Becky Sapper | Ashland, WI
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To this day, I have no idea who this lady was. I just remember they were sitting outside talking, and all of us kids were running around playing, and I heard the lady say, ‘Hey, there’s a cardinal.’ And I looked around, and I didn’t see any cardinals. Then a little bit later she says, ‘Oh, there’s a Carolina wren.’ I just looking around, and thought, ‘I have no idea what a Carolina wren is, but I don’t see any birds around.’
So I asked her, ‘Where’s this bird?’
She smiled and said, ‘Well, it’s in the woods over there.’
I said, ‘I can’t see it.’
Then she goes, ‘Well, I can’t see it either, but I can tell it’s there based on the song it’s singing.’
That connected the dots for me, that there are all these birds in the woods singing and you could tell who they were by the different songs they sang, and that you can do this without even seeing them. It was such an epiphany for me at that young age.
The next week she sent me a field guide, and that was my first introduction into this whole world of wildlife and nature.
I grew up in a small town in Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis, Missouri. And I’m the youngest of four kids. Both my parents were educators. My dad was a principal, and my mom was a teacher, and we had five acres of land on a small eighteen-acre lake. So I grew up fishing and swimming in the lake, jumping from a rope swing off a large oak tree, running barefoot all summer, catching lightning bugs, and helping in the garden.
We didn’t take a lot of vacations growing up, but I remember trips to visit cousins in Lodi, Wisconsin some summers, where we fed Susie the Duck. We swam in Devil’s Lake. Those happy memories had a big influence on my choice to go to college in Wisconsin. I had no idea at the time, though, how big Wisconsin was and how much of it I had yet to see. And of course, I had no idea that my career would revolve around that Wisconsin wilderness.
I attended Northland College up here in Ashland, on Lake Superior, where I was lucky enough to play volleyball. During that first fall semester, the team took a road trip every week, which allowed me to see the area in all of its fall glory. I think that got me really enamored with Northern Wisconsin, the woods, and Lake Superior especially.
I’m not sure what it is about the woods that I connect with. I think it’s just a cozy feeling of being surrounded by the trees. After growing up in the vast openness of farm fields, I think the woods just provided a comfortable feeling.
I told my freshman advisor that I really wanted to work with wildlife for my career and be out in the woods. She told me that if I wanted to make a difference for wildlife populations in Wisconsin, and if I wanted to protect habitats for all those critters, I needed to be working with people.
I was like, ‘Oh, no. That’s the opposite of what I want to be doing. I have no desire to work with people. I want to be out in the woods and away from people and working with furry critters.’
So she said, ‘Well there is a lot of power in working with people. You need to take government relations courses and learn about influencing public policy and you’ll find that people are the path to make a positive change.’
After that, I did what any logical eighteen-year-old would do in that situation and switched advisors.
I completed my degree at UW-Stevens Point and majored in wildlife management and biology. I was able to help with a loon research project, interned at two wildlife rehabilitation centers, and did some prairie work down in Illinois when I was home for the summers. And here I am now, so many years later, running the statewide Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program. I see all the volunteer hours reported by Master Naturalists, so I know that the work I do with this program is having a huge positive impact on habitat and wildlife across the state. It turns out my advisor was a hundred percent correct; I am making a difference by working with people. She totally predicted my future, which still makes me chuckle.
A local townie friend, Bill Heart, who I played on a volleyball league with, had a small business and was involved with the local Audubon chapter at the time. Bill was well connected in the local community and was passionate about all things nature, but especially, trout fishing. I liked the idea of being around another nature enthusiast, so I worked with Bill part-time while I searched for a job in my field.
This part time job led me to a ten-year stint with The Nature Conservancy, which provided me with a great foundation in understanding both habitat conservation and the collective impact of individual people. I worked primarily with invasive species, conservation easements, and water protection. I got to help lead an effort to seek permission of private landowners to control purple loosestrife on their lands. These landowners were an important piece of the puzzle in keeping this invasive plant from spreading throughout the area. That work led me to sitting on the state’s Governor’s Council for Invasive Species, where we looked at ways to address invasive species issues at a statewide level.
I also worked with private landowners along the Brule River who had created some of the earliest conservation easements in the state. The idea of these easements is to permanently protect a valuable natural area while the landowner retains ownership. They were agreeing to protect their private land from development to keep that corridor along the Brule River as pristine as possible. I met with these landowners each year and monitored their conservation easements to make sure the covenants of the easement weren’t broken. Just as important, though, I was building a relationship with these individuals that voluntarily chose to protect this river.
It’s not easy to have conversations that impact someone’s private property. Especially because, at the time, I was young with limited experience and I was put in the position of determining if landowners had built structures or removed trees where a conservation easement restricted those activities. And some of these landowners came from out-of-state for just a few weeks in the summer. But I ended up developing good relationships with these landowners and came to understand why they valued the river and their property. We agreed, more often than not, on why it was important to protect this river and the trout that they liked to go out fishing for. I learned what it meant to them to be able to come back to Wisconsin and relax, and to let go of everything else that was going on in life to enjoy river life. This was the first time I saw the importance of nature for people’s wellbeing, and how impactful just being able to listen to moving water, to see tall trees, and to be in nature can be for folks’ mental and physical health.
In time, The Nature Conservancy shifted gears and removed their office from the Ashland area. Thankfully, the local partners wanted me to continue working on a project that I was already involved in. So, my partners with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension found funding for me and I was able to continue to work in the Northwoods with a focus on Lake Superior.
In the first years, I worked with a team of individuals, two that I still consider to be great friends and mentors, Patrick Robinson and Travis Olson. Together with colleagues, we helped facilitate the designation of the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is located in Superior, Wisconsin. Estuaries provide important fish and wildlife habitat in our Great Lakes. Many people, including me, like to fish in estuaries. My husband and I have spent many hours casting our lines, bird watching, and just enjoying the boat ride out to the Kakagon Sloughs with our kids.
That was an enormous multi-year project involving the public, as well as non-profits, Tribal Nations, and local, state, and federal governments. Ultimately, 16,000 acres along the St. Louis River Estuary was chosen to be the National Estuarin Research Reserve and this designation helped bring state and federal dollars to the area for research, education, and stewardship. Being part of something that will continue to have a positive impact on freshwater estuaries for generations has been one of my most rewarding work experiences.
Right around this time the original director for the Master Naturalist program retired, and that position became available. The Master Naturalist program was also an Extension-led effort. I was already an instructor in the program, so it felt like a great fit.
In retrospect, perhaps this is why I wondered about those birdsongs that my parents’ friend was hearing when I was just a little kid. The people who take our Master Naturalist training come from all walks of life – college students, retirees, farmers, teachers, hunters, nature guides, parents with young children – and they come with very different levels of understanding and experience in the natural world.
Together with partners, we offer a forty-hour training to learn about Wisconsin’s natural world. Now of course, we can’t teach everything there is to know, it’s not even a drop in the bucket, but we help to light that spark, to help people know where their interests lie, and where they want to continue to learn more about this vast world of nature that we live in.
Once trained, they volunteer with organizations across the state to help take care of Wisconsin’s land and water. There are three areas of volunteerism that we ask Master Naturalists to participate in. Education and interpretation is one, allowing them to share their knowledge with others, including giving programs for organizations like local nature centers or state parks, leading hikes, and providing written information, whether it be on social media or on websites. We even have a Master Naturalist who does a radio program.
The second is stewardship, which involves on-the-ground efforts, like trail maintenance, invasive species control, land restoration, prescribed burns, native seed collection, rain gardens, building bat houses or Leopold benches, or litter cleanup. Stewardship efforts often involve land management activities that are coordinated with organizations like the Ice Age Trail Alliance, State Natural Areas, or groups like The Prairie Enthusiasts.
The last one is citizen science, or community science, or participatory science. There are lots of different names for it, but essentially, it’s crowdsourcing people for data collection, and to have that data collection used for a specific purpose. We require anyone who’s doing citizen science to have it tied to an established program, which uses a standardization for how the data is collected, this ensures that data is scientifically valid and can be used to make informed decisions. They collect important data about birds, wildlife, pollinators, plants, water quality, invasive species, weather monitoring, dragonflies, frogs and toads, turtles and trees. I mean, pretty much anything out there can be measured. Folks collect data that help wildlife managers, and land and water managers, get the information they need to make informed decisions.
Citizen science is fairly straightforward and can be done by nearly anyone. Being able to rely on a person in the community to go out and collect data when we’d otherwise miss those opportunities, leads to greater information. It’s just, like I said, the power of the people to come together and provide information to make really good decisions.
We really believe that people can make the difference. The training itself embodies the Wisconsin Idea, of taking knowledge and getting it into all corners of the state. We have Master Naturalists in all seventy-two counties in Wisconsin now, which allows their volunteer efforts reach throughout our state. And recently Master Naturalist, Greg Burns, was recognized with a national award for his research on salamanders, which is providing valuable information that wouldn’t have otherwise been gathered and may help us protect more ephemeral ponds where a unique subtype of salamander reproduce. He’s just one of the nearly 1,700 Master Naturalists in Wisconsin making a difference.
The instructor portion of my work is extremely important to me because that is the time when I get to be out in the field, in wilderness, and is the part of the job I find very fulfilling. I love seeing folks learn how something in the natural world works. And it could be anything from what an esker is, to how artesian water flows, or how a flying squirrel will glow pink under ultraviolet light, or how trees communicate underground.
Each training has times when I hear a collective gasp, these exclamations of awe and wonder from participants. There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing that audible understanding of when those dots get connected. And then, inevitably, there’s the follow-up questions. That excitement of lifelong learning is very motivational for me.
It can be a ride on a research vessel, a walk through a prairie or a bog, or a seeing a specific wildflower or bird. But I am always astonished because what is a bucket list item for one person is an everyday experience for another. But experiences like that can be so incredibly influential in people’s lives and can create a lasting impact. And that impact has ripples as these learners move forward with their volunteer service.
Some of my favorite moments in the trainings we do is when an individual gets excited by what they are learning. There was one person I recall who was very straight-faced through the whole training. He showed little emotion, even when he was engaged with the material. At the end of the training, I was going through my pictures, and there was one photo from when we were talking about soils that caught my eye. We were standing at a spot where our geology guest expert had taken us that was dominated by clay soils. And the geology expert had taken a shovel, dug some up, and given us each a sample of the soil. And of course, if you put clay into anybody’s hands, they will start making stuff.
In that moment, this individual had made a little donut, basically he rolled out a worm and rounded it out to a circle with the clay. In the photo, he had a huge smile on his face as he was working with his clayThat, to me, really demonstrated the power of experiential learning. You could spend all day in a classroom saying, ‘Oh, this PowerPoint slide shows clay soils and where you’ll find it, blah blah blah,’ but take someone to clay soils, put it in their hand and allow them to play with it, to make a ball or a worm out of it and feel it with their fingers, then that information just sticks so much better. Literally.
I think that my role with Extension, and my role in the Master Naturalist program, has also provided me with learning moments that have opened my eyes to some awe-inspiring aspects of nature. I can still vividly remember the first time I rubbed a jewelweed seed pod with my fingers and it burst open and shot seeds out everywhere. I literally felt the seed dispersal happening, which is something I will never forget. Another time, not long ago I was driving home from a meeting and feeling very stressed. It was around dusk and the spring peepers had just come out and were singing. I pulled over and rolled down the windows, and I remember just breathing in the sound of the frogs. It was what I needed in that moment. It was such a grounding experience to let go of some of the stress and enjoy the sound. And it’s such a big sound from such little frogs.
It’s so heartfelt when people write me handwritten notes, or send me emails with similar experiences they have had as a Master Naturalist. They’ll tell me stories about how being part of this community and being in nature has impacted their wellbeing, both physically and mentally. They say that finding this network of like-minded individuals who care about nature has made them healthier, especially when those people come from a variety of backgrounds. People often talk about having found their ‘pack’ in the program.
So many of the stories are coming from folks who are in a period of transition. Some have lost spouses, or left home to attend college, or have recently moved to the state, or for whatever reason they find themselves in transition. We see that the Master Naturalist program is having a huge impact on them personally because it’s giving them a new sense of drive to their lives, something to put their heart and passion into. We knew that the Master Naturalist service was having an impact on our natural world, but we also see that the Master Naturalist program is impacting people’s health. We’ve had folks tell us that they’re feeling physically healthier, and that they’re mentally in a more positive spot in their lives. So now we’re starting to ask ourselves how can we do this more deliberately?
To train these awesome folks to go out and do good works as volunteers, is one real powerful story for nature. But the other story is how we have been able to impact the actual wellbeing of people in our community, which is the sweetest icing on the cake. It makes me excited for the future.