Volunteering for The Nature Conservancy isn’t just about maintaining trails or counting birds.Take 64-year-old Thomas Mayer, who in his retirement has mastered complex computer software to help us solve critical conservation challenges in New Mexico.
“Find out what the important problems are, and then make a plan for how you can contribute.”
-Thomas Mayer, New Mexico Volunteer
You’re a chemist by training, so how did you end up as a volunteer for the Conservancy in New Mexico after retirement?
I don’t enjoy golf.
Seriously, though, I worked in research and development on computer chip fabrication but always had a keen interest in maps.
About three years ago, I retired and wanted to contribute to conservation efforts. I figured I could use my computer skills to help and realized that learning Geographic Information Systems (GIS) would be a good way to do this.
I took classes at a local community college and completed an independent study project for the Conservancy.
It started out as a modest thing where I was thinking, ‘I’ll do some maps and see how it goes.’ But once I got familiar with the staff, and they realized I was a real scientist, they started asking for more complex work. Now I’ve done some really advanced GIS analyses.
What kinds of GIS mapping projects have you worked on?
I’ve analyzed the impact of wind energy development on prairie chicken habitat, and run statistical habitat models for endangered plants and animals in New Mexico, among others.
Do you see the Conservancy differently now that you’re part of the inner-workings of our science team?
I always appreciated the Conservancy’s science-based approach. What I didn’t realize was the breadth and depth and the collaborative spirit that exists in the organization.
You’re constantly expanding your capabilities by working with others. It’s an excellent way to do conservation—I think even more so now that I see it in action.
In your opinion, why is GIS mapping increasingly important to conservation?
I didn’t realize the analytical power of GIS. Just making maps can only get you so far.
But being able to use this information to analyze the landscape with all the data you have available…GIS provides you with a way to integrate it all together. It’s a really powerful tool.
When you’re not in front of a computer, what ways do you enjoy nature in New Mexico?
My wife and I have been serious birders for about 20 years. South of Albuquerque you can see sandhill cranes flock by the thousands in the wintertime.
The spring and fall migration seasons are amazing here. Like on the Gila River in southwest New Mexico—anywhere there’s water you find birds.
What would you say to others interested in volunteering for the Conservancy?
For me, it’s about learning new skills and using the ones you have.
I think to be an effective volunteer you have to get to know how the organization works. Find out what the important problems are, and then make a plan for how you can contribute.
Longer-term commitments allow you and the organization to evaluate and develop your skills to make a real impact.
In the end, I’ve learned a whole lot more from the Conservancy than they’ve learned from me.
It’s been the best job I’ve ever had. And if I don’t show up, they can’t dock my pay!
>>Inspired? Find ways you can share your talents to benefit conservation in New Mexico.