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Ecological institute furthers job skills
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Ecological institute furthers job skills

RIVER FALLS, Wis. – Opportunity is all around us but is sometimes difficult to see. Like the old adage of missing the forest for the trees, we often overlook a good thing right underfoot.

On the University of Wisconsin-River Falls campus lies a patch of land. To some it’s just a fallow field but to others it’s a laboratory; a place to sharpen interest and acquire skills that lead to the work of a lifetime.

That bit of the campus, called the South Fork of Kinnickinnic River Project, is part of the new UW-Ecological Restoration Institute organized in the UW-College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. The institute provides students with experiences and certifications needed by professionals in environmental or conservation fieldwork. Students can attain certifications in wildland firefighting, chain-saw safety, boat safety, all-terrain-vehicle and off-road education, tractor training, cardiopulmonary resuscitation – CPR – and first aid, and commercial pesticide-application licensure.

Kelsey Cowart, program manager for the Ecological Restoration Institute, has training and experience in natural science and biology.

“The (Ecological Restoration Institute) allows for restoration work in the field with an educational aspect,” he said. “Of the certifications we offer, I have done most. I see myself as a mentor. I have worked as both a coach and an educator and I like being involved in (each student’s) learning process. We are building awareness among students of the certifications available to natural science and conservation majors.

“Some certifications are linked to academic courses. These certifications are something students take with them into jobs. If someone is going to work in natural resources, chain-saw training may be important. Someone who is interested in aquatic and freshwater management may need boat training. Employers don’t have to bear the cost of training students with certifications.

“Having the (Kinnickinnic River) site on campus makes training more accessible. It makes the work our students are doing more recognizable. Everybody on campus can see the work the (Ecological Restoration Institute) is doing, restoring what now looks like a rundown field. They can see the ecological impact of the work. That builds awareness of opportunity for students seeking experiences (in ecological restoration.)

“We are in the process of developing a restoration plan so we can hit the ground running in the spring. If things are more normal by then (with the pandemic under control) we can incorporate our students into the work of restoration.”

Depending on what those students discover about the land, parts of the South Fork of Kinnickinnic River site may be restored to wetland or prairie. Students working toward certification will provide the labor to restore native plants and remove invasive species.

The institute also hosts job opportunities for students. Students develop their own projects and provide an area of focus that will help further the restoration. There are now three students working as fellows at the institute – one focusing on plant data, another on soils and another on wildlife.

“They’re helping provide baseline data on current conditions, but (the data) could be referred to after our restoration work progresses and compared for changes,” Cowart said. “Positions will vary in the future, but all will support student experiences.

“Conservation and environmental science are areas where career opportunities continue to grow. There is ever-increasing concern about climate change and trying to find ways to mitigate the impact we have on the environment. By providing experiences and certifications students can serve in positions that use their skills and align with their interests.”

Opportunity is knocking. Look closely at the Ecological Restoration Institute at UW-River Falls to see it.

Visit www.uwrf.edu/PES/ERI.cfm for more information.

Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.

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