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Conservation in a rapidly changing world, continued

Johnson has nearly 25 years of experience in international conservation with the Wildlife Conservation Society and today provides training to design, monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of conservation projects through the organization Foundations of Success. 

“We’ve always been conscious in the field of conservation about the need to be interdisciplinary,” she adds, “but I think that’s spatially even more true today because of globalization, our economic structures, the universal impacts of climate change, and the international nature of discussions of what we do about it.” 

Miguel Morales (M.S. Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development ‘01, Ph.D. Land Resources ‘09) concurs. 

“Global change – from changes in markets to more countries around the world becoming more developed and having more power to change the natural environment – is definitely impacting the way we work,” says Morales, who works in the Center for Environment and Peace at Conservation International. “Twenty years ago, it used to be working on the local level and country level. Today our work is expanding to global initiatives; we have to be able to implement actions at different levels and scales.” 

“The environment is changing, our economy is changing, transportation is changing and the way we communicate is changing, all very fast,” he continues. “I think the conservation community is flexible enough so far to adapt quickly.” 

Job requirements 

Clearly, today’s conservation practitioner must be equipped with an expanded portfolio. 

Golden marsh wetland China
Modern conservation must be pursued within the
context of the broader landscape and changing
environmental conditions. Photo: Llee Wu/Flickr

“There’s still a need as always for tangible skills, but increasingly people have to be able to think outside of specific disciplines, work with broader teams, and especially deal with the social science side of things, even if they’re strongly trained in biology and ecology,” says Beilfuss. 

“Even if you’re working in fiercely protected areas, you’re still dealing with watersheds and broader landscapes,” he emphasizes. “So regardless, you need great people skills and the ability to understand diverse viewpoints from people using the land – viewpoints you may not agree with from a conservation perspective.” 

Beilfuss advocates for this “crossover thinking” in a course on river management that he teaches for UW-Madison and in his work with the International Crane Foundation. 

“I think it’s easy for sides to demonize each other. It’s hard to even get people to look at problems in the same way,” he says. “I see a lot of what I’m involved in as trying to facilitate thinking across groups in trying to find concrete solutions, understanding the constraints people are working with.” 

For example, Beilfuss, who trained as a civil engineer in addition to his graduate studies in the Nelson Institute, often works with dam operators worldwide in advancing his organization’s water conservation efforts. “I find that they often just aren’t aware – there was nothing in their training that exposed them to how a dam profoundly changes the ecology of a river system,” he says. 

To bridge these knowledge gaps, Morales sees an urgent need for more interdisciplinary conservation practitioners with a big picture perspective. 

“We need people who can understand the wide range of environmental issues – from influencing policy or funding to working with local or indigenous communities to managing wildlife – and be at the interface of these issues with decision makers,” he says. 

Beilfuss agrees: “We’ve had to take a broader view and I think that’s been a real challenge for people trained in pure ecology or biology, who know a lot about ecosystems and how to protect them, but may not know anything about how to sit in the kind of meetings where decisions are happening that determine the fate of land.” 

“We’ve always been
conscious in the field
of conservation about the
need to be interdisciplinary,
but I think that’s even
more true today.”
-Honorary fellow
Arlyne Johnson
 

Johnson adds that conservation advocates must go into these situations ready to address intersections of conservation and human needs. 

“People need to be equipped as conservation leaders to have practical tools on how, when first presented with a conservation issue, they can conceptualize it, consider various approaches to resolving the problems, and prioritize their actions,” she says. 

Conservationists must also be able to measure the outcomes of their work and demonstrate that conserving biodiversity has value not only in the form of ecosystem services but in human wellbeing, she advises. This is vital not only in achieving conservation goals, but in funding conservation efforts. 

“Certainly today there’s a lot more emphasis on evidence-based conservation and on clearly defining the logic of how we as professionals diagnose a problem,” Johnson says. “I think those who work in conservation see that implicitly, but increasingly donors are asking to see measurable evidence of the effectiveness and impact of conservation projects.” 

To help train leaders in these complex skills, the Nelson Institute recently launched a professional master’s program in environmental conservation that mixes theory and practice, with the first students beginning in June 2014. 

“I really feel that what the Nelson Institute is offering in this professional master’s program is valuable for people working in conservation today and critical for addressing modern conservation challenges,” says Johnson, who will teach a course in conservation planning as part of the curriculum. 

“A great contribution of the Nelson Institute is to help people work productively in interdisciplinary environments,” adds Beilfuss. “Thinking across fields is of great value to creative conservation problem solving, especially as we deal with challenges that are harder to understand and predict.” 

Professional degree a new tool for conservation leaders 

In the face of unprecedented environmental challenges that demand novel solutions, UW-Madison has launched a model graduate degree program to train tomorrow’s conservation leaders. 

The professional master’s program in environmental conservation, developed and offered by the Nelson Institute, is designed to help early-career professionals boost their leadership and management expertise. 

“We’re creating a new kind of conservation practitioner,” says Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins. “We’re going to change the way people do conservation and the way they work with communities. To do that, you have to change the way you train people.” 

The 15-month, 32-credit blended curriculum, combining on-campus learning with remote experiences, offers a condensed timeframe and lower costs than two-year residential graduate programs. 

Siberian crane
The Nelson Institute's new professional master’s
program combines on-campus learning with remote
experiences. Photo: International Crane Foundation

“This will be an attractive, accessible and unique program design,” says program chair Janet Silbernagel, a professor of environmental studies and landscape architecture. “Students still come out with a 32-credit master’s degree with robust professional training. And throughout they learn about different leadership possibilities, develop their presence, and get inside the professional network.” 

Courses will span conservation planning, environmental policy, biology, ecology, social science and sustainability, plus specific professional skills tailored to a student’s interests. Coordinators envision a cohort of domestic and international students building off of each other’s experiences. 

“We’ll have energetic people who want to change the world and experienced people from all over the world who want to change their lives. You put those two together and they can teach each other,” says Robbins. 

The program begins with a Summer Conservation Institute, which will include events with international conservation practitioners, offering students extraordinary access to accomplished professionals. An on-campus fall semester of intensive study and a remote spring semester of distance learning will follow. 

The program culminates with a summer leadership experience, placing students in a new, more advanced role with their current employer or with a range of partner organizations and agencies such as Conservation International, the International Crane Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Forest Service. 

“We imagine working with students from the time they arrive to hone in on their interests and what their expertise is best suited for,” says Silbernagel. “We want students to get experience in executive-level decision making and conservation strategies, running a project or program for a term.” 

The program is an extension of the Nelson Institute’s Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development (CBSD) graduate degree. Launched in 1990, CBSD was designed to allow students to pursue either a professional or research track, with growing interest in the professional emphasis. Students wishing to pursue the research-focused degree will be integrated into the Nelson Institute’s interdisciplinary Environment and Resources graduate program. 

“With our current CBSD program, we realized a large number of students were wanting to pursue the professional track,” says Silbernagel. “And, from the employer side, we knew there was demand for students finishing their master’s who could go right into a professional practice with biology, science and research skills, but also serve as project managers. We were hearing from both sides that we had a gap.” 

For more information about the program or to apply, visit: nelson.wisc.edu/conservation 

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