree candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, earned undergraduate degrees in forestry and biology from the University of California—Berkeley.
Weiss’s Okefenokee assignment took him to the storied refuge while some of its peat soil still smoldered from one of the largest wildfires in Southeast history. The swamp fire, sparked by lightning in April 2011, burned three-quarters of the refuge’s approximately 400,000 drought-stricken acres by mid-summer. As part of his work, Weiss developed measures to evaluate the impact of fire on wilderness character and monitor changes in the future
“After months of fire, water levels at Okefenokee Refuge eventually were high enough to allow canoes to enter the swamp,” Weiss wrote. “The land was scorched so thoroughly that you could see for miles through what was once dense vegetation. I finally arrived at Chase Prairie where the fire had not reached. The contrast between the green of the lush vegetation and where the fire had raged was striking.”
At Chassahowitzka Refuge, Weiss is developing a survey to help monitor the impact of commercial fishing, crabbing, and guiding on the wilderness area.
Weiss earned a bachelor of science degree in wildlife biology and natural resource ecology from the University of Vermont. While in college, he studied desert ecology and sustainable development in an arid ecosystem in Arad, Israel.
Photos were provided by the wilderness fellows.