One of my favorite moments while serving as an AmeriCorps member in Minnesota was teaching a couple ladies to chainsaw in Superior National Forest (SNF).
Back then in 2009, I served as a SNF field specialist and it was my job to guide the crew leaders and members in using and maintaining equipment and also, navigating the woods safely. These two ladies were hesitant to handle a chainsaw, but once they got some earnest encouragement, they were convinced they could do it. After they were trained and had gradually learned to operate that intimidating piece of machinery, I saw how empowered they felt.
One of the young women looked at me with amazement after bucking her first log.
“That was fun! I had no idea!” she said with a renewed excitement to be serving on a trail crew.
I loved the feeling of introducing people to hard work in the backwoods and in the process, helping them discover themselves.
A new adventure
After spending time in SNF, I served in an Individual Placement position at the Dept. of Natural Resources headquarters 2010 and 2011.
As a sidenote, I should mention that after living in the woods for most of 2009, learning to tame myself for an office job was a bit of a challenge. On a trail crew, I didn’t have to think about how loud I was talking, what I was wearing and or how many calories I was consuming - we did so much hiking and manual labor that I could eat whatever I wanted. Working in an office was actually just as hard as doing trail work, but in very different ways; understanding office politics, email etiquette, and how state government operates was not an easy process. And of course, curbing my sweet tooth was a necessary chore.
I felt incredibly fortunate though to get that position doing communications and outreach for state parks and trails. I had graduated college with a degree in communications and my time with Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa helped cement my desire to focus on natural resources.
I remember enjoying the launch of the I Can Camp! program, a partnership with REI that teaches families how to camp. I did an interview on KFAN radio about the program not long after I started and it still scared me to be a spokesperson. That said, my DNR mentors were kind and patient and coached me into being a voice for state parks and trails.
One particularly memorable interaction came when I was facilitating one of the first I Can Camp! workshops and I met a single mother and her son. She was petrified of the woods and camping and hiking, but she wanted so desperately for her son to grow up being outdoors.
We were at Interstate State Park in Taylor’s Falls and I helped her set up her tent and we talked about her fears; mostly, she was worried about bear attacks and death-swarms of mosquitos. For her, she had only ever experienced the outdoors through movies that used the woods as a scary backdrop and her fears needed to be addressed before she could feel comfortable camping.
That conversation stuck with me and I started to understand how important programs like I Can Camp! are to a community’s investment in natural resources. If you’re too scared to spend time in the woods, how likely are you to vote for funding to protect public lands? This woman and her son were precisely the folks we were hoping to reach and bring into the conservation community.
Once I had been with the DNR for a few years, I headed to Alaska to work for a conservation nonprofit and after that, I took a job in Louisiana with the National Audubon Society. Finally, a couple years ago, Audubon opened a communications position in the Twin Cities and I jumped at the chance to get back to Minnesota.
Upon my arrival in St. Paul, the single mother I had met at that I Can Camp! program saw my updated LinkedIn profile and she messaged me, “You’re back! I have so much to tell you!”
She had gone far beyond Minnesota state parks and in the years since I had met her, she had started exploring as many state and national parks as possible with her son. I found her persistence quite inspirational and I was impressed with (and a little jealous of) all the unforgettable experiences she was having with her son.
I still work for Audubon as a communications manager out of our Minnesota office in St. Paul. Much of my work consists of bringing people together through bird stories to do great things for conservation. When we see that bald eagles, white pelicans or little songbirds are doing well, conservationists know we’re doing something right. When we see common loons struggling to thrive or secretive marshbirds in steep decline, we know we need to take action. Birds are great indicators for the state of our natural resources and I feel privileged to dedicate so much of my time to spreading that message.
Underlying my professional mission is a personal passion for the shaded trails, lovely parks, hidden streams, and all the wild places we’re so lucky to have in this state. I owe much of that passion to Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa for getting me into the woods and cultivating an appreciation for where I live, work and play.
Soon, I will volunteer for Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa Mississippi Riverboat Cleanup and look forward to helping with that effort. The work that Conservation Corps does is good for people, birds and other wildlife, as well as our public lands and waters. I’m so proud to support this unique and effective organization
Ashley was featured in the Star Tribune in April 2018 where she shared about how her passion developed for the outdoors. Click here to read the article.