Laura’s volunteer role as The Nature Conservancy of Kentucky’s volunteer coordinator isn’t her first with the organization. Prior to moving to Kentucky with husband, Terry Cook, and 5-yr old twins Cody and Elizabeth, Laura worked at the Conservancy for nine years, most recently as Deputy Director of the Conservation Strategies Group.
During her tenure, Laura also played an integral role in developing the Conservancy’s ecoregional planning methodology, as well as the organizational planning framework referred to as the 2015 Goal. These and other contributions were recognized when Laura received the Conservancy’s One Conservancy award in 2003 and chosen to be a Fellow in the John C. Sawhill Leadership Development Program.
Laura has 17 years of experience in wildlife and conservation biology with expertise in endangered species recovery, wildlife research, large-scale conservation planning and strategic planning. She received her B.S. from Cornell University and her M.S. from Boise State University.
Laura and her family make getting their Christmas tree a family adventure as well as a stewardship activity by cutting an Eastern Red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) grown from the Conservancy’s Jim Beam Nature Preserve. While native to Kentucky, red-cedars are considered “pioneer invaders” that will take over a landscape if not regularly thinned out – a conservation practice that advances the Conservancy’s work while providing community members with free Christmas trees.
Nature.org: Why did you decide to take on a volunteer position?
Laura Cook: As a previous employee and current Legacy member of the Conservancy, I wanted to add value to the work the Kentucky chapter was doing. The conservation need is great and capacity limited, so the few free hours a week I have to help out goes further as a volunteer.
Nature.org: What do you do as Volunteer Stewardship Coordinator?
Laura Cook: I’m focused on just a couple of things like updating the volunteer database, exploring other volunteer opportunities such as AmeriCorps and establishing Preserve Monitors at preserves.
Nature.org: Have you always had an interest in conservation?
Laura Cook: Yes. My parents are conservationists, not by training but in heart. They taught me and my brother at a very early age to appreciate and care for nature. And then when I was 12 years-old my dad became the manager of a private estate that has been under a Conservancy easement since the late 1970s. So I grew up knowing about the Conservancy and the importance of the mission.
Nature.org: How did your career path lead to working with the Conservancy?
Laura Cook: After completing my master’s degree I worked for a large consulting firm. The pay was great and I did some fun survey work on kit fox, pronghorn antelope, spotted bats, raptors and songbirds. However I didn’t feel I was doing enough for the biodiversity and places I loved. It led me to seek employment with the Conservancy, where there was more of a focus on strategic and large-scale conservation planning.
Nature.org: As the volunteer stewardship coordinator, what is your highest priority?
Laura Cook: Establishing a solid Preserve Monitor program. With so many preserves to manage around the Commonwealth, it is not always possible to monitor them as often as we would like. As a result, our goal is to have three trained preserve monitors at each of our public access preserves to conduct routine surveys, note visitor activities and keep a close eye on the quality and health of biodiversity.
Nature.org: What do you hope to tackle over the next couple of years?
Laura Cook: My initial goal is to build a robust volunteer program that improves the quality and health of the Conservancy’s preserves in Kentucky while giving volunteers the satisfaction that they are making a difference. Eventually, I would love to have this program transform from being about just the Conservancy’s preserves into a network of volunteers adding valuable land management capacity to non-profit land trusts across the state.