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Two adult men standing by each other smiling for the camera.
Dennis & Brett Perkins Father/son bison managers at TNC's Dunn Ranch Prairie. © Kristy Stoyer/TNC

Shifting Generations: The Bison Whisperer's Son

Episode 14: Adam McLane catches up with Dennis and Brett Perkins, two generations taking care of TNC's bison herd in MO.

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Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit

Adam McLane: Hi everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri's state director for The Nature Conservancy. Thanks for joining us for another episode of It's In Our Nature, the podcast where we celebrate the intersection of people and nature. In the past couple of years, we've been lucky enough at TNC to have a growing group of younger employees.

Brett Perkins, a preserve assistant at Dunn Ranch Prairie is part of that group, but his background's a little different. He's been around TNC, and specifically Dunn Ranch, for most of his life. His dad, Dennis Perkins, is our bison manager and started at Dunn in 1999, when it first became a TNC preserve.

Dennis has helped reintroduce bison here, and Brett is helping carry that work into the future. I thought it'd be interesting to talk with Brett and Dennis. About what they've seen over the years and where we go from here. Welcome Dennis and Brett. Great to see you guys. Thank you. Okay, so I'm gonna, you know, this big debate whether I start with Dennis or whether I start with Brett.

Brett, I'm going with you first, my friend. What are Look at me. Yeah, what do you have as early memories of Dunn? Like, how early were you out here? Were you in a, uh, in a baby Bjorn and a cradle in the back as Dennis was going out wrangling bison? Or what, what was the deal?

Brett Perkins: No, 2011 I'd have been a junior in high school. So I was already, had a lot of, you know, a lot of childhood out at the site before bison ever came here. But, I remember almost every single fence post getting put down before they got here.

Adam McLane: There might have been labor laws broken apparently at this point.

Brett Perkins: I just said that I remember that.

Adam McLane: Oh, okay, okay. Good, thank you.

Brett Perkins: No, we come out, I remember the first release of the bison, we come out as a part of the FFA thing through school.

Adam McLane: How far do you all live from here? How far were you living from Dunn at the time?

Dennis Perkins: Oh, we're about a mile and three-quarters north.

Adam McLane: This is your backyard. You had a good backyard.

Brett Perkins: Yeah. Yes. Very close.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. Okay, Dennis. Um, What would, I'm gonna, I'm skipping around a little bit, but bison. So if we start at bison, and bison work, what was it like working with the bison when they first arrived? And where did they come from?

Dennis Perkins: So we got our bison from Wind Cave in South Dakota. But, we, we actually had four or five years that we were going around to all the other preserves that had bison and working them and, and trying to learn as much as we could about them. And, uh, so we'd been dealing with bison quite a bit by the time they got here, but, but yeah, we went to Wind Cave, Wind Cave had a roundup and, and we got our, our first animals there.

And, and, uh, we loaded them up and hauled them back here in 2011, 34.

Adam McLane: 34? Okay.

Dennis Perkins: Yep. And that's what we started with. And, uh, we had a lot of, of course we didn't have any of the infrastructure done. And, you know, we built the corral and, and that was a big deal. So there was a big build-up for several years before the bison actually got here that was all bison stuff.

So, uh. It was a, it was a big build-up and they finally got here and, and it's, it's been a cool thing ever since. It's a lot of the, a lot of people. Yesterday we was up working at the corral and there's just people constantly all day long driving by. Like, where are they at? We can't see them. We had them locked in the catch-pasture, so.

Adam McLane: And how long did you all have to work on infrastructure and stuff before they arrived? They got here like a year? Or was it...

Dennis Perkins: No, it was it was longer than that. So like you was talking with Brett, he was so little that he couldn't reach the pedals on the tractor, so I, I cut wood blocks and wired them to the clutch and the brakes, so his legs was long enough to run the tractor, so we pushed posts in on our perimeter fence, so all the tall posts on the perimeter fence, Brett was in the tractor when he was about four or five years old and we'd started because we didn't know exactly when it was going to be, so we were thinking we were going to have bison actually before 2011, but it, it took that long to actually get them here. So we, we were actually ready for bison for a couple of years, um, on the, on the perimeter fencing. The corral was, was a little later, so we, we finally finished up everything in the corral, and I think it was 2010, and then, and then we got the bison.

Adam McLane: On the wait for when you could get them here.

Dennis Perkins: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then that was Wind Cave's next roundup. Actually, they were having a roundup every two years, and we, there was a lot of other preserves that wanted animals. So, we kind of, we kind of backed out because we was the last one. So, we thought we were going to get them actually two years before that. But then, then it worked in 2011.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. Were you here when bison first got released out on there? Or shortly thereafter?

Brett Perkins: Yeah, shortly thereafter. And then it wasn't actually the first dump of animals. We were here for that FFA thing the following year, whenever they got some bulls in.

Adam McLane: Okay. And had you grown up around cattle and stuff? Or were big animals just completely foreign at the time?

Brett Perkins: Oh, no. No. Yeah, we had cattle whenever I was really, really young. And, uh, and it's a pretty good cattle country. So, there's lots of cows around.

Adam McLane: Plenty of time around cattle.

Brett Perkins: And like I said, FFA. I've spent a lot of time around livestock and judging livestock and all that. All the way up through high school.

Adam McLane: And are FFA groups. They're localized, right? Based out of certain school districts.

Brett Perkins: Per school.

Adam McLane: Oh, it's per school?

Brett Perkins: Yeah. Okay. That's a, it's a school program.

Adam McLane: Was the FFA that built the um, the preserve engagement signs out here in the kiosks?

Brett Perkins: Same, the same chapter.

Adam McLane: Oh wow. That's a neat history too. Yeah. You can claim credit for all that.

Brett Perkins: I dunno that I could do that, but, but I did learn a lot through. Through that program and I had a lot of fun experiences with it.

Dennis Perkins: Yeah, the ag teacher there at Eagleville's actually Brett's godparent. So so we had a close connection But the school was out here a lot during they were doing a lot of things and come out a lot of different times So a lot of the kids at North Harrison were We're involved in stuff that happened out here.

Adam McLane: That's very cool. Okay, Dennis, so you are, we often refer to you as the Bison Whisperer around here. You don't refer to yourself as that. Uh, I'll just say that out loud so you don't get embarrassed. But do you feel like you have a special connection with the bison? Like some kind of shared respect?

Dennis Perkins: Yeah, it's a, you know, I love being around them. I love watch what's going on with them. And, and it's just, it's just kind of a, I don't know how to describe it really, but it's, it's a feeling you get when you're around them as much as I am that. You, you care about them and, and just kinda like something you're taking care of, you, you know, you worry about them all the time, so.

Adam McLane: Yep. Do they have, um, they have different personalities?

Dennis Perkins: Oh yeah, lots of different personalities. Yeah, I've, I've had lots of. Stupid moments when I turn my back on animals when I shouldn't have and find myself laying out on the ground after they nudge me, but I kind of get probably too close to them and, and allow them too close to me sometimes, but that's why I feel the way I do about them, I think, because they just, when I go out there by myself without anybody around there, they're up there licking my arms when I'm in the ranger or something.

And they're just relaxed around me, and I'm a little too relaxed around them sometimes, so. Cause they're still, you know, they're still a wild animal, and they, they can hurt you if you're not careful, but, they, all the times that something's happened to me, it wasn't that they were doing it out of aggression, it was more or less, like, have you got something for us to eat or something that tastes good?

So, that's usually what, everything that's happened.

Adam McLane: Speaking of wild animals, you don't want to turn your back on. Brett, as he was growing up, do you have any moments like that yet? Out here, you remember he did something stupid or he did something to you when you weren't paying attention?

Dennis Perkins: You know, he was, he was, he was too good. He was the best kid you could ever see. So, he never... He'd never done anything. He waited until he got older before he got on me, I guess.

Adam McLane: He's like an old bull.

Dennis Perkins: Yeah, yep.

Adam McLane: Testing the fences.

Dennis Perkins: But he was, his sister now, was a completely different story. But, Brett was a... Was the calm good one and that's the thing about Brett. He's so calm. We're completely different in that fact I'm kind of go off a little bit when I shouldn't and he never does nothing ever ruffles his feathers. So.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. How was it? How was it working with your dad Brett knowing you're continuing this work and with TNC and bison?

Brett Perkins: It's really cool. Is it? I, well, so I had done, me and dad have a really close relationship and we've worked together on a lot of things for a lot of years and then for it to shift and for me to be able to say that I'm a part of this too has been, uh, one of the best experiences and really getting in the, in the weeds and understanding a lot of the stuff that.

Adam McLane: And not just coming and helping for a weekend.

Brett Perkins: Yeah, yeah. Good job. I mean. Understanding all the stuff that he's, he's come to learn and know about, about all this, and it's really eye-opening.

Adam McLane: Well, and you've brought a lot to the table up here too, which is like, you, you help with a lot of adoption of new technology, including better mapping capabilities, you've become a drone pilot, so talk to me about how you see that new technology fitting in here and some of the things that you're really excited about bringing to the project from that perspective.

Brett Perkins: It's, on one hand, it's really hard to say because you never, you never know what's coming around the corner. Yeah, everything's, everything moves so fast in that space. But I know we just, um, for the first time implemented the agro drone. Uh, treating some blackberries here this fall, and...

Adam McLane: How was that?

Brett Perkins: It was awesome.

Adam McLane: Was it?

Brett Perkins: Terrifying.

Adam McLane: Really?

Brett Perkins: But it was awesome.

Adam McLane: What was terrifying about it? Just how big it is?

Brett Perkins: The drone is enormous, and the amount of air that that thing pushes is remarkable. But, um, seeing that and seeing the opportunities that it presents for us and, and being able to accomplish some things is really, uh, you know. Open my eyes and got my gears turning a little bit more on that front, but as far as the monitoring stuff goes, it's mainly what the drones for is...

Adam McLane: Paint a picture of this agro drone for people that are listening. How big is this thing and what does it look like compared to the drone that they're used to seeing going and filming fireworks and other stuff? What else does it have on it?

Brett Perkins: It, all folded up, it's probably about the size of a, um, larger toy car, like, that's a battery powered...

Adam McLane: Oh, like a Power Wheel?

Brett Perkins: Yeah, like a Power Wheel. Okay. Like, but a big one. But then when the arms are all unfolded...

Adam McLane: So you never stopped. Dennis phone.

Dennis Perkins: I can't even figure out where it's at. Sorry.

Adam McLane: No, it's... So, for listeners, we're sitting out on the deck at Little Creek Farm, a popular spot that you've heard us, uh, do, do things from before. And we're enjoying a little breezy weather, but it's nice and cool and crisp. Uh, beautiful sun over top of the, Dennis is in his Carhartts and he just had to dig in for his phone cause he's got business going on here.

Somebody delivering something, Dennis?

Dennis Perkins: It's our vet.

Adam McLane: Oh, okay. Our vet for Roundup on Tuesday. Okay. Alright, so, a big Power Wheels. Yeah. Folded up.

Brett Perkins: Folded up, unfolded, it's about the size of a small car.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Brett Perkins: Like a rabbit.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Brett Perkins: But, it, uh.

Adam McLane: And then it have, it's got a big tank?

Brett Perkins: It's got a, it's got a big tank that's built-in, but you can, you can, uh, grab a handle and pull it out and refill it or, uh, same. Likewise with the battery pack. You can just keep swapping batteries out on it. Um, but, it, uh, I don't know. it's hard to explain.

Adam McLane: And outside of blackberry bushes for invasive species, or, you know, for treatment out in the prairie, not invasive species, but treatment out in the prairie, what else? That's, in an agricultural setting, it's used for cover crop seeding, for that kind of stuff?

Brett Perkins: Yeah. Yeah. So, seedings, um, mostly chemical application. Some granular seeding and, uh, fertilizer application that's being done with them. But, for the most part, it's pesticides.

Adam McLane: Okay. Um. And then you, you had a whole, um, felt like a three-year experiment saga with the live cam feed. And getting something that would not be destroyed by bison. So where are we at now? I've seen a pretty fancy thing out there that you've got put together out there.

Brett Perkins: Oh, I think we're to the point where the bison have left it alone for the most part. But we're still, I'm still making improvements.

Adam McLane: Okay, so you started with just one up on a fence post? Kind of that was the setup, and then it's evolved now to a, what do you have out there?

Brett Perkins: It's a, just a, trailer? Yeah, a mobile trailer, um, with a couple solar panels on it. And, ideally, we wanted that one to probably stay down at the prairie chicken lek.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Brett Perkins: For the, for the prairie chickens, and then, uh, hopefully adopt some, some more cameras into the system. And, uh, make it motion detected.

Adam McLane: Nice.

Brett Perkins: Uh, capable for the bison, so. But whenever, you know, it's prairie chicken season, that prairie chicken camera will stay active.

Adam McLane: Awesome. So, Dennis, coming back to you, you've been around the project for a long time. What do you, um, do you see on the technology side that Brett's thinking through and data management and a variety of other things, or do you have excitement for what that can bring that you see, like he has a skill set that'll start to augment the project in a certain way that you're excited to see?

Dennis Perkins: Yeah, I think it's going to take off. I'm an old codger, but I like the technology, I think, as a future. Brett didn't talk about it right there, but the drone's going to be able to go out and identify our invasive species because there's a different pigment in all of the plants and, and the AI stuff is going to explode on here pretty quick to where, where we're going to be able to spot spray and do stuff to where it was just so hard to do. And it took a big crew of people to do.

Adam McLane: Yeah cover 3,000 acres on foot. On UTV versus fly it.

Dennis Perkins: That's what we used to do. You know, we used to go out trying to see it and stuff. And now you're going to be able to fly it. You're going to be able to see it so much better. It's going to identify it itself. It's not that somebody's got to be there, but that's the future to me is going to be this drone and or, you know, different, different technology. But that the drone technology is gonna is really going to help with invasives and, and maybe even unwanted native stuff that's there that's not beneficial and, and I think, I think he's, he loves doing it and I think he's going to take it to the level where it's really going to change Dunn Ranch.

Adam McLane: He's just going to be managing Dunn Ranch from his house. Yep. With a joystick.

Dennis Perkins: That's what he's going to be. Yeah. He can do it.

Adam McLane: That's what I picture.

Dennis Perkins: He got, uh, last year, one day, we had the bison in, and he took the drone and got the bison in the corral with it, and I said, okay, we're, we're, we're down, we're getting to where we don't need me out there running around at all anymore now, so.

But no, I think that's it. I, I think that's the future of what's going to come here and, or I mean, just, just, uh, the capabilities that we don't have the capabilities now, but with the drones, I think it's going to, it's, it's going to allow us to do a lot of things that we just couldn't do before because we just didn't have enough people to do it.

Adam McLane: Yeah. That's awesome. Okay. I've got, a question for you with that evolution. I've talked to Kent about this and even on a. future podcast. We'll talk about this a little bit. But when I look at this project's evolution over the last, I mean, it's whole time, but it starts, feels like more recently, it's really starting to find all these collaborative partnerships in the landscape around it. What do you, how have you felt about that evolution and where, you know, the community at large here and how they're looking at Dunn and how we're partnering with them, how they're partnering with us. Any, any thoughts just on that evolution over time?

Dennis Perkins: Yeah, I mean, of course, now we have the house down here, and now we've got facilities for interns to come in and be able to spend time here where we didn't ever have that, and it was hard for people to be able to afford to come here and, and do a lot of the studies and stuff that were going on.

Adam McLane: Yeah, go stay at a hotel in Bethany or whatever.

Dennis Perkins: So, that's, that's, that's taking off now, and I think we're going to have, A lot of the research and stuff that we didn't have the capabilities of doing before, and it's just, there's so much stuff, like with the bison, they're so, there's no history on them, nobody knows, it's like, even when our veterinarian is up there, and, and his words are, well if that was a cow, that would be right, but nobody knows their temperature, nobody knows, you know, what, what happens when they eat certain plants, and, you know, that's, that's, What Brett and I are trying to get into now is understanding, okay, when they go out and in June and eat something, is that affecting their calf that they just had and, and is there some, you know, how we manage everything is going to change with people coming in here and doing research on stuff because we just nobody knows so it's it's kind of like we're writing the book to it right now and we just we went to a meeting in Colorado and Tom Bragg has been a vet for Turner for years and and he's the same way he goes we just don't have the information we don't we don't understand them yet we don't know what everything's going to do and we're learning and that's, so we're, you know, we've got bison for a purpose to help with the prairie chickens and, and, you know, complete the ecological circle. But we're, we're learning so much by having them here and I think it's just gonna, it's gonna help us in the future. And, and our collaborative stuff with the students coming in here and, and doing that is really important. And, and this, this infrastructure allows us to do that. Yeah, I think it's just gonna get better in the future.

Adam McLane: Well, speaking of data sharing and research and things, Brett, you, you're doing a lot of that with between the herds. You're starting to do some of that work. Describe that. Between the herds, what kind of information do we share? The herds being, um, TNC, I think, has 12 herds in 9 states, 10 states, something like that.

Dennis Perkins: Yeah, I think that's, that's about right.

Adam McLane: Okay. So spread out across, and they've, they're gathering different information and things, but I know you're... Helping to try to streamline some of that, right?

Brett Perkins: Yeah, and more or less compile everybody's data in a way that's a little more, um, you know, friendly for eyes. Yeah. And, uh, it's, it's a learning process too, just about like anything else tech, but it's, uh, really, I'm trying to reduce...

Adam McLane: Is it weight in things?

Brett Perkins: Yeah, yeah.

Adam McLane: Like weight gain and...

Brett Perkins: Yeah, DNA level? We're doing a lot of genetics and DNA sampling and, um... Yeah, it's more or less just keeping, keeping everybody informed on how they're, how each herd's doing and, and any, anything that's coming up, any information that they're, they're learning, uh, and sharing it amongst each other, but for the most part, what My stuff is going to be just simply, like, shoot side capture of data, so.

Adam McLane: During roundups.

Brett Perkins: During roundups, yep. And, I've had, fortunate enough to have Gallagher be so close, and.

Adam McLane: they're, in Kansas City?

Brett Perkins: Yes, Kansas City and they are a bunch of wicked smart guys that are

Adam McLane: and they do all the data like the chips and things that are in the animal or What does Gallagher do?

Brett Perkins: Gallagher is a huge animal management company and now electric fencing outlet and they do they just recently Purchased another company, but they've been doing invisible fencing for a while, too but using them for Uh, kind of a big foot in the door and figuring a lot of stuff out that's new on the horizon and, and making sure that we stay enough ahead of the curve to, to be ready for a lot of those changes.

Dennis Perkins: And Brett's kind of figured some stuff out that Gallagher didn't know, so tomorrow is going to be an interesting day that he's, He's went farther than what they realized their equipment would go. He was able to figure that out. And, and some of the scanning that we're able to do, that's going to put our information in without anybody having to write it down. Gallagher didn't know that that would happen. And Brett done that on his own here in the last couple of weeks, figured all this stuff out. So, so it's going to be, that's going to be a fun time.

Adam McLane: Seems like every year, every year at roundup. You guys are making improvements and figuring out how to make it go more efficiently, more safely, more all sorts of other stuff.

Dennis Perkins: Yeah, that's the goal all the time.

Brett Perkins: It's about data security too. It's like, and trust in the, in the operation.

Adam McLane: What scans is actually, comes across the right way.

Brett Perkins: Ultimately you want to get to the point where nobody has to enter any alphanumeric or digital entries, because that's where all your errors come from, you know. But making, making that his hands off as possible reduces time in the shoot and the animal, uh, can get out of the shoot quicker, a lot less stress on the animal.

Adam McLane: And have you kind of my final question for you, Dennis, before I go into some just quick rapid fires to each of you. That data side, have you seen, like, the sharing of data with other herds, how do you, or from other herds, how have you benefited from and exported that out to other TNC places, give me an example of some things.

Dennis Perkins: It's really, Brett's working on that happening, it really hasn't been able to happen quite like that. We wanted it to so far. And that's what he's trying to do. He's trying to get a database that everybody's in because now, you know, we've got to, we've got to be able to maintain our genetic diversity within the other sites.

So, you know, there might be You know, we don't know how long we're going to be able to continue to get animals from wind caves. So now we're going to have to change, exchange animals between our own sites. And, and that way we got to, we got to know the genetics on it. So we're not getting, you know, too closely related.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Dennis Perkins: But now with some of the stuff on some of the other places a bison are going, you know, the wind cave herd genetics, there's some places they're going to, they're going to go that. We're going to have a bigger pool to choose from that's going to, they're going to maintain those genetics too. So, so even outside of TNC, there may be a possibility that, you know, we can exchange genetics and, and everything going good with the wind cave herd.

So yeah, there's a lot of, there's a lot of stuff that technology, again, we gotta, we gotta have it because I mean, you know, you just can't look and say, yep. That looks good and, and we're going to do that because we were so confined. I mean, we have a lot of animals, but it's really in the scheme of things. It's a small number. So we have to be able to keep track of our, our genetics and our, our DNA.

Adam McLane: Okay. Rapid fire time. And these three questions I've asked. I'll ask Kent, I'll ask Keith in another podcast, et cetera, but it's good to get a flavor for everybody's, um, individual perspective. So, your favorite season at Dunn Ranch Prairie? Brett?

Brett Perkins: Spring. Spring? Starting to see stuff green back up? Is that the allure? Life. Yep. Yep.

Adam McLane: Okay. Dennis?

Dennis Perkins: Spring. Baby calves.

Adam McLane: Oh, nice. Little ginger fur balls laying around on the hillsides.

Dennis Perkins: Yeah, that's, that's the time I love when they start having baby calves so. And everything's greening up and it's, it's just, everything's new.

Adam McLane: Alright, the hardest job at Dunn Ranch Prairie. I'll stick with you, Dennis.

Dennis Perkins: I don't know if you want me to talk about that one or not.


Adam McLane: It involves toilets, or cleaning, or something, I don't know.

Dennis Perkins: No, no, I don't, I don't know. There's, there's not anything too tough, really. Sometimes. Sometimes there's a little red tape, but.

Adam McLane: Now, I, it's me, I'm, managing me is the hardest job, is that what you're implying?

Dennis Perkins: No, no, I would never say that. So.

Adam McLane: Alright, Brett. Dig your dad out of this hole.

Brett Perkins: I, uh, probably for me it's learning to say maybe no in some situations.

Adam McLane: I think that's a completely true thing.

Brett Perkins: Yeah. I mean, I'm not going to say that nothing I'm, everything that I'm involved in, I'm excited to be involved in and I'm glad that I'm a part of,

Adam McLane: but there's still thousands of things that you could say yes to that you know would all be cool and would all be beneficial, but you're one person.

Brett Perkins: Yeah, yeah. Just, just being able to be comfortable with, with what I've got on my plate is, is a learning curve in itself.

Adam McLane: Yep. Well, and you've got family and kiddos you've got to manage too.

Brett Perkins: I don't. Them, them kids manage me. They control me.

Adam McLane: Very good. Okay, uh, what's your favorite place at Dunn Ranch Prairie, like specific spot on Dunn Ranch Prairie, Brett?

Brett Perkins: The site? Probably that ridge standing up on top of the catwalk at the, at the corral out looking, looking to the west. It's a pretty cool spot. That's probably my favorite spot.

Adam McLane: Dennis, how about you?

Dennis Perkins: The east drainage. Over there when I get down below. Right in the bottom of it. You can look in any direction. You can't see a road. You can't see a telephone pole. You can't see anything. And the bison are there. And it's good for your imagination right there.

Adam McLane: Love it. Okay, any final pieces, Brett, about your dad, you want to say before I start wrapping up and thanking you both? Working with your dad, anything about your dad, final parting thought?

Brett Perkins: No, I just, I just appreciate this, the relationship and the opportunity that this has, this has given, given me and I, uh, I hope it continues a little longer anyway.

Adam McLane: Love it. How about you, Dennis?

Dennis Perkins: Oh, I love working around him and, and being around him. But it's, I'm getting to the point where I realize he really don't need me around anymore. So, he's able to do everything that... Need to be done without me being here. So I feel good about where everything's gonna go with him being here

Adam McLane: Yeah, mission accomplished. Well, we've reached that time again, end of the show.

Brett and Dennis, really glad that we did this, it's been a lot of fun, and I think it's an interesting perspective for our listeners. So thank you both very much for joining us. Thank you to your family for taking such good care of Dunn Ranch Prairie for all these years. Really, really appreciate it.

Brett Perkins: Thank you.

Adam McLane: For our listeners, I have a couple reminders before you go. First, ask. McLean Anything, that's our occasional segment where I try to answer your questions. If I don't know the answer, I call in one of the super smart people on our staff or from somewhere else to help me out. So if you have a question about nature, conservation, TNC, whatever, send it our way via our podcast website, and we might just select it to answer in a future show.

As always, if you enjoyed our show today, please subscribe and tell your friends about us. You can find this episode of It's In Our Nature, as well as all of our past episodes, at that same site,

Or wherever you get your podcasts, really. To learn more about Nature Conservancy in Missouri, visit There was a lot of forward slashes in this closing. But you can find us, you all know how to do that. So thanks so very much for listening.

Brett Perkins: Nature.

Adam McLane: Ha ha!

Episode 14: Brett Perkins is part of a younger generation of The Nature Conservancy’s staffers in Missouri, but his history runs deep. His father, Dennis Perkins, helped introduce bison at TNC’s Dunn Ranch Prairie more than a decade ago, when Brett was still in high school.

The elder Perkins is still considered TNC’s “bison whisperer” in Missouri, but he sees the time coming when his son and others will take over. TNC’s Missouri State Director Adam McLane sat down with Dennis and Brett to talk about the history of bison at Dunn Ranch Prairie, what it’s like working together now and how technology, such as drones and artificial intelligence, is shaping the future.

It’s an insider’s look at TNC’s flagship preserve in Missouri, told by a father and son who know it as well as anyone.

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Ask McLane Anything Adam McLane answers questions sent in by listeners. © Kristy Stoyer/TNC

Ask McLane Anything - episode 1

Adam talks about the current balance of the natural world, what people can do for Monarch butterflies and shares animal stories!

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Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit

Hi everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. Thanks for joining us, and it's spring here in Missouri. Everything's green and new. Life is popping up all over the place. And for you gardeners, I am one. This is when you're feeling a little adventurous. Am I right? You've got your old standbys going, your tomatoes, your green beans, your basil, they're all looking really good, but maybe there has to be something new, right?

Maybe your eye in the romanesco or those lemon cucumber starts at the nursery, whatever it is, you're gonna try something new, and that's the fun part. Well in that adventurous spirit, we're gonna try something new this spring with our podcast, It's in Our Nature. It's a new segment we're gonna feature from time to time, and it's called Ask McLane Anything. I did not come up with the name, um, but AMA for short.

The setup's pretty simple. We're asking you to submit your conservation questions. I'll try to answer 'em. I told you it was simple. Easy peasy. Figuring the answers out might be a little tricky. That's why I'm reserving the right to phone a friend. We've got a lot of smart people working here at The Nature Conservancy and I'm confident, pretty confident anyway, that uh, if I can't answer something, we have someone who can. Thanks to those who have already submitted questions through our website. We've pulled three that I'm gonna try and answer today.

Are you nervous for me? I would be. Anyway, if you have any questions for Ask McLane Anything, go to our podcast site and send them in.

Whew, deep breath. Ready to get started? All right, let's jump in. Our first question is from Yvonne in Chesterfield. How far out of balance is the natural world right now?

Yvonne is starting out with a doozy of a question, but I am here for it. This is honestly a really big question and you could probably ask a hundred different scientists the same question and get a hundred different answers. And for the record, everybody, I'm not a scientist. But I get to hang out and work with some of the best, so I'll do my best to describe how we see the balance and what we're doing to change the trajectory for the better.

I'm just gonna start by saying TNC’s vision is a world where people and nature thrive. So your question, Yvonne, that balance is what we're focused on. We know that people in nature share the planet and that will never change. It's what we can do as an organization with our partners and individually even to make sure we're making decisions and implementing practices that benefit the world instead of harming it.

Right now, the world's in a climate and biodiversity crisis, and honestly, the odds seem maybe worse than ever. As a parent, it weighs pretty heavily on me to know that decisions we make today will determine the legacy and planet we leave to our future generations. But I'm also a giant optimist, and I know that there's hope.

So TNC’s science shows there's hope. While the Earth's natural systems face serious threats, they are remarkably resilient. However, I truly believe that we have a short window of opportunity to work together, combining nature's resilience with our powerful human capacity to innovate, act and make a difference.

So, I'm not gonna get too deep here, but I do want all our listeners to know that TNC, as a global organization has set really specific goals to reach by the end of the year 2030. These goals are backed by scientific data and studies that focus on that balance that you're asking about, Yvonne. I'm not gonna lie or make them sound easy, because they're, they are totally not, they're really big goals.

Worldwide we're talking 3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide avoided or sequestered; conserving 4 billion hectares of ocean; a million kilometers of river systems; conserving 600 million acres of land through partnerships with communities across the globe to restore and improve management of working lands. Supporting leadership of indigenous peoples as land stewards; conserving critical forests, grasslands, other habitats, rich in carbon and biodiversity.

Whew. Like those are just a few of the goals, and they're big. We don't have thousands of goals. We have refined them really closely to the things that we think are the most important to work on, and I'm just giving you a flavor of those and letting you know that we hold ourselves accountable to really driving towards those.

In Missouri, we've defined our own 2030 goals that contribute directly to those global goals. These are areas where I think we can make the biggest impact. We know that we can't do everything. We don't want to try and duplicate what some other great organizations and agencies are doing. So we look at our strengths as The Nature Conservancy in Missouri. We look at what the science is telling us. And we try and figure out where we can make the biggest difference. Like what project needs a little bit more support, what habitat needs our help. That's where we focus our energy.

So our 2030 goals are focused on five big strategies in Missouri, Biodiversity Protection; Sustainable Agriculture; Nature-based Solutions, which is basically using nature in lieu of traditional engineering and kind of hard infrastructure; Healthy Cities; and Climate Resilience.

I could take the next hour describing all the ways we're working in each of those strategies, and maybe that's a podcast episode for another time. But for now, you can visit our website at and click on each of those strategies to see on-the-ground projects.

My desire is for those to give you hope that. If we work together, if we work individually helping nature, nature's gonna help us right back. And we're gonna see that positive influence and that's the whole reason for this podcast. So, Yvonne, great question. Tough question. Thanks, producers, for giving that to me right out of the gate. Um, but I think it's something that's on everyone's mind.

So the balance of the natural world is in trouble. It'll be in more trouble if we continue on with business as usual, but that's not what we do at TNC and our science shows us hope. We always say, “Hope is not a strategy”, but I think it's a good thing to have as long as we're backing it up with actual science strategies and action.

So question number two comes to us from Kelly all the way out in Crestwood, Kentucky. I thought about whether to divulge this to the audience, but Kelly's my sister. I know that. So, you could be all wowed by somebody in Crestwood, Kentucky listening. Kelly saw - on something - um, that we were doing this and she's like, “Oh, I get to ask my little brother anything. Huh? Okay. I'm in.”

So, um, Kelly, thank you for supporting your little brother with this question: what's the craziest animal encounter or story you've heard about or been a part of?

So, within mind, the family dynamic in this question, uh, I'm gonna share some family lore here. One of the big animal encounters that I think comes up around Thanksgiving tables every so often is the story about a mother moose in Canada.

So, I was the youngest of four. I. My two brothers, my dad and some cousins, uh, did a fly-in fishing trip up in Canada. Little cabin, middle of nowhere. They drop you off for seven days, et cetera, et cetera. Some of you have done that. It's awesome. Great way to get immersed in nature. My brother decided as everybody else was taking a nap midday, that he wanted to go out and explore this peninsula a little bit, see what was out there. Walk around a little bit. My dad was a little nervous. I'm not sure how old my brother was. He was probably 16, 17, something like that. Had a literally adventurous spirit and said, “I want to go off on my own and take a look at things”. My dad tried to manage that by saying, “You just have to stay on this peninsula” cuz you can't walk by this house without seeing it and get lost. So you're a pretty safe bet out there. So he walked out. All he had with him was an ax. I don't know why. Um, but he walked out there, started walking around. All of a sudden he just heard something screaming through the woods, charging at him, busting down trees.

He didn't know what else to do other than to scramble up the closest tree that he could find. He scrambled up this really close tree. Got up in there and looked down, and it was a mother moose, so he had gotten between her calves and herself. She didn't like that as anybody that spent time around Moose will know.

She charged him, got him up the tree, so he had very little options at that point other than to stand up there and look down at this amazing moose sitting there protecting her, her children, which was pretty cool for about 45 minutes until he was still up in the tree in an uncomfortable way.

My dad woke up from nap. They realized my brother hadn't gotten back yet. They got incredibly worried. So, they started, uh, walking around. My dad, I think, started walking out the peninsula yelling for my brother. And as the story goes, my dad says, I've, I was yelling “Jason, Jason”, and I heard him finally say, “Yeah.” And I said, “What are you doing?”

And he said, “A bleeping moose has got me up a tree.” And my dad's story is, I've never been so glad to hear my son say the F word. Um, so that's kind of the, the punchline in the family is I've never been so glad to hear my son say the F word. Uh, and it relates to that story and that animal encounter, they got boats, got on two sides, distracted to moose, got him down safely.

He came back with a story that lives on in infamy in our family, which is pretty cool.

So I, you know, as I thought about this question, Kelly, um, I started thinking about. Like those moments for me that you, if you're like a good song sometimes triggers a memory, like a very specific memory. I think animal encounters can trigger a very specific memory that bring you back to this place time where you can see the sights in your brain. You can smell what it smelled like, you know, what season it was, who you were with. All of that stuff is really, really powerful. So I wrote down a couple of 'em for me. First river otter I ever saw was on a fishing trip with my dad down in the Smokey Mountains. Um, I set off up the river, kind of found this waterfall-ish type thing, and was out in the middle of the stream waiting there. And I saw this river otter come through and splash around, kind of investigate me a little bit and then head downstream. And it was just, it couldn't have been any cooler.

The place that I was with who I was with this animal. I just saw it like etched that thing in memory by seeing that animal. It was really cool.

Um, a great horned owl. Um, had a nest behind our house in Indiana in this giant tree, and we would get binoculars and all kinds of things and just watch these fuzzy little great horned owl chicks, uh, get born and get bigger, and we'd go out underneath that big tree and find all these bones of stuff that they had eaten. That was a really vivid memory of just like my childhood home for some reason.

Um, the first Turkey that I ever heard gobble in the woods was in southern Indiana. We didn't have a lot of turkeys at the time, and I went down with my brother on a turkey hunting and, uh, we went into Hoosier National Forest public land, set up camp next to a road, climbed up this giant hill, didn't know what we were doing.

And that morning on the roost, we heard these turkeys gobble close. And just that sound in the woods is a memory that I will never forget. And again, it's etched in this family thing with my brother.

And then, uh, the final one that I wrote was, um, related to The Nature Conservancy. We took a board trip, several members of our board of trustees. Um, we regularly try to do three meetings in the state per year and one meeting out of state per year so that it's a little bit more extended. We get to go see the work of other Nature Conservancy chapters in different places, learn from it, support them, encourage them. We're all in this together as a big team, and it's really helpful, um, to go see those things well.

Very few of our trips are outside of the U.S. but this one happened to be, it was a smaller group that decided to go, that they wanted to go see our work in Tanzania. I was really fortunate to go along with them. So obviously plenty of animal encounters in Tanzania, um, in the Serengeti. But one in particular that I won't forget was a lioness, um, that we, we stopped in the Jeep and saw her coming over this hill.

She was obviously headed somewhere, not with hunting on her mind, but obviously hunting is always on their mind when they see an opportunity. So, she saw a bunch of, I think it was antelope, um, couple hundred yards away and when they caught her eye, she just crouched down in the grass and then you couldn't see her at all. So, but we knew right where she was and we got to watch these antelope kind of me meander their way over towards her not knowing that she was there. And just to see that dynamic. No worries. There's nothing graphic. She did not get the antelope. But to see them get closer and closer, like, oh boy, they're really, really close. This is about to happen. And then to have kind of the century, uh, the one that's on the lookout in the antelope group to see her spot her make a quick alarm sound and see them all take off and run. And her not even chase 'em, just kinda like, yep, that's not, I'm not gonna be able to get 'em. Was this event that felt, um, Like really special to be an observer of, they were acting in their natural environment and the way they would without us there.

We got to see it. We got to observe predator and prey happen in a way. Um, and it was just really, really cool. And again, that kind of etched a memory of that trip overall.

So, animal encounters though, Kelly, your question is, was the craziest animal encounter or story you've heard about or been a part of? I, I don't think of the crazy ones, they don't jump to mind. It's like, for me, it's the ones that, that create a memory that define a moment in my life with a certain collection of people in a certain place, and I think, um, it's really powerful. So thank you for the question. I appreciate, and I love you. Kelly, your little brother loves his older brother…I mean, sister. Love you.

Thanks. Okay, this is our final question for the segment, and it's from Birch in St. Louis. So, Birch would like to know. What's the status of the Missouri program to encourage landowners, to plant milkweed, to bring back the monarch butterflies? So, great question birch, and one that we get a lot actually, because everyone loves pollinators, especially monarchs.

So, the decline of the monarch receives a lot of attention. Last summer when the butterfly was officially classified as endangered by the International Union of Conservation for Nature. And while it's not currently listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, I think a proposal for its listing could come in 2024.

So, it's a big challenge, and it's not just limited to Monarchs, it's a loss of natural habitat. So just to give you an idea, less than 1% of Missouri's tallgrass prairie remains today. So, how do you compensate and replace some of that habitat that Monarchs and so much of our wildlife need to survive?

This is one of those places that individuals can play this big role, and so planting butterfly gardens is one way and there's lots of organizations set up to help people get started. The city of St. Louis established the Milkweed for Monarchs Initiative on Earth Day in 2014. So, if you're not familiar with this program, and their website includes a lot of tools and resources including how to plant and care for Monarch gardens, that website is So

Another great program, which is statewide, is Grow Native. It's an initiative from the Missouri Prairie Foundation. Their website is, and they host multiple native plant cells in the spring and fall across the state where you can purchase native grasses, wildflowers, trees, and shrubs that benefit a host of pollinators and wildlife species.

So, it’s an incredible program, as is the Missouri Prairie Foundation. So please check them out if you're looking for other ways to get interested and engaged in this space.

So finally, you, you might think your yard is too small or that one yard doesn't make a difference, but you'd be wrong on both counts. An area as small as one square meter with the right mix of plants can provide excellent habitat and make a difference for migrating monarchs and other pollinators. But you should have a mix of native plants. As Birch alluded to in his question, milkweed is essential for the survival of monarch butterflies as they serve as the host plant for the larvae.

But other native plants like coneflowers, golden rod, black-eyed susan, provide much-needed nectar sources for the butterflies. So, it's kind of a, if you build it, they will come type scenario or even, uh, if you protect it, they will come. And that applies to all sorts of wildlife. That's why we at TNC are so focused on conserving these critical lands and waters.

In Missouri, we specifically have a biodiversity goal to improve stewardship on 111,000 acres of TNC partner or private land by the year of 2030. This goal includes projects like our robust Habitat Strike Teams that are located around the state. These teams help boost plant and wildlife diversity through land stewardship practices like prescribed fire, invasive species removal.

And both of these things then allow native plants and wildflowers to grow and hopefully thrive. So, while we're not specifically doing things for Monarchs, we work, the work we're doing is benefiting them in a host of other species. Another way we're working to boost just biodiversity in general, and this one's tied more to the Monarch, is that our Dunn Ranch Prairie preserve, which is in Hatfield, Missouri, just, uh, about two hours north of Kansas City near the Iowa border.

There we have 3000, uh, more than 3000-acre tallgrass prairie that's haven to pollinators and grassland birds, which is another important species on the brink. The work we're doing there expands beyond our preserved borders.

So that region is mostly agricultural grazing lands. So, we're working with local ranchers to connect them with state and federal programs so that they can make their fields more sustainable and honestly more profitable, which is why we'll see more of them. One way to do that is by incorporating natives in their grazing fields to increase the habitat needed for pollinators in wildlife.

We know that it'll take way more than just our 3000-acre preserve to help these declining species, which is why we look at these big landscape scale things and try and introduce solutions that can help at a big, big scale. Last thing I'll say about Dun Ranch Prairie, uh, is that every September the Monarchs migration come through and it's awesome. It is a site to see. So due to the location in the high-quality habitat, they hang out there for a good bit and. There are just Monarchs, I mean, everywhere. You'll go up there and they're just fluttering, they're up on trees, they'll have these kind of roosting areas that they're all masked together. It is a sight to behold, so it's hard to judge exactly when, because the obvious follow-up question is like, when should I visit? Um, it's hard to judge when they're gonna come through or how long they're gonna stay, but it's amazing and we're always happy to welcome them. So you can learn more about Dun Ranch Prairie by going to

Um, and I would think, I'm gonna make an executive decision here. I think maybe we'll send out an alert when the Monarchs are there. Um, and just say like, yep, they started coming on our Facebook page. So check that out. Um, and just if you're, if you wanna make a trip, there's a lot of information on the webpage, but then we'll also try and send some alerts that let people know when would be a good time to come up.

So, Birch you in particular, I hope you come up and visit. And thanks so very much for the question. I'm not sure I totally answered the question, but I hope I gave you some resources to learn more about how to plant Monarch gardens. And I do encourage all our listeners to incorporate native plants into your home gardens or any land that you may own because every little bit helps.

Whew. Okay. I've survived…I think…our very first Ask McLane Anything, and I feel pretty good about our little seedling of a segment here.

So, what do you think? Give us some feedback. And remember, if you have a question about nature and conservation, send them our way via our podcast website,, and we may just select it and answer in a future show.

As always, if you'd enjoyed our show today, please subscribe, tell your friends about us. You can find this episode of It's in Our Nature, as well as all of our past episodes at that same site,

Thanks for the questions and thanks for listening. Have a great day everybody.

Ask McLane Anything. Episode 1: In the first episode of this new series, Missouri State Director Adam McLane answers questions submitted by you, our listeners.

The first question asks how far out of balance the natural world is right now. The second question came from Adam's sister and she wanted to know about his craziest animal encounter stories. Finally, we wrap this first episode with ways you can help the declining Monarch population by planting native plants in your home garden - and talk about the ways TNC is helping make an impact at our prairie in northern Missouri. 

Do you have questions for Adam? You can submit those HERE

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2022 Year in Review Adam McLane shares seven conservation highlights from 2022. © Route 3 Films

2022 Year in Review

Episode 13: State Director Adam McLane shares seven conservation highlights from 2022.

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Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit

Hi everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy, and today's episode will be a little different. I don't have a guest to banter back and forth with because for this episode I want to talk directly to you – the people who make our work possible—our supporters. Whether that's financial support, volunteer hours or just generally following our work and telling your friends that they should follow us too.

It all adds up. And we've had quite a year, one for the books in a lot of different ways. And so as I look back on 2022 and everything that's taken place over the past 12 months, I am so grateful, I'm so proud, and sometimes I'm really shocked at what a determined group of people can accomplish together.

So today you get just me and a whole lot of good news! I will say that producer Kristy said that makes for better editing because I don't laugh really hard, and she has to tone that down when I'm interacting with another guest. So, we have that going for us too. I'm running down seven highlights for 2022.

Why seven? Number one, importantly, it's my favorite number. And number two, if we went any higher in this podcast, it would last a lot longer than anyone would probably be willing to listen. So before you get too excited though, this isn't going to be like a music countdown kind of thing where we save the best for last.

These projects are in no particular order. In my mind, that'd be like picking my favorite kid, and I've committed to never, ever making that mistake again. It was hard enough to narrow the field to seven highlights, so ranking them would be impossible. Nevertheless, I hope you feel pride and ownership in today's episode.

And once again, I want to thank each and every one of you for being a supporter of The Nature Conservancy here in Missouri. So let's get this fun started. We're going to start with a project that has a, has had a great impact on me personally. I've been a part of many amazing projects during my career with The Nature Conservancy, but I have to say this one is truly special and will have a lasting.

Beyond the conservation benefits, our first highlight is our partnership with the Intertribal Buffalo Council and the transfer of TNC bison back to tribal land. So a little bit of background on it. ITBC—30 years ago, Intertribal Buffalo Council initiated the Buffalo Restoration Movement, and since its inception, ITBC has restored more than 20,000 buffalo across a million acres of tribal lands.

In 2020 ITBC began partnering with TNC through the transfer of our surplus buffalo from TNC herds to Native Nations. So each year our herds on our properties have a carrying capacity, and so when we have calves, we have surplus animals. In the past, we would take those to auction. We would do a variety of different things with them.

Now they have this incredible purpose when they leave our site, they're going somewhere else to drive conservation, community and a whole bunch of other great stuff. So, the importance of the Buffalo Surplus Program to member nations includes a variety of things. Spiritual, cultural revitalization, ecological restoration, conservation, food sovereignty, economic development, health initiatives, you name it. It's like so layered with what it does, with what those animals do when they reconnect to these communities.

Each animal return to Tribal lands represents much more than its physical presence on the landscape. It signifies a restored web of relationships that had been broken for hundreds of years, but also this like amazing triumph resulting from Tribal efforts to maintain and rekindle the preservation of historical, cultural, traditional, and spiritual relationships for future generations.

During the next two years, The Nature Conservancy will transfer 1,500 buffalo to ITBC member tribes, including more than 800 I think, this fall. So our 2021 stats from Missouri itself, we transferred 50 animals, which were released to the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapahoe nations in Wind River Reservation, near Lander, Wyoming. So it was 25 animals each. There's a really cool story about that too. This year we transferred 15 animals to a tribe in South Dakota.

So the amazing story in the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho is that they adjoin each other, their reservations adjoins each other, and they had started small herds on both sides.

And these two, these 25 herds on each side, they really wanted to take that fence down and unite that herd of bison across that landscape. And these animals, since they know each other and have grown up with each other at Dunn Ranch, and then they were getting separated into these two different tribes. They really felt like these animals were going to lead that reunion. Make nice across the fence and be able to bring that fence down and join the herd, which is just a really, really powerful moment and something to think about.

So definitely a highlight of the year and something we are excited to continue investing in. So thank you for your support of it.

So for our second highlight, we're going to switch gears to a few projects that benefit a significantly smaller species than bison. So from bison to fish. But these projects go beyond the. The fragmentation of rivers is a big issue here in Missouri and around the world.

So when rivers become fragmented by dams, culverts, other barriers, as is the case for I think more than two-thirds of the world's major rivers. It can have a devastating effect on all these habitats and the people and wildlife that depend on them.

So a couple things that I wanna highlight as in terms of projects around fish passage.

The first is the area of Shoal Creek, and these are ongoing. So TNC is finalizing plans for a pair of fish passage projects that replace two low water crossings, which are kinda like the, you know, a concrete slab in the bottom of a river or gravel that they replace so you can drive through and not get too wet with your vehicles.

And replacing those with free-span bridges that sit above that system that allow the fish to swim underneath people, to travel safely across the top. So Drew Holt, who works in southwest Missouri for us and also around the state on rivers is expecting work to begin in spring of 2023. It has funding from the US Fish and Wildlife's National Fish Passage Program.

It compliments a suite of projects that TNC and partners are working on in the Shoal watershed. And then in that same geography is Lim kiln dam. In November, Neosho officials and their partners celebrated the replacement of dangerous low-head dam with Rocky Rapids that opens up the stream to fish as well as kayakers and people wading.

TNC didn't do the construction work, but it provided technical advice and that included Steve Herrington and Drew providing input on engineering plans and all that good stuff. So it starts to get pretty technical to figure these things out for people and for the fish that are relying on them in all the habitats.

Another one, the final one that I'll cover is Little Creek fish passage, and that finished in June. So Little Creek has the headwaters are all up on Dunn Ranch, where we've got this incredible prairie restoration. Bison, prairie chickens...that whole mix that you've heard about before. It's all up there.

And then it's flowing down and in there are Topeka Shiners. It's home to Topeka Shiners, which is an endangered minnow that lives in prairie streams. So Little Creek then passes under an old state and it used to fall like it was a big culvert, concrete culvert. It used to fall six feet from the top of that culvert where the water was coming down to the new creek bed, which had suffered a lot of erosion that came up to that spot, like a head cut.

So that waterfall was cutting off the shin from food and breeding grounds. And the project fixed that by creating an underwater ramp that raises the water level, eliminating the plunge and reconnecting five miles of habitat. I long-dreamed of seeing like a tiny little two-inch Topeka shiner going like salmon-style and like spinning its way like leaping with all its might up that six feet and getting into the culvert and continuing forward. But that just couldn't happen. And I always kind of pictured like these tiny little prairie bears, they would roam and get into that spot on top of the rock and wait for him to come by. But that didn't happen either. So we fixed that.

This project reconnected federally endangered Topeka Shiners in the native fish population to over five miles of stream channels upstream within Dun Ranch, and it reduced a bunch of sediment and nutrient pollution from the stream erosion near the culverts.

So rebuilding the stream banks with tree roots and live plantings also helps because it reduces erosion, filters, runoff, and improves the health of the stream. And this stream actually goes all the way down, I believe, into Bethany, forms a lake and becomes a drinking water source for a community there.

So there's benefit to these projects for people and nature when designed correctly. And we're really proud of them and it's something that we spend a lot of our time, energy, and funding on to try and transform what the future looks like. So it was a big highlight for the year.

Okay. Best drum roll sound, da da da da da. Number three. This is something that's in our DNA. I'm excited to talk about. It's land protect.

So permanent protection of critical landscapes has been a priority of TNC from the beginning. In fact, our organization launched into land protection on Christmas Eve, 1954 when neighbors of a 60-acre forest in Bedford, New York were given the ultimatum: bid on the wooded ravine or see it developed.

They chose to bid on it, collectively, they pooled money together, they bid on the wooded ravine and made it in a nature preserve. And TNC, in many ways was formed. And that's a critical part of our DNA, is how do we collectively come together, purchase things from willing sellers. To protect it in perpetuity.

This year we've had two great purchases and one amazing gift that fall into that land protection category. So the first is Roubidoux Creek in Pulaski County, Missouri, 612 acres. We purchased it in September of 2022. So a couple of highlights. This property is on a tributary to the Gasconade River and it provides an opportunity to protect approximately two miles of repairing corridor. Hundreds of acres of forest of the Roubidoux creek watershed and it includes a cave, which is awesome. And I've explored it and it's cool and a little scary. And I started crawling down one of the spots. And then the person that was selling it said, well, we've had some mountain lions back in this area that sometimes, and I quickly started coming right back out the same way backwards.

But it's a really neat cave. The whole property is very, very cool. So in terms of its conservation significance, because cool things like caves and neat visuals don't always translate into conservation significance, and we're driven by that conservation significance. So Roubidoux Creek lays in the Gasconade River Hills subsection of the Ozark Eco Region.

Large blocks of mature timber occupy nearly 500 acres of the property with many mature walnut, white oak, black oak species. The rest of the property is river and flood plain. With excellent potential for stream bank restoration, improved management to reduce downstream flooding and improve water quality.

So it's got all this stuff packed into 612 acres. That makes it really, really neat and a geography that we think is really important. TNC has these tools that help guide those decisions. One of them is called a Resilient Land Mapping Tool that helps us think about across the state of Missouri, which areas are going to be resilient to changes in temperature, climate, rainfall, you name it.

So that as we're building things for the future and we think about perpetuity of protection, we need to take those things into account and really make our decisions wisely about where we invest in owning land. This stacks up really high in terms of climate resiliency, biodiversity, landscape diversity and landscape connectivity.

So it's cool. So a little bit more about this cave. The property contains, it's called York Cave, and it's adjacent to MDC’s Great Spirit Cave, which is this biologically important site priority one, gray bat maternity site, and Indiana Bat hibernaculum. It also historically had Northern longear bats. Little brown bats, tricolored bats. You're a bat. You love this place. And a few cave-adapted creepy crawlies also call the cave home.

Roubidoux Creek then provides foraging habitat for the summer colony of gray bats using Great Spirit Cave. The site provides foraging habitat for swarming Indiana bats in the spring and fall. So super cool. Property's really neat. It took a lot of energy to work our way through that whole process make the acquisition and protect it in perpetuity forever, the site. So we're excited about it.

Number two, Little Blue River. In Jackson County, Missouri, so kind of over by Kansas City. This property's adjacent to the Little Blue River near Kansas City and was identified as a top tier candidate for our Missouri mitigation banking program.

We've done a podcast on that with Wes Hauser. So if you've heard that, then this makes a lot of sense to you and hopefully you're going woohoo and celebrating that we got this deal closed. The reason it was such a great candidate for that is because based on its location in a watershed with high mitigation credit demand and the site’s excellent potential for stream in wetland restoration.

Again, conservation significance. We ask ourselves that question all the time. Well, this property includes approximately 4,000 linear feet of perennial tributary to the Little Blue River, as well as two marsh areas that are ideal candidates for wetland enhancement.

So this is going to allow us to initiate our mitigation program, start to work our way through that, try and make transformative change in that system and that's going to be awesome, and we're excited about it. So if you are going, what is a mitigation bank and how does it work? Then listen to our podcast episode with Wes Hauser.

The property's also, I'm gonna throw in one last tidbit about it. It's located next to Little Blue Trace Park and a walking biking trail runs along the property. So this is awesome, we get to partner our investment with parks department investment across the little blue where people are recreating already and trying to find ways to get more eyes on conservation and more people fall in love with our work. So that's just an added bonus.

Last but not least is the Missouri River Center, as we call it. Some people know it as Katfish Katy’s in the Columbia area. This property is a, it sits on a scenic stretch between the Missouri River and the Katy Trail. It's 169 acres, and it was donated to TNC by Larry and Brenda Potterfield.

The property's going to be owned by TNC and operated in partnership with Missouri River Leaf. It was a really, really neat place. So it also needs some restoration. It's got about a mile of Missouri River frontage, which is awesome, but it had a lot of agricultural use in it and a variety of other things.

So our plans are to conduct a high-quality restoration of natural habitats across the property. It's probably going to include stabilizing the riverbank with natural materials, plantings, and then rejuvenating these onsite wetlands and planting native vegetation.

It also has a boat ramp - huge bonus. It allows, again, if you hear a theme in those two between the last one and this one is how do we connect people to nature to allow them to get out and enjoy it, fall in love with it, and be willing to support it in all the ways that are possible.

This property includes a boat ramp to the Missouri River. It was previously only accessible through memberships. So, once we took ownership of the property, we immediately opened up the gate, made the ramp open to the public. Since then, we've partnered with the Missouri Department of Conservation who now lease and managed the boat ramp and its access road.

So opening that ramp will allow people to connect to the river, and that was a big priority for us.

It's also got something else going for it with some infrastructure, but I'm going to save. As our segue into the fourth item.

So the segue to highlight four. We have these amazing properties that we can learn from, that others can learn from. How can we help boost research and data to inform our conservation strategies and those of others?

And this is where our centers for conservation innovation or CCIs come into play. CCIs we launched a new program in the fall of 2021 to create demonstration and research facilities on our properties to help boost the type of scientific innovation needed to protect the land and water Missourians depend on.

These centers are focused on education, research, outreach, and conservation. And I think that list can even grow as we think about humanities and art and a variety of other things. We're just at the beginning phases of what these things become for the state, and we're really excited about them.

The program started with Little Creek Farm, so it was a renovation of a house and conversion of pastures to paddock system, new cattle watering systems, a whole bunch of stuff. So all of a sudden up at Little Creek Farm we had a location that had infrastructure that could allow people to stay there, researchers, all of that. And then surrounding them were all these different things that they could study, they could monitor, we could learn from, we could fail at and share those learnings with other people to help them avoid that.

So we've got rotational grazing with cattle on an area that was traditionally fescue that we're going through conversion with native grasses on over time. We have scales there where we're doing weight gain as they come in, as they come so we can get all the economic data.

Across the road sets an incredible prairie restoration, tallgrass prairie restoration in Dunn Ranch that we know a lot about. We've studied over the years, we know what our applications of different things were over time so that we can understand the different impacts that come from that.

We also to the north of Dunn Ranch or on Dunn Ranch, the northern portion of it, we have a grass bank where we are exchanging the ability for cattle to come over from neighboring lands to graze on that at certain times of the year in exchange for restoration and management improvement on the private land that has those cattle. That can be studied.

We already talked about the little, tiny mini fish that are jumping up and little mini prairie bears are eating them as they go over the six foot hump and we've solved. But we can also learn from it and see how it's working. So all of that is like within five miles of each other and has a place that's anchored down in it.

So it's this iconic flagship that we want to use to leverage grassland restoration across the state of Missouri and beyond it. Beyond our borders as well.

So that got us thinking about where else do we need that around the state. And that had some big developments in 2022. So I already referenced the Missouri River Center, so Larry and Brenda Potterfield donated this 164 acres outside of Columbia.

It was formerly Katfish Katy’s, so it was a restaurant and music venue that sat there. Really nice infrastructure, parking lot, et cetera. And then it has this 160-acres and mile of Missouri River frontage in an incredible location near Columbia, near the institutions, educational institutions. And Columbia has invested a lot in trying to get kids connected to the outdoors, et cetera.

So our partnership with the Missouri River Center will help us build that out as one of these cornerstones one TNC Center for Conservation Innovation Program. It offers opportunities to advance these scientific studies along the Missouri. River, but it's also going to be a great place for educating the public about river and conservation.

Thanks in part to Missouri River Relief's partnership with us.

The second Mill Creek, so it's the third leg of TNCs CCI program. Now it has an onsite staffer, Matt Nugent, who's overseeing the build out of facilities on the property. Matt started with us, with TNC in April. So that's down in the Ozarks in the current river watershed, couple hundred acres.

It's had a lot of private lands work done on it prior to our ownership. A lot of fire, a lot of glade restoration, et cetera. But as we come in there, we start learning about these, the stream that's there, the forest management, that’s they're the fire program that can be there. And then we look outside of the walls of those, not walls, fences, I guess, of the 200 acres.

MDC, Chilton Creek, U.S. Forest Service, all this stuff is down there, State Parks, and they're engaging in conservation, and we're forming teams across those borders to learn from each other. So it's again, this epicenter of momentum. About conservation in a woodland context. Pretty cool.

So throughout 2022, broader planning has taken place to create a vision for the CCI program, aiming to boost important research, offer nature-based solutions, and create places for the public to learn how conservation is important for both people and for the environment.

And two big gifts, including $150,000 from Clayton and Odessa Lang Ofstad Foundation, and $250,000 from an anonymous donor will provide a huge boost to the CCI program in 2023 – allowing us to make really strategic early investments in driving these programs forward. So definitely a highlight of the year.

All right. Our next highlight number five. It’s newer in relation to TNCs 66 years in Missouri.

In 2018, we launched a cities program in St. Louis. The goal of our cities program is to work with communities to grow equitable nature-based solutions to improve the health, wellbeing, and quality of life - for people and nature.

While the city's program was not new in 2022, it grew a lot. So a couple of those things. First, we expanded our city staff. In June, Gabe Ouroboros joined TNC as our cities coordinator. She helped drive forward a couple of great projects that we invested in heavily and are really excited about.

So the first is Community-based Air Quality Monitoring Program. So this was led by the Metropolitan Congregations United and the local Interfaith Environmental Justice Task Force. The Nature Conservancy and Washington University in St. Louis are partnering to equitably, scientifically, and strategically site air quality monitors at congregations throughout North and South St. Louis to fill the air quality data gap throughout the region.

So the data collected by these monitors feed into the AirWatch Stl website, which is updated hourly. It provides updates and information about pollutants that researchers, residents and community leaders can use to address health problems that have plagued historically disenfranchised St. Louis neighborhoods for generations.

The second is we expanded Tresilience. So Tresilience is a national initiative. It was led and created by The Nature Conservancy to address barriers to healthy canopy through free tree removals and replacements, mature tree maintenance, and the improvement of planting conditions.

So we focus on areas where the canopy is either threatened or already lost, and partner with local communities that stand to gain the most from more resilient urban forest.

So this program was initially launched in November of 2021 in North St. Louis County working on private property. But in the fall of 2022, the program was expanded to include St. Louis City where we're working with the city of St. Louis Forestry Department on public properties, including many city parks to remove dead, dying or hazardous trees and replace them with new trees.

So the city's expansion includes a focus on ash trees. Obviously. A lot of them are dying. Emerald ash borer it's a thing and it's having impact.

So these ash trees are susceptible to the emerald ash borer. It's caused millions of dollars in damage across Missouri since it's discovery in 2008. So we've honed in on that, in partnership with the St. Louis Forestry Department and are working to replace that - replace those trees and gain all the benefits that come from it.

Again, this, the cities program is reinforcing our strong belief that people in nature are connected and they're not separate from each other. It has impacts, and we're making investments there, and we're really excited about the momentum that grew in 2022, thanks to your support.

Highlight number six takes us back to our roots again. Prescribed fire.

TNC as an organization celebrated 60 years of good fire this year with the first controlled burn conducted in 1962 at Helen Allison Savannah in Minnesota.

In Missouri we'll celebrate 40 years of fire in 2023. And if 2022 is any indication…it’s going to be a great year. So, two things that I want to talk about expanding our fire and stewardship team.

The first is Habitat Strike Teams. The second is DEI training.

So the on the Habitat Strike Teams. These were designed to increase fire management and stewardship practices that cross boundaries. So jurisdictional boundaries, state, private land ownership, all of that good stuff. And coordinate fire and stewardship activities so that we can take a step back, look at the landscape in a holistic way. As opposed to focusing within our respective boundaries and just kind of having redundancy all over the place.

So our Strike Teams work with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Missouri Department of Conservation, National Park Service, and private landowners. Launched in 2021, we hired Megan Alkazoff as the Western Ozark Fire and Stewardship Coordinator. She focuses on the Bennett Springs area.

But in 2022, we got grant funding in March that allowed us – it was from the U.S. Forest Service and their Cohesive Strategy Cross-Boundary grant kind of program.

This funding brings approximately $1.4 million to Missouri to allow us to coordinate three fire training exchanges or TREKs - a pretty cool name. I wish I had a t-shirt that said like TREX – events over the next four years. Ryan TREX shirts. Ryan Gauger a TREX shirt will be awesome. Thanks bud.

Next four years and develop statewide fire needs analysis that will help Missouri fire managers not just TNC, but more broadly, develop fire goals across the state that are going to meet the ecological and social goals.

So we hired some new staff. We hired Matt Nugent, he's the Eastern Ozark Fire and Stewardship Coordinator. I don't think he's related to Ted, but I've been scared to ask him. He's stationed at our Mill Creek Preserve in Van Buren. And on October 22, we hired Isaiah Tanner as our Osage Plains Fire and Stewardship Coordinator. And so he's based out of the El Dorado Springs area.

So collectively, that team is looking at these Strike Teams and how do we deploy them across the state to have all these broad. It's huge. It's awesome. And it's a great partnership between all those different agencies and the private landowners that allow us to come on and partner with them.

So in terms of upcoming fire trainings, TREX will take place in March, and then Fire Science training will take place in April. So we're excited about them.

A training that already took place that we're really proud of was DEI training. So diversity, equity and inclusion, prescribed fire training. So TNCs, DEI Fire Training Workshop was held in Missouri and it was designed to increase opportunities for women and minority colleagues to further their fire leadership knowledge and qualifications.

The training took place throughout the end of February in into April of 2022. And we hosted seven participants from all over the place. So two were from Minnesota, two from Oregon, two from Illinois, and one from South Africa. We had them for six amazing weeks of learning, networking, and getting fires back on Missouri's landscapes.

This year, we even had a CNN crew join us for our burn in Bennett Springs Preserve when that crew was here. So the crew was highlighting the work of Kelly Martin, who's a burn boss with TNCs North America Fire Program, and her efforts to train the next generation of fire leaders. The segment aired in March and was part of the “Represented by CNN” series, which highlights women who are breaking down barriers in typically male-dominated.

So we recorded a podcast about this with Kelly Martin and Kylie Paul, who is the participant from South Africa. If you haven't already listened to that episode, please do. It's pretty great. They're amazing. And the work those two do are incredibly inspiring.

We've made it to our final highlight. Thanks for hanging with me.

So this one's a little different, but is really important part of every single thing that we've talked about so far, and that's support. So in 2022, we closed out our five-year campaign and had some very impressive numbers to report. These numbers represent the collection of individuals, foundations, companies, and others who see our vision and support our mission.

We're incredibly grateful for this trust in helping us move our conservation goals forward together.

So here's some numbers. First, I'm going to start with the big one. The grand total raised in that five-year campaign was $106,000,300, wait, how do I say, a hundred and six…three, nine, nine, nine, two, zero. $106,399,920. I'm not used to saying numbers that big, so I had to think about the commas and where were they were at and all that good stuff.

So let me give you a little breakdown. So seventeen million roughly was raised for work in Missouri. That's going to impact our Missouri work and drive towards our priorities here. Sixty-six million was raised for work outside of Missouri, and this is really, really important.

We think about our work in the context of what are we doing in Missouri and what are we doing as Missouri. So we have things we need to do and drive in Missouri towards conservation and a better future for all everybody that's living here. But we also play this really important role and are impacted by all the stuff that happens outside of our chapter.

And so thinking about how do we show up as Missouri and drive conservation beyond our borders. That's equally important and we treat it that way and so do a lot of our donors and supporters, which is remarkable. That outside of Missouri stuff went to other state and regional programs. There was about $4 million of priorities in other areas in North America, and then $62 million went to global priorities that are really, really meaningful.

So a couple other things that were really cool in the campaign. We had new Legacy Club members – 83 of them. So Legacy Club are people that have made a planned gift to The Nature Conservancy. They've said “as part of my IRA after I'm gone” or “in my will, I'm leaving this percentage of income to you” or “part of my insurance.” There's a whole variety of mechanisms.

Each one of them are really meaningful because there's somebody saying, “whenever I go, I want to see that you or this organization is taken care of and the things that I was investing during my life. I want to continue to invest in after my life,” which is touching.

And so each one of those people making that commitment, 83 of them during the campaign, was remarkable. That brings our current total of Legacy Club members in Missouri to 412.

So how do we bundle that into dollars that are actually been committed to in the future, which will make sure that we can sustain ourselves long into the future?

There's about $22 million is included in that campaign number from these planned gifts that we won't see for a while, but if the past is any indication, those come in at remarkable times. Sometime, somehow they find this way of showing up when we need them most to drive some incredible opportunity that sits in front of us. It's really, really neat how it works.

And then one of the other things I want to point out and thank our trustees. So we have about 22, 23 trustees in Missouri that help really deeply. As volunteer, they help us think through our strategies, where we're spending money, what our team looks like, all of the good, this good stuff.

They invest dollars and they invest time and expertise and relationships to help us be successful. Well, they raised over $800,000 during the summer of the pandemic, so that was on top of commitments that they had already made to our five-year campaign.

When the pandemic came, we were a little worried about what donations were going to look like and whether we were going to have to step back, whether we were going to have to trim down on staff, any of that stuff, that's really scary to think your way through at that time. They leaned in, they didn't lean out, and they said, here we're going to each make additional commitments, and you can use that as a matching gift program of unrestricted dollars to try and encourage other people to lean in as well.

It's remarkably successful and we're so, so very grateful for it.

As I look back and think about, you know, beyond the numbers dollar-wise and how many donors and all this I kind of think about one, the stories that came through the campaign that I just treasure and then we all kinda hold dear and taught us new lessons.

And then also just the fun facts that are outside of the numbers of dollars. So, there were 140 new donors to Missouri. Ten of our 21 trustees are new since the beginning of the campaign. And we had three matching gift programs and that resulted in over $2.3 million for Missouri conservation. So really cool stuff.

And then some of the stories I think about…I'll go nameless on these things, but just to give you a flavor for the people that we get to interact with and how awesome they can be.

We approached somebody that had been a former trustee and boy did they give us grief over our choice of phrases We have a tendency to use a bunch of acronyms and crazy explanations for what we're going to do in the next five years is going to be redundancy resilience to this, that, and in the face of X, Y, Z. And it just ends up sometimes being jargon and she called our bluff on it and said, “what the heck does this even mean?” And just gave us a lot of grief and like red marks on the case statement, which was funny at the time.

And then she became one of the first gifts to the campaign in a really significant way that gave us momentum. And when we asked if she'd like her campaign gift to go to anything specific, she said, “You know, I don't give like that. You all know that my gift will be unrestricted to the Missouri chapter because I trust you to do good things with it.”

So that, that is that gives us power and energy as a staff to move forward on these projects and was really neat.

And then somebody else, another former trustee that doesn't want to be on the board anymore, but said anything other than being on the board again, because just time constraints and other things. Anything else you need me to do, I'll do it. So they participated in planning for us. They made an early gift, which was remarkable. They hosted two events and then they helped us engage with other donors who have also become really engaged in our work. And so those are the kind of people that make things tick around here and we're really, really grateful for them.

So just very cool. Those are stories of giving. The campaign is about that giving and dollars a lot of times. But each of you listening, I also want to say, does remarkable things for us that might not show up in that dollar total. But your volunteer efforts, your communication with us, your feedback on a project that we have, or “have you thought about this,” showing up to events and telling staff “good job” and “keep up the good work” all of those things really, really add up. And, cumulatively over five years, they brought us to a spot where last year in 2022, we have these seven highlights to celebrate. And there's a bunch more that we could go on for hours and hours. We just know you don't want to listen that long.

So thank you to all of you for doing those things, and I hope you enjoyed the highlights.

So that's kind of the recap of number seven. And that brings me to closing. I just want to again say that 2022 was a great year, and I feel like we're set up really well for 2023. It's going to be even better. And thank you for joining us today and for your support throughout the year. I can unequivocally say your energy keeps us going. It's making a difference for nature and all who depend on it.

And if you want to dive deeper into any one of these projects, please visit our website, it's You can read our Year in Review where we'll have additional links and photos to these projects that I've rambled on about. So thank you.

I'm wishing you all the best for 2023 and thanks again and take care.

Episode 13: In this episode, Missouri State Director Adam McLane recaps seven highlights of 2022. It is far from everything that happened, but it is a great reminder of the ways your support helps people and nature thrive.

All year, we here at The Nature Conservancy in Missouri carefully track our progress, writing down the acres of land revived by prescribed fire, miles of streambank restored, partnerships built and dozens of other metrics that guide us toward our conservation goals. And yet, the end of the year is a time to reflect on the past 12 months, which always feels like a marvel. It is our annual reminder of how much a group of dedicated people can accomplish in a short amount of time.

We hope you take pride and ownership in those accomplishments, especially after a year like 2022. It was one for the books, with new staff hired, exciting new properties saved for conservation and the close of a campaign whose success will fuel work far into the future. 


Three men sitting at a table with headphones mics on
Growing Power at the Columbia Center for Urban Ag Adam McLane (left) talks with Adam Saunders (middle) and Robbie Price (right) to learn about the Columbia Center for Urban Ag. © Kristy Stoyer/TNC

Growing Power

Episode 12: We talk with leadership at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture to discuss the power of gardening.

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Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit

Adam McLane: Hi, everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. Thank you so much for joining us today. Are you a gardener? If you're like me, the answer's yes. Getting my hands in the dirt, plucking fresh veggies from the ground is a daily occurrence if it's a good day—weekly at the minimum. Plucking weeds, all that good stuff gives me joy. It was especially awesome during Covid times to be able to get outside and enjoy a little bit of nature and put some fresh veggies on the table. For a lot of us, it's something we do to relax by ourselves or with a family member or two. But gardening can also build community; sharing, food, sharing tips and even sharing a pastime can bring us together. For this episode of It's in Our Nature, we're gonna see how that is playing out In Columbia, Missouri. I'm joined by two very special guests from the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture.

Adam McLane: CCUA has grown into a powerhouse in Columbia. Seriously, it seems like they're adding programs and expanding every year. Programs for military veterans, education programs for kids. This huge urban farming operation that stock food pantries with fresh produce, and gardening is the engine for all of it. Here to explain how this all fits together, we have the center's co-founder Adam Saunders, as well as one of its board members, Robbie Price, who also happens to be one of our trustees at The Nature Conservancy. Welcome, Adam and Robbie. Adam, I'm gonna start with you. First off, can you just tell our listeners a little bit about the space that we're in right now?

Adam Saunders: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. Yeah, we're here at Columbia's Agriculture Park. This is a city park in central Columbia. This is part of a public-private partnership that we operate with Parks and Rec and other partners, Columbia Farmers Market, Sustainable Farms and Communities. This is a 10-acre, part of a broader 20-acre, park.

Adam McLane: It's like an oasis.

Adam Saunders: It's right here. We share campus with the gym that the ARC [Activity & Recreation Center] that serves the community as a fitness resource in the community center. And so we started visioning with Parks and Rec about how we could complement that throughline of health from fitness and food. It was just a natural fit. And so the Ag Park's all about food. So we are at our home campus here. We have a big urban farm. All the food we grow, we donate to the food pantry. We've got demonstration gardens. We have field trips here. So, a bunch of teaching classroom outdoor space. We're in our schoolhouse building at the moment, and we share a space with the big MU health-care pavilion. That's the farmers market pavilion. It's a big open-air space. the farmers market meets here 50 Saturdays a year. The summer markets actually kick off today. And so it's a great resource for the community. In Covid it was, it's an open air. It's been well used. It's kind of most Covid-compatible building in town. It's open air. So the local high schools have had their proms there and ...

Adam McLane: You had a crystal ball or something.

Adam Saunders: Oh my gosh. We just got lucky to stumble into some good things and that was, that was a great win. And so the farmers market's a great partner. There have been several efforts through the years to build a permanent facility. The Columbia Farmers Market started back in 1980, so they're 42 years old. They've been selling from this site back when it was Boone County Fairground. This actually was fairground back in the 40s up to the 90s. And so there's been many efforts to build a permanent roof and put all the farmers under one roof. And that helps the customers access the stands...

Adam McLane: Everything they want.

Adam Saunders: It makes the user experience so much better. So those prior efforts didn't have the right timing or quite the right mix. And so when CCUA got involved, we added this big urban farm—all the education programming that we do—to the mix. And that really helped it sail.

Adam McLane: Now's when you say they just didn't have the right leader, Adam.

Adam Saunders: Yeah. It really takes a village of people who come together and just big thank you to Robbie Price for all of his leadership as our campaign chair and on serves on our board and just help bring together the community with the shared vision of what this space could be.

Robbie Price: Yeah. This is a wonderful opportunity for our community of Columbia and the county. We have here at the Ag Park a resource that bring together all sorts of different people, all sorts of different organizations. And it really enhances what we do here to provide food education services and a feeling of community.

Adam Saunders: That's right. On Saturday morning when the market's bumping, there's four or 5,000, 6,000 people in line to get strawberries and peaches. And that's a great way to—this money circulates to the economy through purchasing food from the local producers. It's a producer-only market. So the folks selling there are the farmers who grew this food. So, that money goes to like that 50-mile radius of farmers. But you see people get a cup of coffee and they meet friends and they meet new friends. There's a big playground. I've got two little kids. They would argue that that playground's the best part of this place. But it is a lot of pieces. I equate it to a big onion. There's a lot of layers to it. And at first you say, Wow, I see that. And then as you understand and pick apart the layers, they intersect in really fascinating ways.

Adam McLane: So, when your two kids come here—in my mind already went to this cause I'm still a kid at heart—you've got a schoolhouse and then you've got tons of food outside. Do they just wanna have a food fight here in the schoolhouse?

Adam Saunders: Well, my kiddos love to pick vegetables, and so they're always like pulling radishes and trying to share 'em with their friends and tasting the peas and the green beans. And so, we right here, we're in our schoolhouse and right around here we have some raised bed teaching gardens as part of this little focal part of our campus. And yeah, we try to make it approachable and accessible. And we, this is pretty new. We've only been here, this the pavilion for the farmers market opened in summer of 2019. This building opened last year. Our barn and greenhouse for CCUA's operations opened last year as well. So it's brand new in the big picture. And we've got a lot going on and just, it boosts our capacity as a non-profit to serve the community in a big way.

Robbie Price: What I really think is incredible—you talk about having fun—to be able to witness a child come here, to pull a radish or a carrot out of the ground to actually clean it, cut it up, and then use it in a salad or eat it raw, the amazement in their eyes is palpable.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Robbie Price: And you see that connection for a child who is never ever gardened or seen how their food grows, where it comes, that connection is immediate and lifelong. And that's why I think CCUA does such a great job is because they're in the school system here in Columbia. They're teaching kids how to garden. It's part of the curriculum of students. Plus, they get here to the urban farm, they see how it works. And that's the, that's the transformational piece for CCUA is involving the kids.

Adam McLane: That was very neat. Yeah. And you Robbie talked about this being a great demonstration for this community and culture change within this community. But I think it's even broader than that. I mean, I think eyes are on it from well beyond the bounds of Columbia throughout the state and just thinking about the asset that can be something like this place in an urban center and what it does for that. And then you also started touching a little bit about changing the culture around food and how we understand it. So, what's the, either of you, what's the end goal? Kind of what would you like to see happen? It's already happening, but wild success as you planned it out about a shift in culture around food, what does that look like?

Adam Saunders: Yeah, there's a lot of layers to that, right? So, starting with the Columbia Farmers Market, there's two, three, $4 million a year. That number has increased in the last few years of produce sold. And that money circulates in the economy. There's been estimates that Boone County has something like in the $700 million a year spent on food. So, that percent of that economic pie that's spent locally is relatively small. And we need that to grow for our own resilience of our food system. CCUA started back in 2008 during the housing crisis and the global recession, and there's a food crisis going on at that time. And today now with Russia and Ukraine and pandemic and climate change, there's a lot of pressure on our global food system. And we need to invest in our regional food systems. So, the market is a great outlet, but beyond that, the programming that CCUA does to train people how to grow their own food, how to grow in their backyard, it's a very decentralized system to have a home garden and to recruit and train farmers and to work together to reduce risk.

Adam Saunders: And there's a lot of pieces there that we need for our, the stability of our country. But there's so many good benefits to grow in food and to be involved through health and mental health. And there's just that, that goes on and on. So there's those things are in action and working.

Robbie Price: And you talked about the big picture. What I love about this particular project, the Ag Park, it was done with a group of partners. It wasn't just one entity that said, "Well, we're gonna, we're gonna build this. People will come." It took a public-private partnership to put this project together. And to me that is eminently repeatable across the United States. This is a real model for how an urban farm can be a center of community, how it can teach people self-reliance, food security and provide a sense of fulfillment going forward. And so everything that Adam talks about, the problems that we have with food insecurity, this is a part of that solution. And I would love to take this on the road and show other communities how easy this is to actually happen.

Adam Saunders: Yeah. Some of the best land in our country are in our cities are are parks land. And so that's kind of the win-win of the partnership, is that parks would never wanna run an operation like this, and we would never have such a high-profile site without them. So we kind of lean on each other to those strengths. And so I think that is a model that can be replicated. And a lot of our programming, we are developing toolkits now of ,how do people, how do we replicate this in other towns? All the food we grow, we take to the food pantry. Last year was 38,000 pounds of produce. So we've kind of backed our way into being the food bank farm. They've never bought food from us. We've always fundraised separately, and we train farmers on our staff and our volunteers and our apprentices to manage this big farm. And in the end, this food gets distributed to people in need and makes sure that that folks who are struggling to make the ends meet have access to healthy produce.

Adam McLane: Wow. All right. Let's take big picture down to really micro. So each of you, I would just love to hear how you got involved. So, Robbie, I'll start with you. How, what about CCUA had you get engaged, and what did that look like from the beginning? Cause a lot about this podcast, It's in Our Nature, is telling these positive stories of how nature can benefit people's lives. And those have to start somewhere. And sometimes challenges you just spoke to, Adam, seem overwhelming on a global scale. But really it comes down to these stories of individuals deciding that they can take an action that changes trajectory of something in particular. So, Robbie, tell us a little bit about what that looked like for you.

Robbie Price: Well, I will have to confess that I have a very, very brown thumb. <laugh>. I can't, I can't grow a flower, I can't grow a pepper or anything in my garden. My wife does that. So, I got involved with CCUA from sort of a bleak standpoint. I'm involved with a local foundation that provides monies to local non-profits and CCUA came to the community trust, what, back in 2013?

Adam Saunders: Something like that. Yeah.

Robbie Price: And they were looking for money for a truck that they would use on the urban farm, a small urban farm that they had at the time. And so that's how I learned about it. As a thank you, they invited me to one of their programs, which was Opportunity Gardens. That's a program where they actually teach people within the community, typically low-income community members, how to grow a garden, how to become a neighborhood icon as far as being able to have food.

Robbie Price: It's a great touch to their communities. And so, I walked through these gardens and I saw the tremendous pride that these people had, the elevation of them as a leader within their small community. And I said, "This, these guys have it. I mean, this is absolutely wonderful." And soon after I was tapped to be on their board and did a stint on the board. And during that six years that I was there, the AG Park started. And Adam had the idea with CCUA—Parks and Rec was involved. The community's farmers market was involved. And from a funding standpoint, I was able to provide services for that group and was part of the original effort to get this AG park put together.

Adam Saunders: And I remember that tour. We went through downtown public housing. So, the Opportunity Garden started there and we help people with three years of home garden mentoring. And we meet 'em at their house and literally where they're at on the learning curve, if they've never put seeds in the ground. And I remember that garden, it was an African American lesbian couple next to an Iraqi refugee couple. You could think of all the social norms that would keep them from becoming friends, but they both garden, they're both outside. And so they watch each other's gardens. They trade cucumbers for tomatoes. And they were, they were great friends. And that area functions like neighborhood watch. We've heard from the police department that neighborhood has changed. It's like there's a lot there beyond just putting a couple plants out. It's a lot of social good that can spin off that and elevate these leaders in the community.

Adam Saunders: And so, yeah. I thank you, Robbie, so much for your help and kind of, and helping push this, you know. Back to your, to your question from me. I mean, my earliest memories are picking tomatoes and peas with my mom and dad and my two older sisters. My dad was a science teacher, and so I was just couldn't get enough of ecology.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Adam Saunders: He'd hand me a coneflower, and he'd say, "How's that put together?" And I would take it apart. And I just ate that up, and I just can't get enough of that. So, I studied forestry here at the university. I have of a master of forestry and kind of moved into vegetables cause I like to eat, <laugh> and they grow faster. And so, and there's just like, that seems to be like the front edge of a lot of the environmental movement is food.

Adam Saunders: It's non-controversial. Everybody eats. We have bank presidents, we have refugees, we've got people in public housing. How do you truss your tomatoes? Same conversation. So, as a great equalizer of food to build community. And so over the years, you know, we started with no money and very entrepreneurial process of, how do we make this a job? And so now we've have a, you know, fast forward to today, we have about a million-dollar budget. We have 25 full-time staff, a bunch of part-time staff, like 10 different program lines that we offer. And everyone is done with strategic partnerships. We don't do anything by ourselves. Everything is a major with public schools or public housing or the city or parks and rec. There's a lot of layers. The Phoenix Healthcare, addiction, rehab, recovery, veterans, the Truman VA Hospital. There's a lot of partners involved.

Robbie Price: I I think that's where the connection is, can be so strong between TNC and CCUA. The strategic partnerships that you both depend on are so important for success.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Robbie Price: You can't do it by yourself. You don't have enough money to do it alone. But when you bring others in and you accept their dreams and their aspirations—together, it makes a huge difference. And you've seen that in St. Louis with the Cities program with the churches that are putting together their neighborhood gardens. It's, it's amazing when you allow people to dream and to do it together.

Adam McLane: Yeah. It certainly is. And I'm, you know, it's not in my my podcast notes for the day, but money has come up multiple times and I, it's an opportunity to thank listeners and people that are philanthropists throughout all these communities. Cause this, these ideas would be, somebody said, talks about conservation without money are just conversation. They're not conservation cause nothing can move without money. And so just a huge thank you and an encouragement to listeners that write a check or get involved in some way because it really seems easy that those things come. A letter comes in the mail, you're at an event and you donate to it and it's, you know, sometimes it's a passing thought, but collectively, that movement of philanthropy in the non-profit world makes things like this happen. So thank you, Robbie, for the foundation engagement that helped spur that on. Thank you, Adam, for getting out there and promoting this work so that more resources can come into projects like that. It's really amazing.

Adam Saunders: That's right. I mean, our capital campaign here, our public-private, we've raised over $7.3 million, two-thirds of that's been privately raised.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Adam Saunders: And we've been involved in the other federal and state and city money. So it takes that big push. And so we have a donor wall here with over 700 names on it. And they have the hard work. They open their checkbook and they write a big check and that's, they see it in action. So we, I think we've got great momentum behind that and cultivate this great community who is invested in, wellness and in outdoor education and in local food. There's just so many pieces to that.

Adam McLane: Yep. Well, continuing on the individual theme of whether that's writing checks or, I'm, you spoke to tomatoes and your love of grabbing tomatoes as you were young. What is something that every new gardener kind of in this program, engage with the program, really wants to grow other than tomatoes? Is there—so is it just bok choy just hit the top of the list? Or what is it that people gravitate towards and say, "How do you grow this? How can I get this in my backyard?"

Adam Saunders: Yeah. Well, tomatoes are the winner, right?

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Adam Saunders: And I feel like that's when we, when we do our home garden mentoring, say, "What do you want to grow?" They're like, "Well, tomatoes." Okay, well we, over the course of three years we've got crop rotations. So like, "Well now we're getting into fall. You like garlic?" "Oh, I love garlic." I put, "Well, let's plant garlic. You like greens?" And so it's a chance to kind of stretch folks to plant the fall garden, get the spring garden timed. And so our mentors go to visit people at their house several times a year to make sure they're timing things right and they're getting as much out of their garden as they can. And it's different. You know, we have a lot of refugee communities, and so they have a certain bitter gourd, the like a ...

Adam McLane: Unique cultural foods to that geography they're familiar with.

Adam Saunders: Yeah. That's right.

Adam McLane: That's awesome.

Adam Saunders: And those are tastes from home, right? And they want that in their cuisine. And so I, that's why I love it. Food really defines a culture in a big way. And so having those local varieties and those local flavors makes more interesting and more fun.

Adam McLane: Yeah. Awesome. Rob, you get a chance to go out there and pick one thing. What are you picking?

Robbie Price: <laugh> Eggplant.

Adam McLane:


Robbie Price: I love Japanese eggplant. So many things you can do. It's easier to cook than a large globe egg plant. And it looks beautiful in a stir fry or, cause I love to cook, so.

Adam McLane: Okay, I was gonna ask, you already said you're terrible at growing food. Can you at least cook food?

Robbie Price: I can cook and I can eat. So you know what, I got two outta three here.

Adam McLane: <laugh>. Nice.

Robbie Price: If you've got a second, I want just give you a little story that I think really talks about how far CCUA and TNC goes in providing a change of life for others. As I told you, you know, I'm not a gardener. My wife said, "Why don't we get CCUA to build a raised bed for us?" And they do that through one of their programs. So we had them come out. They built a 4-by-10 raised bed, helped us with the original planting. And that was three, or that was three and a half years ago. Out of that, my wife started spending more time out in the garden. She started looking at butterflies. That led to, you know, what butterflies like to nest and, and eat. She parlayed that into becoming a master naturalist.

Adam McLane: Wow.

Robbie Price: And so these incremental pieces where you start with a garden or you start with a classroom setting where you're learning about this can evolve into a lifelong love of conservation, of gardening. And that's what I think is so wonderful about CCUA. They build holistic people, you know, centered around food.

Adam McLane: Yeah. Wow. That's a great story. And I'm coming up with projects for your wife, master naturalist <laugh> in my own yard and out at some of our properties. What you know, I've jokingly said bok choy. Are there any, and you reference some foods that are unique here that people want to grow. Is there a one that's surprised you out here that people, that has done really well and that has, people have gravitated more than you expected?

Adam Saunders: Yeah. We, a lot of what we grow is taking into the food pantry. And so we take a lot of collard greens, kale and those are foods that the food pantry has a hard time getting access to through their traditional means. And we do a survey every year of what does the farmers market like? Or what do they want at the food pantry? And there's a big eastern European community here and they wanted kohlrabi, which is related to the same, that same family of food. And we love kohlrabi, but we didn't know that's what they want. So we grow it and it just flies off the shelf. And so we do surveys all the time to make sure that they, we don't bring too much of something or too little of the other, or we grow something that they can buy off the commodities market for cheap. And so we wanna optimize our impact. And so we do a lot of greens. And so kind of, we often will take like a thousand pounds of spinach to the food pantry every year.

Adam McLane: Wow.

Adam Saunders: And a pound of spinach is about the size of a basketball, and we can put about a thousand basketballs in a school bus. We don't take that all in one day. That's over multiple deliveries over the course of the whole spring, but that's a lot of food. And that's gonna change folks' health.

Adam McLane: Popeye would be so proud.

Adam Saunders: I know, right?

Adam McLane: So strong.

Robbie Price: And that's not canned. It's fresh. You know, it's the most nutrient dense food that's available.

Adam McLane: Yeah. Wow. And I love the idea of that, the engagement that comes with allowing people to fill out a survey like that or say, what would you like to see coming? And then seeing that actually end up arriving feels like they can become a part of the project, which is really neat. You know, we talked a little bit about in the intro kinda where we're at specifically on the site. We're in, we're recording this podcast from a schoolhouse on the CCUA park. I love this area cause it's like kid park paradise. You've got a playground, you've got places that can go dig stuff up, like you said, Robbie. You have some really great children's programming. Can you tell us about the Plants program and the partnership with the Columbia Public Schools?

Adam Saunders: Yeah. So we've worked with the public schools in the eight Title 1 elementary schools in town to offer lessons. We do lessons every other week at all these schools. We actually co-fund a full-time teacher at public schools who is there working with the teachers, helping the teachers teach out of the gardens, helping the other classrooms use the gardens. And then each of those classes is, third and fifth graders take a field trip to us every semester. And we have tastings, and we always eat food here. So we make like a spinach salad and the, to see a bunch of fourth graders—"I want more spinach." I'm like, "Everybody gets more spinach." <laugh>,

Adam McLane: You get more spinach. You get more spinach.

Adam Saunders: Cause there's like a certain rut in their brain that's like, it's popular and cool to eat vegetables. And like if someone says, I want more, well, if he gets more, I get more. Everybody gets more, eat more spinach, I dare you. You know. And so that is, that is kind of the a fun thing to get the kids out here and get to see in action. And we do tastings at the school. So exposure to these foods, it takes multiple times to do that. And in the big picture, we tried a lot of things over the years with our farm-to-school program and then finally institutionalized it through some funding streams through the county and through the school district. And it's elevated the game. And so next year we're actually expanding to every elementary school as kind of an extension of this pilot. We're four years in. And so now we've got a little more funding and a little more outreach. And our goal is to do more and more of that in that space.

Adam McLane: Wow. I just got this visual. I have a weird brain, Adam, and I just blurt out what goes through it, which makes for interesting podcasts, I'm sure. So now I'm thinking like that space over there instead of the giant hotdog eating contest, it can be a giant spinach eating contest. I mean, it could go on for hours and hours and hours. I don't know how, how much, how many pounds basketball size spinach would take to ...

Robbie Price: Let's see who can get a basketball size pound of spinach in your mouth at one time. You know?

Adam McLane: Possibilities are endless.

Adam Saunders: The water-, the farmers market did a watermelon-eating contest. I got a picture of my son when he was two. He could barely get his head up over the table, and he was loving it.

Adam McLane: That's great. All right. And then on the train of programs, to make sure the community and listeners kind of are aware of these various programs, Robbie, you mentioned Opportunities Gardens and getting engaged with that program kind of right outta the gate. Can one of you tell us a little bit more about that program?

Robbie Price: I'll tell you what, I'll let Adam, because he is, he's so well versed in this and knows it intimately. Go ahead.

Adam Saunders: Yeah. So that, that program started through a partnership with a local nonprofit here, Pet Net. And we had some Robert Wood Johnson money and the idea was like, let's go garden at people's houses. And so it's come a long way. We started in public housing, and so we had to go through all the rules of HUD of like, how do you have a garden in this public space, and raised bed gardens kind of float to the top and a certain spacing and orientation off the house. And we work through all those details, but then over the time have spread all over town. And we have about 100 families in that program any given time. We're in our 10th year of that program. And what we love is when we find a family who really loves gardening and they have some social capital in their neighborhood. We can give them extra fertilizer and tomato plants, tomato cages applications in it. Let

Adam McLane: Let 'em be a champion for...

Adam Saunders: Yeah, and they, gardening is a life of abundance. And so if you've got tomatoes, you've got a lot of tomatoes. And now these families are all low income and they living maybe living in poverty, but they have a lot of tomatoes. So they can be very generous with their neighbors, with their skills and knowledge, but also with their garden and the produce and the kind of connection. So if we can raise the social capital of someone in poverty and have them have an abundance that they can just overflow to their neighbors, like what a cool way to, to elevate leaders in our community. And it kind of blunts the sting of poverty. If you're well fed and your nutrition, you have a robust friendly community around you, it takes some of that edge off of the hard hardships of poverty.

Robbie Price: Yeah. And I will add to this, one of the things about Opportunity Gardens that I found so compelling is a family goes into it, they sign up for three years to be part of this, but they graduate and we provide a graduation ceremony for 'em, and then they become a mentor for neighbors and for other family members. And that mentorship just continues the ripple from that one stone in that family to others. And that's the power that I see. You know, you teach one family to do it, they teach their, the rest of their family, their neighbors, and it just expands from there.

Adam McLane: And what a source of pride, like I'm just the pride of having abundance of tomatoes to share with your neighbors the pride of graduating from a program, the pride of growing your own food and bringing it onto your plate. Boy, that's a, that has to be a key ingredient to all of this that is just fuels the power of these programs. When you get pride involved, individual pride in somebody's life, what it is that that creates them to go do is really pretty neat.

Adam Saunders: Right. It's meaningful work. It's right outside their house. And so I think there's some key synergies, like, versus a community garden where you get kind of a critical mass. You can kind of organize big groups, but when you're right outside your backyard, it just goes so much simpler. You can get a cup of coffee and run out and pick some kale leaves and cook 'em up with your egg in the morning. It's just, there's some synergy there.

Robbie Price: It also puts people outside. They're enjoying the outside, first of all. But in a community like that, there's eyes on your neighbors as well. You know, it's not, not closed doors. Closed curtains. People are outside engaging with their neighbors, keeping eyes on their street. And there's another ripple to that as well.

Adam McLane: Yeah. Wow. Well, Robbie, I'm gonna come to you. What do you think, as we talk about community, what does the CCUA and farmers market meant for the community as a whole? Have you seen a shift in growth and awareness for locally owned produce, or people feeling more connected to the food that they're eating and where it's coming from? What are you seeing, you know, going back out to community wide-thoughts, what do you see happening?

Robbie Price: Well, Adam touched on this earlier, and to me it's this economic generator that this particular market and urban farm have produced. We've got wonderful people out in the county and in this surrounding 50-mile radius that the Columbia Farmers Market uses. And it puts money back in those small town communities. To me, that is a lifesaver for so many family farms Century Farms. It provides an opportunity for them to have a heightened awareness of what these people do, how important their farm is to that community and also to Columbia, as also is evidenced by some of the restaurants that we, have popped up here in Columbia over the last few years. Farm to table has become a buzzword that makes a huge difference to not only the people who eat the food, but also who prepare it.

Robbie Price: And it's that connection, again, with our food, where it comes, what's good, how quickly it gets to market. Those are the kind of things that I think make a huge difference. And then the sense of community that we have here at this urban farm. I don't know if Adam told you, but we had something like 1,400 volunteers during last year who worked on the urban farm. Those people, their lives are filled with that experience, so it's an opportunity to be part of a community, but also give back to others in your community that make such a difference.

Adam McLane: Yeah. And that has so many parallels to you know, The Nature Conservancy. One of our big priorities is nature-based solutions and thinking about ways that nature can provide infrastructure that solves human challenges. And it's a big push of ours right now, thinking about the infrastructure bill and the funding that's coming through for infrastructure to not just think about, you know, a lot of times when you get into that realm, you're thinking about job creation and how many jobs are created from xyz. But a lot of times we pivot over to airports and highways and other things that we think of as the built environment of infrastructure. And sometimes we pass over nature and its ability to drive those same things. And I'm thinking about the lasting impact of jobs that are here when you get to a sustainable thing like this.

Adam McLane: And I think about the houses that I'm looking across the street and what the home values probably are of having this location right across the street now rather than something else. And boy, what a what an investment to make in community from infrastructure dollars to think about something that can impact the community in that way, let alone what it's doing for nature in sinking carbon out here with the plants that are, and the soil health that's happening and how much rain water is being collected by all of this and being soaked up rather than going into a sewer system, et cetera. That the list of impacts are just so multi-beneficial when you make an investment like this in the community, rather than—not to say that airports aren't important, roads aren't important, bridges aren't important—but thinking about a little bit more holistically and investing in nature and nature's ability to pay back into the community with things like what you're all are discussing is really pretty neat.

Adam Saunders: Right. Cause these, these farmers and the human capital, the human capacity to take care of land and to grow food, to steward farms and the biodiversity that they have, I feel like that, in a big way, that's what we need is more people who have that skills to grow food. And that just is a multiplier effect. If we can inspire folks and train folks in what, how we do it. A lot of our young volunteers and young farmers are looking for experiences and whether here, and they're on cattle farms or troop farms, they're trying to hone their craft and hone their skills. And that reduces risk for them to go out there and to be a farmers. And that is that basic capacity that we need. And so if we can pay that forward with education and inspiration and that, that's a big splash. And that, that just keeps going. That's a sustaining force.

Adam McLane: Yeah. And human capital is a great segue into another program that I saw in the brochure that you all have which is a Black farmer scholarship, right?

Adam Saunders: Correct.

Adam McLane: So, what kinds of proposals, one, what does that scholarship program look like? And then what kind of proposals are you usually getting? Are they like backyard farms? Are they new operations? Are they scaling up? Talk to me a little bit about that.

Adam Saunders: Yeah, in the, so the summer of '21, we started the Henry Kirklin Black Farmer Scholarship. Now, Henry Kirklin is a farmer who was born here in Columbia in the late 1800s, born into slavery and was like the original urban farmer here. And he had a huge garden over where downtown public housing is now on Switzler Street and was an expert at plant propagation, grafting apple trees and grafting plants. And he actually taught on campus here at Mizzou, but the racism of the time, they wouldn't allow him to go inside the building. So, he had to teach his lessons outside, but he was the best at it.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

Adam Saunders: And he was just good at composting and gardening and fruit and vegetable propagation and made a name for himself as a leader in that area. So, we want to honor him in his service to the community and elevate his legacy of Black farmers here in Columbia and in mid-Missouri.

Adam Saunders: So, this scholarship is, it's a small way, a $3,000 scholarship to Black farmers and in central Missouri for their operation. And so we try to make it as simple as possible. And so basically say, how are you gonna use this? How are you, what do you need in your farm business? And so we have folks who have a vegetable operation and they sell food at a convenience store in town. And so they needed a tractor or they, and another fellow has bee operation. They got a bunch of beehives and a bee keeping suit. We have one of our Opportunity Garden participants from, he's a refugee, and he has, his entire backyard is a garden and he sells food to the neighborhood. And so he needed a tiller and some food-handling equipment, some totes. And so those folks know where they, what they need best. And we apply for a lot of grants. It's a nonprofit, so it's a cool role reversal for us to give out grants. And so how do we make that as simple as possible? In being accountable for the money, our donors have given us this money and we steward it well, but how do we make it easy and elevate these folks in their operations and have those sustained spinoff benefits?

Robbie Price: Well, it's sort of akin to microfinancing. You know, you've seen success in third world countries where $500 will make a huge difference in somebody's life. They'll be able to start, you know, a sewing operation or whatever. And this to me feels similar to that in that it gives someone an opportunity that they otherwise would be unable to have, and it makes a difference in their life.

Adam McLane: Yep. Yeah. Adam and I were, were talking as we were walking around a little bit before starting up the podcast about just the the barriers to entry that exist around entering into an operation for farming. Not just large scale, but even really small-scale operations. If you wanted to grow food instead of feed and supply, you have an outlet to supply into the restaurant creation. But just getting the land itself and being able to apply for a loan and show that you can monetize that over time is just a, a two, you know, that's an obstacle all the way down to I don't have a tiller, I don't have the startup money for a tiller and I can double my production if I had a tiller. The things are sometimes really simple. And again, it goes back to the money and to your point, Robbie, how far a catalytic little investment can be for the community or that individual and everybody they're gonna impact.

Adam Saunders: Yeah. It's hard for anybody to get in agriculture if you're not, weren't born into, to the land. And like the day-to-day flow and those decision making, let alone just institutional racism that is affected folks in this, in our community. And so we need to help our farmers to be successful and get established and work together. There's a lot of critical mass with that. And it's not just the day-to-day, but just the community that you get from the questions we have from the Kirklin Scholars. Just asking questions and getting to know them, and they ask us questions, and we connect 'em to business coaching resources. And that's true for anybody in the farming industry at any scale. There's a lot of, lot of unknowns. And so you need kind of those sounding boards of people to talk to, to get feedback and to not go crazy and to like, and like have that community. That's so critical. And so we're grateful to invest in that space.

Robbie Price: That reminds me of Confluence Farms.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

Robbie Price: And this is a TNC project, Adam, that talks about human scale farming. That you don't need to have acres of row crops, but you can do something intensively on a quarter acre of land, a half an acre of land and make a living. And so this is akin to what we're doing here at CCUA is teaching people how they can utilize most efficiently that piece of property to feed themselves, to feed their family, to feed others in their neighborhood.

Adam Saunders: Yeah. I love that. It's a decentralized nature of it. It's easy, keep it simple. Human scale.

Robbie Price: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Adam Saunders: And it's, we of our vegetable beds, we get two or three crop rotations a year. And that's, you know, that's how you can have a smaller operation, a smaller footprint, cause you're churning it faster and your attention to detail is that much sharper.

Robbie Price: One of the...

Adam McLane: Go ahead, Robbie.

Robbie Price: I was just gonna say, one of the cool things that we're planning on for the last building on this complex is to have a library, a lending library. But this will not be just for books on gardening, but it'll be that tiller. It'll be that group of tools that somebody needs to use. They don't have the money for it. They can check this out and take it back to their garden and utilize it, bring it and let the next person do it.

Adam McLane: Oh, very neat.

Robbie Price: Yeah.

Adam McLane: Awesome. Well, Robbie, I'm gonna go back to you for another question. You're, you're kind of this connector and you've brought it up multiple times on the TNC CCUA together and how there's partnerships possible and just the similarities of our, at least the methodologies of our work and thinking about partnership and thinking about longterm wins, all of those different things. Knowing both organizations like you do and serving as a trustee for both, what are the similarities that you see between us?

Robbie Price: Well, again, you highlighted on understanding that partnership is the key to any successful project. If you don't have those people who are like-minded who looking to do good in the community, it doesn't happen on the scale that TNC has wrought worldwide. I mean, you consider just how much influence TNC has had across the state, the United States and then the world. It's absolutely phenomenal. But you do that, because you're leveraging partnerships in the location where you're doing the work. So, to me, that's the greatest similarity. But then these two organizations, I am always amazed at just how dedicated, talented and entrepreneurial the staff is and what a difference they make. If it wasn't for you guys, none of this would happen. It's started with Adam and, and a couple of friends here, you know, 12 years ago with just recycling compost.

Robbie Price: And it's now grown into a multimillion dollar operation. TNC, you know, takes these people who have great passion for conservation and for their community, and without them it just wouldn't happen. You know, I think of Dunne Ranch, I think of Little Creek Farms. I think of the prairies, all the things that are going on with TNC and of course this new project here in Boone County at the river. It's only possible when you guys get together with others. And that's what's so wonderful about being a trustee for TNC, a board member for CCUA. I see this in action every day. And you guys rock. I tell you what, you guys are incredible and you give us hope for the future and give us an outlet for being able to do better things in our community.

Adam McLane: Well, thank you very much for that. And I'm sure Adam and I both return that same thought about the trustees and engagement. I was even thinking about it earlier with how simple some business things are. If you think about, I want to grow this food for X purpose, but then you think about the layers of experience and expertise that can come into play and making that successful. And it's not just how, how you grow the food is one thing. Having the space is another, a business mindset on how you market, that is another thing. The background of sociology and how you impact kids in the community is another skill set that can be leveraged. Architecture, and you think about how these things should be designed as another thing. Philanthropy, about how it comes in. So, I mean, the village that is required, to your point early on in this, Adam, about leadership from our standpoint, we get to tap into expertise of people via our board of trustees and our supporters in general that are willing to volunteer their time with a certain skill set that can help drive things forward and make it even more successful.

Adam McLane: So, thank you to the Robbies of the world.

Adam Saunders: That's right.

Adam McLane: I'm sure too from you, Adam.

Adam Saunders: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Adam McLane: Okay, we cannot end this podcast without one more of your programs. You have a multitude of programs and which is awesome cause they're all so niche and seem to be customized for certain things that you're trying to drive, which I think is really neat and you do a great job of highlighting that in your communication materials. But the Veterans Urban Farm, how did that program come to be, and how has it evolved over the years?

Adam Saunders: Yeah. So, when we knew we were moving here to this bigger site, we had an opportunity to bring on a partner in operating our acre and a third that we've been at since 2010. And we've just been really inspired by different veteran farms around the country. One of our first board members was a veteran. He was part of our early days when we were all volunteer. He just got back from Iraq. Yeah, Billy, and he just whipped us into shape. And so, and it was therapy for him cause he had just gotten, returned from deployment, and he needed an outlet to focus on that was positive. And he did. He's amazing. He's a key person. So we wanted to connect to that again. And so we started a partnership with the Truman VA Hospital, which is here in Columbia.

Adam Saunders: It serves like 40,000 veterans in central Missouri. It's a huge operation. And the food we grow, a lot of it goes to the hospital to be given away to patients. It works with other veterans organizations: Welcome Home, Patriot Place. We started a community garden at Patriot Place a couple years ago that was like a housing for low-income veterans. And it just seems like a natural fit on a lot, a lot of levels of, how do we provide that skill training and that therapy and and kind of the reentry after deployment to job skills and community and therapy. And so all those layers are wrapped into that. And so there's, there's, and there's a ton of potential and I think there's, we get a lot of veterans who, who wanna farm.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Adam Saunders: And so they come to us and like, how do we create this pipeline for folks to get experiences but then connect them to land, connect them to other expertise and other resources. And I feel like we've just scratched the surface. We've been really inspired by folks in different operations around the country, the Armed to Farm and there's so many. And so that is just right in line when we, when we knew we were, had potential to bring on another key strategic partner. The veterans community is a big part of that.

Adam McLane: That's really neat. Well, speaking of scratching the surface, I feel like we could have a podcast that went 48 hours at least <laugh> to cover the programs and the depth of stuff that you're working on. We obviously can't do that. So, talk to me about if a listener wanted to learn even more—cause there's a lot of programs we didn't even cover and things that are happening—how can they find out more information about you? And then if there were just kind of one thing, Adam, that feels like it's the next step for CCUA, what's coming next that you can tee up, what would that be?

Adam McLane: Yeah, so our website is It's got a great resource of all the different programs, how to get involved, how to volunteer. If you like this stuff, you want to see more of in the community, how to donate. We're looking to take some of these programs in kind of a consulting role. We have developed toolkits for planting for the pantry, which shows food pantries and our Opportunity Gardens. So, that's a consulting role that we see coming down the line. We're on our last stage of the build out of our park here. We have one more piece. It's like a big multipurpose building, like a teaching kitchen, event, teaching hall, a resource center that'll have offices for CCUA, the Columbia Farmers' Market. And that is going to further elevate our capacity to serve the community and to work with partners.

Adam McLane: If, as you come to the farmers market, you'll see MU Healthcare has got their name on the building. They're a big hospital here in town. To their credit, they've really to shown up and stayed with this strategic investment of nutrition education and access to food. And I feel like there's a lot of wind at our back pushing forward preventative health care through nutrition and access to food and cooking and gardening. There's a lot there, and there's a lot more to come. So, I'm excited for that building to come about. We need to raise a little more money before we break ground. But we're shovel ready and we're ready to, we're ready to go. And that'll cap a campaign. We've raised over $7.3 million to date and excited to hit this last piece here in the coming year and build this building.

Adam McLane: Love it. Okay. Final question for each of you as we wrap up, which is kind of like one wish for a listener. So, if you, if you picture a listener that's hearing this and you wish one thing from them that you feel like will have the most impact as we think about the individual actions and the individual stories that really can change the trajectory of what the world looks like and how people and nature are thriving, or it's a two part question: Who's the, give me a description of the person you're thinking of that this listener is just so they can say, "Oh yeah, that's me that you're talking to." And then what it is that you would each kind of encourage or wish from them surrounding the work that you're trying to do?

Robbie Price: From my standpoint, I think of those people who work in an office every day who have a controlled environment and use LED lights and, you know, carpet that's off gassing. I wish for them to get outside, get their hands into the soil, get dirty, sweat a little bit, be surrounded by nature, whether it's, you know, whatever it is that means and understand what a wonderful impact it has on their life. It's calming, it's educational. It's innorvating—I used that wrong word wrong. I didn't, you, I always used that word wrong. That's the wrong word to use in this case. It's invigorating.

Adam McLane: You had me.

Robbie Price: It's invigorating.

Adam McLane: Oh, I, even better.

Robbie Price: Excuse me, sorry. But that's the person that I would like for them to understand, support a non-profit that does this kind of work. It makes you feel good. It does great work in the community, and it lives on after that donation.

Adam McLane: That is really cool. Thank you, Robbie. How about, Adam?

Adam Saunders: Yeah, well, everybody eats, right? So we've all got that going for us. And so that's kind of, I we'd say like, as a threshold for partnership. It's like, does this group eat food or serve people who eats food <laugh>? If so, there's probably a way to work together, right. And so I feel like there's just tons of potential to, to eat and to learn. And I kind of take the mentality that we're all teachers, we're all students. And so taking that opportunity to learn from people, but also to teach. I mean, that's how this lifelong passion for gardening expands and getting people inspired to do more. And so especially with little kids, I've got two little ones and they love gardening.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

Adam Saunders: And they, my in-laws have a huge garden, so it's strawberry season. They are all about it. And that's normal for them. That's like where they understand, they have a grasp where a food comes from. So, sharing that with people of all ages to teach older people, teach younger people, to learn from older people, to learn from younger people. I mean that's, that makes life rich.

Adam McLane: Wow. Yeah. I I wasn't gonna answer the question, but just mine would be just to plant something. Like everybody, you know, if you live in an apartment, if you're anywhere, the ability to just plant something is pretty powerful, I think. It changes the mindset of caring for something, seeing what it does, develops. So, thank you both very much. This is really, really awesome. So...

Robbie Price: This has been fun.

Adam McLane: Yeah, this is, and inspiring. So, it's been fascinating, inspiring thing, everything in the book, so really appreciative it of it. And, everyone, I'm just gonna encourage as well to visit the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture's farms. visit the website, see what's engaging and interesting to you or just stop on by, come out and see it. If you're in the community and wanting to support a community garden let CCUA be your inspiration. They offer great tours here. They've got lots of classes, volunteer opportunities, and you can learn more about their projects and upcoming opportunities at I promise you'll come away with some new ideas and lots of inspiration for growing your own food. So thank you again, Adam and Robbie, and to listeners, if you've enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to it. It's in Our Nature and at our website, Thanks so much. Have a great day.

Adam Saunders: Thanks, Adam.

Robbie Price: Thanks, Adam.

Episode 12: It’s in Our Nature goes on location to visit our friends at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture (CCUA).

CCUA cofounder Adam Saunders and board member Robbie Price join the podcast to talk about the power of gardening. The conversation takes place in the Columbia Agriculture Park, a 10-acre campus that is home to a sprawling urban garden, Columbia’s famed farmers market and the nerve center for CCUA’s array of food-focused programs. 

Learn how a composting program started by University of Missouri students grew into a multimillion-dollar force that teaches people to grow vegetables in public housing, connects veterans with the land and supplies tens of thousands of pounds of produce to Columbia’s food pantry each year.

A woman laughs as a man smiles and flips through the pages of a book on a table.
A Journey to Well-Being Jeanne Carbone (right) talks with MO State Director, Adam McLane for this episode of It's in Our Nature. © Doyle Murphy/TNC

A Journey to Well-Being

Episode 11: Take a journey with the Missouri Botanical Garden and its program to feel the calming, restorative powers of nature.

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Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit

Adam McLane: Hi, everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy, and thanks for joining us. I'm gonna bet that a lot of our listeners have visited the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. What a fascinating place. You could like, walk around through it hundreds of times, spot something new every single time. It's also the perfect setting for one of our favorite topics on It's in Our Nature, a topic that actually mirrors the tagline of this podcast, which is celebrating the connection of people and nature. Joining us to discuss some of the benefits of that connection is Jeanne Carbone. Jeanne is the supervisor of therapeutic horticulture at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Welcome, Jeanne. Thanks for hosting us.

Jeanne Carbone: Thank you, Adam.

Adam McLane: We already had this long talk about not slipping up and saying any words that we shouldn't. We've had a grand old time already before we even hit record here. So this is sure to be a wonderful podcast where we learn about a really neat program. So I'm going to grossly oversimplify this, but just to get us started, therapeutic horticulture is basically a way to use nature to improve our well-being mentally and physically. Am I in the ballpark with the description, or can you explain it a little more for us?

Jeanne Carbone: So, that is actually the working definition that we use for therapeutic horticulture.

Adam McLane: I might have looked it up.

Jeanne Carbone: I was wondering. <laugh> Sounded too good. At the Missouri Botanical Garden, we use therapeutic horticulture in a variety of ways. We work a lot in the community doing outreach programs. We also do some public program classes here at the garden, and we also provide some events on grounds for some of the special populations that we work with.

Adam McLane: That's terrific. So I've been hearing about one of the programs, Journey to Well-being, that's taking place in the Japanese Garden section of MoBot. How does, how does that one work as an example of a program?

Jeanne Carbone: So the Journey to Well-being is, I can give you the history of the program, if you'd like. It was inspired by a similar program at the Morikami Japanese Garden in Florida. And how we made that connection was that our horticulture supervisor in the Japanese Garden, Ben Chu, went to a national conference and went to a presentation by the people from Morakami and learned about their program called The Stroll for Well-being. And when he came back from that conference, he contacted therapeutic horticulture and said, this sounds like something that might work for you all in the Japanese Garden. And that was, so that was our inspiration. And we say we did not copy the program. We did not just make our own version of it. We were inspired by Morikami.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Jeanne Carbone: But we very much made this our own because our Japanese Garden is so unique.

Adam McLane: Yep. And how long was the Japanese Garden already in place up to that point? It had been there for a while previously, right? Before the program started?

Jeanne Carbone: It has, the Japanese Garden, I think, had its 40th anniversary in 2018.

Adam McLane: Okay. A really popular spot within the garden.

Jeanne Carbone: A very popular spot. And when we talk about this program and introduce it to populations, very often what people say is, "Oh, I love the Japanese Garden." And most people do who visit the garden, visit Missouri Botanical Garden, but this program takes it to another level.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

Jeanne Carbone: And so I can, I'll go into that a little bit. So, what happened from there is we developed a focus group in January of 2017 and spent a considerable amount of time pulling together partners from the community, professionals and some and staff from the botanical garden to pull this program together and really make it our special thing for the Missouri Botanical Garden. And I have to give a shout out to, in particular, Greg Cadice, who was the senior horticulturalist in the Japanese Garden up until about a year ago. He retired. But he was really our inspiration and our, the person who helped us get things right about the Japanese Garden, you know, he had a very good understanding of the space and the history of it, and what everything in the Japanese Garden means. Japanese gardens are full of symbolism. And so everything has meaning in that space. And he really helped us pull it, pull all that information together with what we wanted to use to inspire people to make a connection to nature.

Adam McLane: That's fantastic. Okay, Jeanie, I have a tendency in these podcasts to just sort of jump right into it.

Jeanne Carbone: Okay.

Adam McLane: I'm like, Let's do it. Let's get right in. No, I already kind of did. I was like, what is this program? What... but I'm gonna step us back a little bit.

Jeanne Carbone: Okay.

Adam McLane: And just ask how you got here. How did you get involved with the program and kind of what you like most about it, why you've, why you've stuck around and what makes you tick each day.

Jeanne Carbone: Those are a lot of questions.

Adam McLane: I, I <laugh>

Jeanne Carbone: I came to the Missouri Botanical Garden after a teaching career of 25 years.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Jeanne Carbone: Was just blessed to have a woman pick me to, we had worked together with my students.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

Jeanne Carbone: And when I retired, she just came and said, I think I have an idea. And so I started working in therapeutic horticulture and worked very part-time. Started out part-time, and then as the program kept growing, the therapeutic horticulture program kept growing and we identified more partners in the community and had an opportunity to serve more people.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Jeanne Carbone: I kept working more hours, and so I went from part-time to almost full-time to full-time. And then, in January of 2020, became supervisor of Therapeutic horticulture.

Adam McLane: Okay. All right. And Part 17 of the previous mentioned questions: What, what do you, what keeps you engaged? What do you really like about it?

Jeanne Carbone: I say almost every day, and I don't think very many people can say this, I have the best job in the world.

Adam McLane: Hmm.

Jeanne Carbone: I truly do. To be able to bring nature to people who maybe can't access it, who can't come to the garden in our outreach programs, but in any setting to be able to help people feel better in nature, with nature. And we don't, when we in introduce ourselves into a program, when we meet somebody for the first time, we don't say, we're here to help. You know, we're, we're here to improve your well-being. We just say, "You know what, we've got some nature here. Would you like to explore?"

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Jeanne Carbone: And that takes many different forms. We do a lot of different kinds of programs with people, but always that opportunity to take nature and a person and bring them together. And most of our work in, in the situations that we go into, we're working one-on-one with patients. So, for instance, today I work with a two-and-a-half-year-old, who is ill. And in that same setting, worked with a 32-year-old.

Adam McLane: Hmm.

Jeanne Carbone: You know, so just, but always that nature and that those activities have a commonality that anybody can enjoy them and anybody can experience them.

Adam McLane: Hmm. Isn't that the truth? One great message. Well, and I, you know, in thinking about your trajectory of starting part-time and then a little bit more part-time, and then full-time as things continue to grow, I can't help but think that's because we were realizing more and more the beneficial impact of a program like that on various populations. That it wasn't just for this specific thing, it was, boy, everybody can use this kind of therapy out, out in nature. Is that accurate assessment of why it grew? And then just talk to us about impacts. What kind of impacts do you really see?

Jeanne Carbone: What we hear most often today in our work, at least once a day, a person will say, You just made my day. And how many people hear that from their work? So what a blessing and a privilege that is to be able to do that for people. So it just, we did, we grew a lot because we just kept making these connections with people out in the world. We have a very strong connection with the health-care system associated with Wash U. So with BJC, Wash U, Siteman, cancer centers, and as those systems have grown, they have taken us with them. So we started out going to one Siteman cancer center once a week. Now we go to six Siteman cancer centers twice a month and do programming you know, with patients actively during treatment. And we spread the word, but the word also spreads itself.

Jeanne Carbone: You know, people hear about us, and it's not, you don't commonly hear of therapeutic horticulture. So when people do hear about us, Well, tell me about that and how could that help in this setting? So, we have tried to expand and meet the needs of people in a variety of settings. So, we work a lot in the medical community. We also work with social service agencies, and one of the areas that we had just started to develop was a program for businesses. So, to go into a business and do a lunch and learn and sit down with 20 people around a table just like this room and bring nature, brings some kind of a nature activity. So, there's an activity, usually an activity involved that produces something where everybody gets to make something. But that's not the goal. The goal is that engagement piece, that bringing people to engage with that nature, whatever that looks like. Whether it's making a flower arrangement or making an herbal tea bag or pressing flowers. You know, there's, there's a variety of things that we do as an activity, but that's not the goal.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Jeanne Carbone: The goal is that really, that level of engagement. And we felt like going into a business where people maybe don't have a window and giving them an opportunity to spend some time with nature. And we had started that program in January of 2020, so hasn't gone very far. <laugh>

Adam McLane: What happened in that January? January 2020 rings a bell.

Jeanne Carbone: Yeah. Something. Yep. And so then as a part of this work, then we developed this Journey program. And it has not expanded at the level and the speed and the depth that we would like ...

Adam McLane: Just because of the pandemic?

Jeanne Carbone: Because of the pandemic.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Jeanne Carbone: So, we are really hoping that interest will pick up and we'll be able to reach more people.

Adam McLane: Well, I'd bet on you, and, I really would. And not just having met you and heard about the program and its focus and where the, I mean, just the authentic care for a program like this and what it does, but it sure seems like during the pandemic that more and more people found reprieve in some sort of need for connecting to nature. They, we were hunkered down at home in front of video screens. Our kids were going through school programs online and how great it felt and how many people realized how great it felt just to get outside and go for a walk in the woods or something other than being inside all day long felt great to a lot of people. So hopefully that carries forward, people make a part of, make that a part of their routine and really envision it as part of their physical and mental health that which certainly point more people to you, I would imagine.

Jeanne Carbone: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. I hope so. I hope so.

Adam McLane: Well, how do you, so it's a question about impact. And I'm trying to put a, even though I'm not skeptical of this at all, <laugh>, I always try to think like a skeptic in terms of measures or, you know, how do, how do people know, and how do you all know that this really works? You know, quote unquote whatever works looks like. Is that, is that science about improved health and blood pressure going down? Or is it ratings of mental health, or is just how many people we get here through here that rate that they loved it? How do you, how do you try and measure success and point to impact and say, this isn't just a nice thing. It's a, it really has impact on the, on the physical and emotional health of people.

Jeanne Carbone: We know it. We believe it. You believe it.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Jeanne Carbone: We don't, unfortunately, at this point have, and I always get the word quantitative.

Adam McLane: You have qualitative.

Jeanne Carbone: We have qualitative.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Jeanne Carbone: We have so many anecdotal responses from people. And we, the, the people who have gone through the program, without exception, have said, this has been amazing, wonderful. Changed my life.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Jeanne Carbone: I had a woman tell me it saved her life. And I, you can't do better than that.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Jeanne Carbone: I had a gentleman, the very first program that we had there was a gentleman in the group, and he was very quiet and hard to read, hard to really tell if he was benefiting from the program. And at our last meeting, we were, everybody was saying goodbye, and this group had really bonded and, but everybody was saying goodbye. And he got up to leave and he turned around and he said, "This has been one of the most profound experiences of my life."

Adam McLane: Wow.

Jeanne Carbone: That was it.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Jeanne Carbone: I mean, and that's, that's what we hear from people and that, so that's what matters to us. And we know, we know that it makes a difference in people's lives, and it makes a difference in their relationship with the Missouri Botanical Garden and with the Japanese Garden.

Adam McLane: Yep. Wow. Well, I'm gonna take us back to Covid a little bit. As hard, as much as I wish it was completely in the rear view mirror, we know it's not, and its impacts are still all around us and real, and in just, you know, ways of changing us. But I think most of us have at least the general understanding that being out in nature, whether it's gardening or camping, even just taking a walk can be really helpful.

Jeanne Carbone: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Adam McLane: We see this in our daily lives, but, you know, then Covid hits in January 2020, spring of 2020, outdoors takes on this new importance, and suddenly, like bike shops are selling out, people are building fire pits in their yard. It's like we're all looking for some kind of outlet. So, I understand at that point in time, one of the hospitals reached out to Botanical Garden for some help. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Or is it a program you've been describing?

Jeanne Carbone: Though, that was, this was a different approach. We were asked by some representatives from BJC and I don't know if you're familiar with that system, but there's a lot of, there's BJC, there's BJH, there's a Wash U, and so I don't really know where people work.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Jeanne Carbone: But they approached us and said, we need to do, we have got to do something for staff right now.

Adam McLane: Hmm.

Jeanne Carbone: Well, my thought was bring them to the garden. But they work 12 hour shifts. They don't wanna go anywhere.

Adam McLane: So all the staff that were still on the front lines of this, this pandemic.

Jeanne Carbone: Right. They don't wanna go anywhere. They wanna go home. And she said, I know it's, it doesn't really jive with therapeutic horticulture, but we'd like to do something virtual.

Adam McLane: Hmm.

Jeanne Carbone: So we did some brainstorming and what we came up with was a way to take the Journey program and make videos of each of the walks in this program. And I'm gonna get to describing the program obviously at some point. So, our communications team created videos, and we wrote a script and created 10 minute videos of each of the walks in the Journey to Well-being.

Adam McLane: Did you have like a little robot do the walk?

Jeanne Carbone: We had drones.

Adam McLane: <laugh>Did you really? I was on track. See, I figured you just actually had a selfie stick and a GoPro, but no, you had drones doing it?

Jeanne Carbone: We had a drone. We, our communications department has an unbelievable ...

Adam McLane: It's impressive

Jeanne Carbone: ... amount of equipment. And we had received some grant money, and so we used some of that grant money to fund the creation of these videos. And we, there's a lot of drone shots and then just a lot of visuals of the garden. And they're each, you know, eight to 10 minutes long. And then there's a audio part, my voice <laugh> walking people through this journey of each of the walks.

Adam McLane: Wow.

Jeanne Carbone: And so we created seven videos, and the idea was to share those with the medical community for the staff specifically. And we shared them with all of the medical systems in St. Louis.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Jeanne Carbone: Did not get a great deal, as much feedback from the outreach because we don't have strong relationship with them as we did from BJC. You know, I think in the first two weeks of the first video we had 2,000 views.

Adam McLane: Wow.

Jeanne Carbone: So, I mean, it's ...

Adam McLane: There was an appetite.

Jeanne Carbone: There was, it was. So I think it really met a need. but it's still, it's hard to call it our, in my mind it's hard to call that therapeutic horticulture, because it's not that hands on piece that we're so used to doing.

Adam McLane: Yep. Well, one: great of BJC and you all to make kind of open source that out to other, not just have it be for the specific group that helped pay for it or whatever, but really that fits the bill with trying to make it as broadly accessible as possible. That's really neat. And then it, completely reminds me of our, at The Nature Conservancy during that same time, we always had prairie chicken viewing in blinds at certain times of the year. We'd open it to the public, they could sign up and come out at Dun Ranch Prairie, sit in a, in a little hut and watch these prairie chickens out on the lek do their little dances and stuff. And that all had to shut down during Covid cause we couldn't be in that close proximity. So, staff members got and set up a camera, and we had remote viewing for the prairie chicken cam.

Adam McLane: And it had, so, I mean, I would've been like, eh, not the same, you know, being out there, but it was incredibly accessible. I remember one of our staff members, well, producer Kristy, her children would wake up in the morning and be like, "Put on the prairie chicken cam, put on the prairie chicken cam," cause they just wanted to see what the chickens were doing each day. So if I, I hear you like, my instant reaction is an aversion to technology, being able to replace the real thing sometimes. But it has other things that are really neat, and the accessibility that comes from that can sometimes touch more people. So, that's really neat that you all found a way to try and rise to the occasion and do the best you can. And it sounds like it turned out great.

Jeanne Carbone: We tried, and those are available to the public now.

Adam McLane: Okay. Where could they find them?

Jeanne Carbone: On the Botanical Garden website, I believe, on the therapeutic horticulture page.

Adam McLane: Okay. Wonderful.

Jeanne Carbone: And if they're not there, I'll get them there.

Adam McLane: <laugh>. Okay. So, I hear, in kind of switching on to some other stuff and programs, that you continue to evolve. I've heard that the garden has been awarded another grant to expand the Journey to Well-being. So, how's that program evolving? Do you see any other big shifts and changes coming in the program from where it started and what your last round of grant funding was?

Jeanne Carbone: So, the last round of grant funding that we had was from the Bayer Fund.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Jeanne Carbone: And again, in February 2020. So, we were, we tried to offer some of the in-person programming that year. It was very difficult because the grant was specific to anyone impacted by cancer. And so, particularly patients ...

Adam McLane: They were high risk for ...

Jeanne Carbone: Right, Exactly. If people are in treatment or they're high risk because they're immune compromised.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Jeanne Carbone: So, we didn't have a, the level of response that we had hoped for. And that's when we sort of reallocated funds and created those videos so that we were putting that grant to use. We also at that point started offering the program to, specifically to staff at the cancer centers.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Jeanne Carbone: So, really trying to recruit them to at least come out and start the program, and we had an okay response. Again, you know, health-care workers were struggling and, and same thing, they don't, they wanna go home. Even though, if we could get them here and get them to slow down and relax and really take a walk with us, I think we, we made the impact with some of the people, but it was, it was very difficult to get them.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Jeanne Carbone: So, we reapplied to Bayer and were awarded a grant in June of this year. And that will be for what I would call the typical journey program. And in addition to that, we will be doing the walking program, but we will also be providing yoga for cancer patients. We will be providing Qigong and culinary health sessions.

Adam McLane: Wow.

Jeanne Carbone: So, all funded under this, the Bayer Grant. So we're very excited about the idea of sort of expanding what building on what we already had and increasing some of the offerings, and all of those things will take place on the grounds of the garden.

Adam McLane: Okay. And when you say for those impacted by cancer, that is a pretty broad group, Correct? I you're not just saying it's people that have cancer, it's those that are impacted by it.

Jeanne Carbone: Right. So, anyone impacted by cancer. So, that could be a patient. It could be a survivor. It could be a family member, a caregiver. So, we're still looking at staff who are working with cancer patients, bereaved family members, really anyone. And we have all been impacted by cancer somewhere along the way in our life. And so what we're, what we're looking for is helping people cope with whatever, however that cancer affected them by participating in this program.

Adam McLane: That's really great. Well, the Japanese Garden is an amazing place. And you've already talked a good bit about it. I think the thing that sticks out in this program, even from a garden that was in place for quite some time, it's just the incredibly intentional thought that goes into each thing that's placed within it and meaning behind it, et cetera. So how, knowing that that's the case in the garden, how does that physical structure kind of fit in to the Journey of Well-being? Or maybe just with the therapeutic horticultural in general? How big a, how designed are those spaces to elicit the effects that you're looking for?

Jeanne Carbone: Well, I think there's a, there's a reason why these programs, such as the one at Morikami, and there's a number, or there's a few others around the country and ours, are in Japanese gardens because of the intentionality of Japanese gardens. And so with that being said, our Journey program is called an intentional walking program. So, maybe I can talk a little bit about what the structure of the program and what that looks like. So, when we say people participate in the Journey program, the way the original structure of the program is that you would come to the garden for an initial meeting and we introduce the program and the intention of the program and the structure of the program. And then we take people on a tour of the Japanese Garden and we make that connection between some of those pieces of a Japanese garden, like the intentional pruning and the islands ...

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Jeanne Carbone: ... and all the things that are a part of a Japanese garden that people can then relate to through these walks. So, the way the program is structured, you come to that initial meeting and at that meeting you receive a guidebook. And the guidebook is then yours to come back to the garden on your own schedule, at your own pace and take seven walks. And these walks are all correlated to a natural element. So, and I always forget one of them. Wind, sky, water, powerful water and tranquil water, wood, fire and stone. So, we really looked at the elements that are a part of a Japanese garden and how paying attention to that particular element on that walk will deepen your connection with nature.

Adam McLane: Hmm.

Jeanne Carbone: So, when you are doing the stone walk, there's lots of places along this, along the path where there is stone. Stone is very much integral in a Japanese garden. And the way the book is structured, every walk that is themed around a natural element has seven pauses. And at each pause there is some information about that space, and then some kind of an inspirational quote, question, poem—something to help you with that relationship with that particular spot.

Adam McLane: And do each of the different walks have a different therapeutic purpose? Meaning, somebody comes in and says, "Jeanne, I am stressed from work." You say, "You should take the wood walk," or, "You should do the fire walk." Or are they, do they have different purposes? Or are they just connecting you to the same purpose? Like the mental health or physical purpose of the walk, but just in different contexts, using different mediums of stone or fire?

Jeanne Carbone: It's really just using different medium. Different context. And it, it's interesting how people who have participated, what moves them to do a particular walk.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Jeanne Carbone: You know, it may be, you know, it's a very cloudy day, or it's overcast and something ...

Adam McLane: Feel a certain way.

Jeanne Carbone: I'm gonna do a skywalk, because the sky is not the typical vibrant blue that we're all seeking. I wanna look at it differently. And so doing the skywalk then just makes, really opens it up and makes you look at things a little bit differently.

Adam McLane: That's great. So, mine will typically be my director of communications is just stresses me out, and I get frustrated. So, that's probably when I'll come and get your recommendation for which walk I should do or just know that all of them will be fine.

Jeanne Carbone: <laugh>. So, what happens once you enroll in the program and you receive this guidebook, then you're on your own.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Jeanne Carbone: You can do the walks however you choose. You can come back.

Adam McLane: When you receive the guide program, do you get some instruction about how to use it? Is that part of the, or do they just provide it and say, here's the basics and go learn on your own learning journey?

Jeanne Carbone: Kind of a combination. I've learned over the course of this program not to, I started out very, very opinionated about how I thought people should do it. And so when I started out, I said ...

Adam McLane: Here's the procedure.

Jeanne Carbone: Don't go by, don't bring anybody with you. Don't bring your phone. Don't take pictures. Don't ...

Adam McLane: You added rules.

Jeanne Carbone: I did. I added rules, which just blew up in my face the very first session because one of the gentlemen who participated took on an average a hundred pictures on every walk with his iPad, but he also journaled pages and pages and pages about his experience and those pictures. So I very quickly learned I can't tell people how to do this program.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Jeanne Carbone: The program is designed, the way the book is designed. There's space on every page for you to journal, recall your experience however you wanna do that. A lot of people draw, but what I've, what we've found a lot is that people think the book is too pretty and they don't wanna write in it. So they'll bring a separate journal. They'll use those prompts along the way and then write in a separate journal. Some people don't journal. Some people don't record their experience, they just have the experience. So it's all over the map. So no rules anymore.

Adam McLane: I like it. What do you think about interacting with nature is so therapeutic? What do you think makes it so therapeutic?

Jeanne Carbone: I think it takes us outside of ourselves, and sometimes it's conscious such as a walk like this, you're really, you really remove yourself from the every day. But I think it's, it really just takes us someplace else. We talk a lot in therapeutic horticulture about therapeutic gardening and how therapeutic it is. And people say it all the time when we introduce ourselves and say, therapeutic horticulture, "Oh, I find it really therapeutic to work in my garden." And I think that's very true, but sometimes we don't even realize it. You know, we're out there weeding for an hour ...

Adam McLane: We don't name it.

Jeanne Carbone: We don't name it. Exactly. We're out there weeding and then time flies and you think, "Oh," but you don't think, "Oh, look at that, I ... "

Adam McLane: "What a waste of time." <laugh>

Jeanne Carbone: Right. Right. Not a waste of time. And I don't, and when you pause, you don't think, "I just connected with nature."

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Jeanne Carbone: It's inherent.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Jeanne Carbone: You know, there's a phrase called biophilia, right?

Adam McLane: Yep.

Jeanne Carbone: Which basically says we are meant to connect with nature. We are a part of nature. And what we hope is that people see how their relationship with nature changes when you spend time in it or with it, or as a part of it. Your, and also in the bigger picture, you, if you have more respect for nature, maybe you'll take care of it ...

Adam McLane: Right. Here, here.

Jeanne Carbone: ... and be respectful of it. So, I think it's just part of who we are. I really do.

Adam McLane: I agree. And I think it comes in so many forms, and people have probably tapped into it in ways that they haven't had a journal or a, you know, but they, they could gather so much from going through, you know, getting this and coming and seeing it in person. But I, you know, during the pandemic, I'll just share personally, so I hadn't done a lot of foraging. I loved walking in the woods. I have woods close by the house and get to go on hikes. And my main purpose was covering ground for a long time. It was like, exercise, how far do I go? Got my dog with me, making sure that they're, during the pandemic, I got into foraging. That changed everything cause I was looking at things. I was not covering ground. I was looking in specific places at very small things for certain attributes.

Adam McLane: And then just looking for more of them and trying to piece the, it was a completely different experience. And I love both, but knowing, I feel like I, when I head out to the woods, now I'm making a conscious choice of which of those I'm going for, which I need right now. Do I need to focus and slow down and just like, look at everything? I'm going foraging. If I, if that's not the case, I'm going hiking, and I'm gonna cover ground, tromp, see big vistas, that kind of deal. And so it's, it's amazing. And I would be really, I hope that listeners that listen to this, like you said, somebody that spends time in the garden and hasn't thought it of it as therapy, they haven't named that for themselves afterwards. I hope they hear this and put it in that bucket of self-care because that means gives 'em a permission slip to go do it.

Adam McLane: And they know a little bit more about how the self-care that's accessible to them if they just step outside and make a conscious choice to do something in particular. So, bravo that you all are focusing on this and bringing it, kind of bringing it the status of being real rather than this mythical feeling we get when we go out in nature. It's more it, it makes it more a real thing by naming it and having a walk for it and doing it very intentionally and know what architecture is behind it and selective choices are made throughout. It's really, really neat.

Jeanne Carbone: Thank you. Thank you. If you like, I could read one of the pauses from the book...

Adam McLane: Please.

Jeanne Carbone: ... which might give people something to sort of focus in on. This is one of the pauses in the wind walk: "Cherry trees are considered the symbol of Japan. They bloom in early spring, demonstrating their bravery and daring to face the winter frost. As you look out over the lake, the delicate branches of the weeping cherry trees appear to wave gently in the breeze. Their fragile appearance can be deceiving as trees gain strength from exposure to wind. As a tree matures, it develops the ability to bend but not break. Reflect on the sources of strength in your life. When you bend with the forces of life, what helps you remain upright?"

Adam McLane: That's wonderful.

Jeanne Carbone: So that is what the book is about. It's every page has something like that. Some, some ...

Adam McLane: A meditation to think on in a way.

Adam McLane: Well, it's interesting because we don't call it a meditation program. We don't call it a mindfulness program. We don't call it forest bathing ...

Adam McLane: Because of all the baggage that each of those carry?

Jeanne Carbone: Exactly. But it is all of those things and all of those things are under the umbrella of therapeutic horticulture, which is slowing down, paying attention, being present. And that's, so that's what the program is designed for.

Adam McLane: Okay. I get really weird quirky thoughts, and I've just committed myself in these podcasts to just saying 'em rather than just keeping 'em in there. So, when you were, I stuck on this moment back when you said you would call something a typical program in the well-being or the Journey to Well-being route, like it was a typical walk, you would define it as a typical. So, that means there's an atypical. So then I just kept thinking about like, what happens if I go backwards? Like is it a record player, like back in the day where if you played it backwards, all of a sudden it, do you get ill if you go backwards through one of the walks? Is that atypical? Is that what you're talking about? Or is there different thing?

Jeanne Carbone: It is not atypical. One of the things that happened in the course of the pandemic was that this book is written for every walk to go in the same direction.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Jeanne Carbone: So, there's a map for every walk with pauses outlined, and you're always supposed to go to the left.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Jeanne Carbone: During the pandemic, they made the path in the Japanese Garden one way—to the right.

Adam McLane: Oh.

Jeanne Carbone: So, if you were trying to do the journey, you were going backwards.

Adam McLane: Why, why'd they switch it?

Jeanne Carbone: Well, they wanted it to be one way through the Japanese Garden because of ...

Adam McLane: One full route so that people didn't interact with each other.

Jeanne Carbone: Right, and distancing and you know, social distancing.

Adam McLane: Did any bad things happen?

Jeanne Carbone: No, but people were like, "But, but, but the book says ..." <laugh>.

Adam McLane: Oh, okay. So, that reminds me of the story of Pat. Did you ever meet Pat Jones or know Pat Jones? We did a podcast on Pat Jones, Pat and Ted Jones with Edward Jones. Pat was this remarkable woman that did a ton for conservation and the Katy Trail was, she was a huge impetus for the Katy Trail. And towards the end of Pat's life, she wanted to take another big trip down the Katy Trail, I think by wagon or something. So, they took her all the way back, you know, the whole group going with, to show everything that had been done on the Katy Trail that she hadn't seen in a while. And they went this direction down to some place and then they all started trying to convince her, cause it started getting like really hot or the mosquitoes were terrible or something—most people wanted to get off that wagon.

Adam McLane: And they said, "Okay Pat, well let's just jump in the cars and we'll shuttle you back home in the cars." And Pat said, "No, I wanna see it the other way." Like, it's just as interesting going back the other way. You see all sorts of new stuff. And they're like, Okay. So they all got back on the wagon and Pat said, We're going the other way, we're going the other way. So that's really <laugh> that's really neat. You know, that other people experience going through the walk backwards, and I'm sure you can, you can see a whole suite of new things that maybe hadn't been designed for that, but you can make interpretations of. So, that's cool.

Jeanne Carbone: Exactly. Yeah. And, and the, the other thing about this journey is using this book and paying attention to the Japanese Garden is really paying attention to seasonal changes. So, once you have the book, you can come, you can use it if you want to and come back seasonally and notice all the things that you probably had, did not pay any attention to the first time you did the walk, even though it's very ...

Adam McLane: I saw that, in the fire section of the journal, it talked about the lanterns best being seen in winter, right? With some snow on 'em? But it just gives it completely different. That's really cool.

Jeanne Carbone: Right. I the Japanese Garden in the winter is the best, I think. That's my favorite.

Adam McLane: So, Jeanne, if someone's listening to this, and they really want to try the Journey to Well-being or just therapeutic horticulture, how do they start? Can they just come to the garden and do this on their own? Or do they need an instructor? Do they grab the book? What do you recommend to them?

Jeanne Carbone: So, the journey to, the only way to do the Journey to Well-being at this point is to, under the grant, obviously if you're impacted by cancer, there will be very soons information going out about how to access that. In the meantime, they can contact me. But if you, as a member of the public, and you wanna take the class, it's offered through our public programs adult education classes. So, a new catalog for classes will be coming out and it, and registration starts August 1st and there will be Journey to Well-being programs in that catalog. So, that is the way for the public to access it if they want to. The book is not available unless you participate in the program.

Adam McLane: Okay, great.

Jeanne Carbone: And we've, there's been lots of ...

Adam McLane: And it's worth getting the book. So you want to participate in the program.

Jeanne Carbone: Right. Exactly. You know, and there have been comments about, well why don't you just sell the book? And we feel very strongly that there needs to be a piece of explaining the intention of the program.

Adam McLane: Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Yep.

Jeanne Carbone: That it won't be the same with just the book in your hand. And the other thing that we're, that we're working on right now is what we are referring to as a pocket journey.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Jeanne Carbone: So it, one of the people who participated in the program said, "Can't you just write one of these books for me to take anywhere I go in nature?"

Adam McLane: That's right. That was gonna be my last question. This is great.

Jeanne Carbone: I put in my pocket.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Jeanne Carbone: So, that's what we are working on creating is something similar to this where there's some prompts and some ways to encourage people to slow down and pay attention to particular nuances in nature, particular elements in nature, but it fits in your pocket.

Adam McLane: That's remarkable. Cause that was gonna be, I was formulating my question, which, and I was trying to pick out some small town somewhere that was nowhere near here, like Potosi, Indiana, or something. If we have a listener in Potosi, Indiana, that doesn't have a horticulture, a therapeutic hor culture program near them, and they don't ever travel over here, but they have a wood lot and a county park that they love to go on a hike on, is there anything that they can do to just take some concepts to try and connect in a different way? Sounds like that's what the pocket ...

Jeanne Carbone: Pocket journey.

Adam McLane: Pocket journey is looking to develop.

Jeanne Carbone: Yes. So, we are, it's in the process and, you know, we are hoping that it will be printed by the end of the year.

Adam McLane: That's terrific.

Jeanne Carbone: And then that would be something that would be available to anybody.

Adam McLane: That's great.

Jeanne Carbone: And as far as therapeutic horticulture at this point, our programs for the most part are for specific populations.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Jeanne Carbone: But we, we get requests frequently from groups that are coming to the garden and want to have a therapeutic experience. And so there are some ways to do that. Again, on the therapeutic horticulture page of the Missouri Botanical Gardens website there are some explanations for things that are available to the public.

Adam McLane: That was perfect. Well, Jeanne, thanks so much for, to you and to the Missouri Botanical Garden for having us out to talk about all this. You've now given us another excuse to visit the garden, which is always a great, great thing To our listeners, you should definitely come visit. Get a doctor's note if need be. And as always, if you enjoyed our show today, please subscribe and tell your friends about us. You can find this episode of It's in Our Nature as well as all of our podcast past episodes at Thanks for listening.

Episode 11: We all know that nature has a unique ability to improve our health, both mentally and physically. In this episode, we’re talking with Jeanne Carbone—the supervisor of therapeutic horticulture at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Jeanne has helped create a special program in the Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden that was designed to aid participants in experiencing the calming, restorative powers of nature. 

Hear from Jeanne how this program came to life and how it’s helped everyone from cancer patients to nurses on the frontline during COVID.

Young man paddleboarding on a sunny day.
Paddling MO Rivers with Roo Yawitz Roo Yawitz, owner of Big Muddy Adventures enjoys his time on Missouri's rivers and is an advocate for river conservation. © Natalie Rolwes

Paddling MO Rivers with Roo Yawitz

Episode 10: Big Muddy Adventures', Roo Yawitz talk about recreation on Missouri's rivers...and how the trend is growing.

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Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit

Adam McLane: Hi friends. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for director for The Nature Conservancy. Grab your paddles, kayaks and canoes. Because today we're talking paddling with a good friend of ours and someone you will want know if you don't already. Roo Yawitz is the owner of Big Muddy Adventures, a professional outfitter/guiding company who provides access to the wild wonders of the middle Mississippi and the lower Missouri rivers. It's hard to live in Missouri, specifically St. Louis where Big Muddy Adventures is located, and not celebrate two of the largest rivers on this side of the earth. We're gonna chat with Roo today about his adventures on the river and how you can join them on a scheduled trip, or just work with Roo's crew to plan your own. So, Roo, welcome.

Roo Yawitz: Thanks. Thanks for having me. Great intro.

Adam McLane: <Laugh> Thanks for inviting us to your office. And I will say, sweet digs. You got a new office pretty recently.

Roo Yawitz: Yes. Yeah. We are just settling into our new space in Midtown. We are just in the shadow of the Fox Theatre over here in St. Louis, and it's allowed us to ...

Adam McLane: Or are they in the shadow of you?

Roo Yawitz: I don't know. The Fox is pretty big.

Adam McLane: Oh, yeah.

Roo Yawitz: So it depends.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: But yeah, no, we're just setting up shop here to run the back office of the business with Big Muddy Adventures, and we've invited a couple other like-minded organizations to ...

Adam McLane: You've got quite a group. It's awesome.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. So it's like a little, little river incubator kind of situation, outdoorsy incubator.

Adam McLane: I love it. Yeah. Very cool. Well, we're gonna talk paddling, the rivers, all this stuff. So we're gonna start at the very beginning. Do you, do you remember your first paddling trip?

Roo Yawitz: So my first time in a canoe, well, I don't know if it was a paddling trip. I know that when I was in fourth grade having just moved back to St. Louis from New Jersey, I went out to the Huzzah with a friend's parents.

Adam McLane: Good choice.

Roo Yawitz: We had a pop-up camper that everybody slept in where like the mesh windows were not tight enough. So they kind of like fell on you while you were sleeping. And so on that trip, I was probably in an inner tube. So I don't know if that counts as a paddling trip.

Adam McLane: We're gonna count it.

Roo Yawitz: But it was definitely like, I would call that ...

Adam McLane: Your first river experience.

Roo Yawitz: Some of my first river time.

Adam McLane: OK.

Roo Yawitz: And I did that a bunch of times with that family, which turned out to be kind of a formative part of my life was getting out and getting on some of the small creeks and streams, you know that are within a day drive of St. Louis.

Adam McLane: Yeah. Well that answered my question. Like, were, my next question was gonna be, "Did you grow up with this or did you pick it up as an adult?" But it sounds like you were exposed a good bit when you were growing up and then it turned into more later in life.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. It wasn't, my parents were not outdoorsy at all and were not interested in camping or anything like that. Luckily, some of my friends' parents were, and so I got dragged along out to, like I said, the Black River, Courtouis, you know, most of the close rivers. I'd never made it out to the Jacks Fork or Eleven Point or any of the even nicer rivers, but you know, they're all great.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz:  So and then, yeah, then basically went on and off, did a lot of rock climbing as a kid and took some time off from paddling. After college, I did two amazing 10-day trips into Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. So, you know, cruised right through the Boundary Waters into Canada. And that was kind of when the paddling bug was just fully, you know, in.

Adam McLane: Yeah. You start portaging canoes and throw 'em on your back. You're like, yeah, I'm a mountain man.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. I mean, yeah, there's definitely a feeling of accomplishment when you're, you know, fully on your own for nine or 10 days in a completely wilderness experience. So yeah, and realizing that a canoe is a great vehicle for doing that only just kind of cemented my love for all things, river and paddling and all that.

Adam McLane: Did that, I can't picture New Jersey. I haven't spent much time there. Were you able to do much of that in Jersey?

Roo Yawitz: No. And that was like, I mean, I was, you know, six to eight years old. But I mean, yeah, we weren't in an urban environment or anything, but definitely the beginning of my outdoors life was when I moved back to St. Louis.

Adam McLane: OK. Awesome. How about first trip on the Mississippi? Do you remember it at all and how did it, how did you get there? Why did you do it and what did it change your mindset about what that river is and looks like and means all that good stuff?

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. So these stories are intertwined, which is that the, how I got involved in Big Muddy Adventures and my first trip on the Mississippi is all the same story. And it all goes back to Big Muddy Mike, the founder of Big Muddy Adventures. So March of 2008, when I had just opened a live music club called the Gramophone not far from here in the Grove neighborhood. We opened on a Friday. That Sunday night, we had a young blues player named Marquise Knox. And there were about 18 people at the show because we were brand new and no one knew we existed.

Adam McLane: And it was 2008, which was a, not a great year to start a business at all.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. I mean, it was, it was OK. You know, I mean, there's, it's never, there's never a good year to start a live music club. No matter how good the economy is ...

Adam McLane: It's gonna take work.

Roo Yawitz: It's a tough business. But so yeah, so we had a blues show, and a guy pulls up in a four-wheel drive Astro van with a canoe strapped to the top of it and walks in with some calf-high neoprene boots that were covered in mud. And it was our third day of ever being open. So the floors were like brand new, and he tracked mud into <laugh> the Gramophone, walked up to the bar, ordered a beer, and we started chatting. And that was the beginning of my now decades-long friendship or decade-and-a-half-long friendship with Big Muddy Mike. I was very involved at the time, obviously, with opening a business. So it took two years—Mike and I have argued over the campfire about this chronology to no end, as you can imagine. I think we met, I know we met in 2008 cause I know when that concert was.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Roo Yawitz: I think two years later, he finally got me to go out on the river with him, having told me that this is a thing that you can do. And even as a paddler, like a lot of St. Louisans, I didn't realize that it was safe to go out on the Mississippi or that even if it was safe, you would want to, because my experience with the Mississippi was what a lot of people's is, which is what you see from the Arch grounds, which is just not the most scenic stretch of this amazing river, you know, that flows from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. You know, if you stand on those Arch steps and you look across at the casino and the train tracks and the grain silo, it just doesn't, it's not exactly awe inspiring.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: So anyway, we went out over to Mosenthein Island, which is now like a second home. And Mike wanted to gather driftwood for a fence that he was building around his house. So it was kind of like a Tom Sawyer mission. <Laugh> We were picking up massive pieces of driftwood, putting him back in a canoe, ferrying back to North Riverfront Park, which is close to where he stays and then ferrying back. So we did multiple trips back and forth to Mosenthein Island. And so it wasn't necessarily a river trip. But we were out there on the river, and it was great. It was just a great day. And, you know, at the end of the day I felt like I had left St. Louis, and I had gone and had an adventure somewhere besides home. You know, I had that feeling of returning home from going somewhere, even though I hadn't been more than 20 minutes from my house.

Adam McLane: Hmm.

Roo Yawitz: And that was, you know, kind of the "aha" moment. And then I went back to trying to run a live music club for a couple more years and then became better friends with Mike and circled back with him in 2015, which was when I kind of took on a more like an actual, started building business role ...

Adam McLane: Business model.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. So I probably answered more than your question.

Adam McLane: No, it was great. And I think it leads to one of the things you just referenced that I think is ingenious about Big Muddy is that it shows people how close an outdoor adventure truly is. And I imagine that has to be fun, like seeing that in the eyes of the people that you take out there on the trips, when they have that same moment, like, "Wow, I feel like I'm on an adventure and I'm only 20 minutes from my house," or whatever it is. So what is that like when you take a new group out to show them how close outdoor adventure truly is to them here in St. Louis.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. It, it is very much like that. It's you know, we still have to fight some of the negative stigmas of the river. I mean, we've had an unbelievable amount of success, convincing people that this is something that they want to do. Partly because now enough people know someone that has been out with us that there's, you know, we have a word of mouth thing going on in a really good way, but yet to that point, it is really neat to see people go through the progression during a day trip of being nervous about what we're gonna do and apprehensive about how big the river is to being comfortable out there and realizing, you know, we know what we're doing, we're gonna have a great day. And then people fully just relaxing. You know, we're on an island, you're eating lunch. Maybe you're having a delicious local craft beer. And you know, just really decompressing, but it's like, you can pack all of these things into between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. And we call 'em micro adventures in that going, leaving St. Louis and going out and seeing Yosemite and going and seeing the Grand Tetons. These are all amazing experiences that everyone that can should do, but it doesn't take as much work to figure out how to, you know, dedicate six or seven hours to going out on the river in St. Louis.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: So you can have a mini version of, you know, an adventure, and then at the end of the day, a lot of times, we get from people the same things that I was just saying, you know, "I didn't know you could do this." "I didn't, you know, even if you could, I didn't know why I'd want to." "This is great." Like, "Why doesn't everyone do this?" You know, why, don't why—a lot of people ask us, "Where is everyone else?" Once they realize that they're having a good time and that paddling on the Missouri or the Mississippi is, you know, an awesome thing to do, they immediately wonder where everyone else is. And it's like, "Well, earlier today you didn't even think you could do this." So you know, and that's, so it's definitely part of the fun is people

Adam McLane: You're evangelizing.

Roo Yawitz: Yes. And you know, we think that it changes your, because our own experiences were such that it changes your perspective on St. Louis, when you go out on these rivers and you not only, whether you roll into downtown in a canoe and you can see, you know, the topography of why we physically are where we are downtown. It's really cool. But more than that, it just changes, it can change your perspective on—the rivers are an asset to this city that can never be taken from us. You know, we talk a lot on these trips about how Fortune 500 companies can come and go and you know, the city takes a big kind of like emotional hit when we find out that some company got bought out by some other company and things like that. So there are things to St. Louis that are permanent, and the rivers are those. And we need to, that we already have the opportunity to have these rivers be something we all feel good about, about why we choose to live in St. Louis, because you can see other cities doing that with their natural resources. But we don't do it here, but it's just like we're leaving it on the table. It's available to be something that we, that makes us all feel better about St. Louis.

Adam McLane: Yeah, source of pride.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. Yeah. If we just will embrace these rivers in whatever way, you know, people want to. It doesn't, you know, it's not, if you live in Denver, it's not about, you don't measure how you feel about the Rockies just based on the number of days that you go skiing. Like, you feel good about living in Denver, because they're there.

Adam McLane: Right.

Roo Yawitz: So that's I think where we could be with the rivers in the future.

Adam McLane: So it's ultimately the foundational sense of place, you're saying the rivers, those rivers should be foundational to our sense of place here in St. Louis.

Roo Yawitz: I mean, they're existential to St. Louis. I mean, there is no St. Louis without the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Roo Yawitz: It's very literal. You know, so.

Adam McLane: Do you ever, speaking of that and why, how St. Louis got there and all this other stuff, when you're out paddling, do you ever have like a back in time moment where you're like, you feel so isolated that you can transport yourself back 300 years ago? What it would've been like paddling down that river up that river?

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. I think, I mean, there's definitely stretches. There's a surprising number of stretches of the Missouri, even in the St. Louis region where you've got 360 degrees of view of no human-built elements whatsoever. And so, you know, being a river nerd, I know that for the last 180 years, the Corps of Engineers has been channelizing the river. And, you know, I know all of the changes that we've made and that it doesn't look like the river looked, but yeah, of course. I mean, you know, one of the places that you get the most of that is in the back channel behind Cora Island, which is, you know, part of the Big Muddy Wildlife Refuge in St. Charles County, you know, it's just one little piece of what was thousands of braided islands all over that piece of bottom land between the two rivers, but the Corps of Engineers has kind of let the river reconstitute that island. And when you go back there, you can see that the back channel that creates the island is now creating its own back channels and creating sub islands off of Cora Island. And so you can kind of just see the river doing what rivers want to do. So in that way, you know, that's more like looking at geological time. So yeah, it's awesome.

Adam McLane: How about Huck Finn? You ever wanted to go all the way down to the Gulf? You've just like been out there sometime and like, "I can make it, I could do this. It'd be fun."

Roo Yawitz: Yeah, I would definitely love to do a source-to-sea trip. My plan is very far in the future and involves convincing one of my kids that they want to paddle, maybe bringing kids in for different stretches, you know, maybe when they're in college or something like that where ...

Adam McLane: Yeah, like your Appalachian trail.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah, exactly. I mean, and that, you know, the paddling, the entire Missouri, whether you stop at St. Louis or continue to the Gulf or doing the whole Mississippi, I mean, those are the paddling versions of the great hikes, you know, the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail], the Continental Divide Trail the AT, and they are right now, the numbers of people doing those are more like how few people did those hikes in the seventies.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: You know, there might be 40 people that paddle all the whole Missouri this summer. But there's gonna be untold thousands of people out on the Appalachian Trail.

Adam McLane: Right. Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: So yeah, so that's kind of neat. And that's another fun thing about what we do and where we're positioned in St. Louis is people stop and stay at Mike's house when they're coming through St. Louis, because he's known in the river angel network as being a place that you can crash for a couple days and rest up in St. Louis before you continue down the river.

Adam McLane: Very cool. So talk to me about Big Muddy. What does the business model look like? What do you, how does it operationalize itself? What all kind of stuff do you do? Guided trips, school groups, individuals, help planning? Walk me through what the suite of options are. If someone reaches out to Big Muddy, what kind of options are they gonna have to do something like this?

Roo Yawitz: Sure. Well, I mean, you, you nailed it.

Adam McLane: You're welcome.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah, you could probably take Matt's job.

Adam McLane: No. Oh, Matt. No, no. I stink at making coffee.

Roo Yawitz: He's too good. So yeah, we, the business of Big Muddy Adventures is definitely growing, and we're expanding what we do. The outfitting side of the company was the entire operation two years ago, and it's growing in that the number of public trips we offer continues to grow, then on behind the scenes, kind of the stuff that you don't see on the website as being publicly published, available trips would be what you mentioned: youth trips, private trips. We have more companies wanting to go out and do team-building stuff and overnight trips. And we work with church groups and charter schools, public school, Boy Scout troops, you know, bachelor parties, 40th birthday parties. So it's really nice because the number of people that have heard about what we do or have been out with us and then wanna put together their own group is growing, which is great. So we've been staying really busy on the river. You know, COVID was a challenging time for everyone. Of course. As your listeners probably know a lot of people decided to go try outdoorsy stuff in 2020 <laugh> <laugh>.

Adam McLane: Good luck finding a road bike during the pandemic for sale.

Roo Yawitz: Exactly. Yeah. Yes, so we were able to, you know, navigate that and ran maybe half of the trips that we thought we would've done in 2020 ended up happening. You know we had to just navigate all of the regulations that everybody was dealing with and stuff like that. 2021 was great. And, you know, it's shows that the demand increase for what we're offering, doesn't show any signs of slowing right now, which is great, partly because, you know, we're just still getting the word out.

Roo Yawitz: I mean, it's not like, you know, we, we're not delusional enough to think that we're really that well known, but we are well known enough to sell the trips that we are doing.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: And then in the fall we opened a store. So now we have the outfitting side of the business and a retail presence. The store is called the guide shop cause the guides built the store and stocked it and are working at it and stuff like that, partly because we don't have anybody else but guides <laugh>. So ...

Adam McLane: Where is it?

Adam McLane: It is behind Bowood Farm in the Central West end. So that's 4662 Washington. It's an old Star gas station that the team at Bowood was using to store seed. And so it was just kind of sitting there. It's a really cool building. We got in, obviously cleared out the seed, fixed it up a little bit, and you know, we're trying to sell a combination of technical paddling gear for people who are already paddlers or who are going on a trip with us but also just a little bit of general outdoor stuff. You know, it's a small shop. So if you were not, we don't have 17 different types of tents. We have two, but we think they're good ones. You know, it's a two-person and a four-person, so it's kind of like we did the work for you.

Adam McLane: Right.

Roo Yawitz: It's a curated kind of selection in that way, and it's really allowed us to, we've we've wanted to have a physical presence for a long time, because on our trips, we meet people at the river. You know, we either meet you at the takeout and drive you up to the put in or vice versa, but for someone who is interested in talking to someone about a trip or yeah, just to hang out, you know, we have a ...

Adam McLane: Base of operations now.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. We have, we just have a place where you can go talk to a human being in person about doing a trip with us, and then also buy some gear if you want hang out. We have a happy hour every Thursday called the River Rat Social Hour.

Adam McLane: Nice. Live music? Jazz? You combining the two yet?

Roo Yawitz: No, we, the social hour will have music sometimes, but not all the time, but there will always be refreshments and sometimes fire pit going and stuff like that. So yeah. So that stuff's going pretty well. And then we had a shop-opening party with some live music. We have a cool kind of like fenced-in yard hangout area outside the shop so that the outside area is actually bigger than the inside area , where we can sell stuff.

Adam McLane: As it should be.

Roo Yawitz: Yes, exactly, cause it's an outdoor store. And then the other new thing with Big Muddy Adventures is, January of this year, we became the only U.S. Dealer of Clipper Canoes, which is a brand of amazing canoes made in Abbotsford, Canada outside of Vancouver, that have only been available to U.S. Consumers by driving up to Canada, buying a canoe at one of their Canadian dealers and then driving back down.

Roo Yawitz: So we took a shipment of a bunch of amazing canoes and added some warehouse space and threw 'em in the warehouse behind our other big canoes that we use for the outfitter. And so we're trying to get the word out a little bit more regionally because these are great canoes for the Ozarks, but we also wanna get the word out to, you know, the whole middle of the country—anybody where it's easier to get to us in St. Louis than it is to get to Canada. That would be our market. That's our sales area for these Clipper Canoes.

Adam McLane: That's a nice region to have.

Roo Yawitz: It's pretty big <laugh>. So yeah. So those things are all kind of new developments.

Adam McLane: What about a Clipper-sponsored Clipper MR340 racing team? I think you should probably have that to bolster awareness of the Clipper Canoes, don't you think?

Roo Yawitz: Yes, I think we should. So we've already sold multiple canoes from Clipper for people who are gonna be in the 340.

Adam McLane: Nice.

Roo Yawitz: So there will be some Clippers in the 340. We did the race last year with the Junebug canoe, which is obviously handmade, but we have put the word out that we were willing to put one of our 30-foot Clipper canoes in the 340, if someone or an organization, for example, wanted to rent it and use it.

Adam McLane: Wow.

Roo Yawitz: So I throw that back to you.

Adam McLane: Yeah, I could see that. <Laugh> Alright, so I said MR340 like everybody knows what that is. You wanna cover what that is? It's pretty cool. And a nice way to introduce, well, I don't know if it's introducing people to the Missouri River, but, boy, what an event.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. So the MR340 is the Missouri River 340—340 miles. It is a canoe race, or it's a paddling race that is about to, July will be its 17th year. And it runs from Kansas city to St. Charles over the full moon in July when the river conditions allow. And I had never experienced it until last year. I had been meaning to do it, but we decided to take the week off and put the whole company in one canoe and run the race. And we had an awesome time. I don't know that I would say that ...

Adam McLane: What did your shareholders think when your whole leadership team was gonna go down potentially the river? You're not allowed to do that.

Roo Yawitz: Risk and compliance had a heart attack.

Adam McLane: Leadership team has to fly separately?

Roo Yawitz: Yeah, no, you're right. Our entire risk management department just was in a tizzy about it. So yeah, we had a great time. We made a lot of new friends. We gave out a lot of Big Muddy Adventures stickers on the river. We gave out some cold beers to people that really, really appreciated that. But yeah, it's the longest contiguous paddle race in North America. Meaning there are races that are more miles than the 340, but they have stages. And the 340 is the longest race in the country where they just shoot off a gun in Kansas City and whoever hits the beach in St. Charles first wins. So you sleep, if you want to. If you wanna win, you don't sleep. And yeah, I mean, Scott Mansker is the genius behind the MR340. And you know, what started, I don't wanna tell his story because you could probably get him on here to do that, but you know, what started as, like, "I wonder whether anybody wants to paddle nonstop from Kansas City to St. Charles?" and like eight people has turned into something where people travel from all over the world to do this. And I think the race is another way that we can show off Missouri, because what better way to, to see the state of Missouri than by paddling the entire, or you know, a big part of the Missouri River in the state. But you know, it's just something that we should celebrate. I personally think that we need to make the week of the 340 just Missouri River Week of the state of Missouri and have everybody all over talking about the Missouri River while the craziest among us are actually out there paddling for between 34 and 88 hours.

Adam McLane: <Laugh> I'm in favor of that week. And as The Nature Conservancy helped with one of the pit stops at Klondike and boy, what a scene. It is a celebration. It's a cool camaraderie to like advance teams that are helping their paddlers and people that just want to come out to the ramp and watch it and look at it. And you've got all these volunteers that are cooking and supporting it. It is a genius event. And I hope more and more people continue to learn about it and come out and celebrate it. And Missouri River Relief is doing a great job continuing to build that effort and support it and make it safe and accessible to a bunch of people. So kudos. It's awesome.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. That's and that's a big part of the 340 story right now is that it is now in the hands, the capable hands of the team at Missouri River Relief. And so I only see the event getting bigger and better and just figuring out how to even just leverage the event to make it more than just the people on the river. You know, what can people do to support the Missouri River during that race that don't want to necessarily get in the boat and do the whole thing?

Adam McLane: Yeah, yeah. Festival or live music. Again, it all comes back to live music. It could be little spots. OK. So I'm picturing this moment as, and it continues to build with both Big Muddy and MR340 and all these different things of engagement, enabling conditions on getting buzz and excitement behind these rivers. If that growing interest in paddling the Missouri River and being out on the Missouri River continues to take root, what effect do you think that interest could have on our waterways in Missouri?

Roo Yawitz: Well I think that, to steal a page from Missouri River Relief is, you know, they talk about river citizens and people care about what they see and what they interact with. And so I think that it's a good future for the Missouri River to have people out recreating on it because then you care.You know, it's just much easier to get involved, whether it's physically getting involved with trash bashing or going upstream, so to speak, and figuring out the Missouri is an endangered river, and we all know that it has massive challenges that need very creative, long-term solutions.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Roo Yawitz: So I think the more people that, you know, care about the river the better. And there's plenty of room out there for everybody. I mean, it's obviously, it's a massive river. I think that physical infrastructure, boat ramps, camp sites, facilities in general. I mean the Katy Trail, you know, if you wanted to create a way to interact with the Missouri River, the Katy Trail is already an amazing asset to the Missouri River. A lot of people that use the Katy Trail, that's the way that they travel on the river. They don't know that there's another way to travel on the river in a boat. So I think there's an interesting way to have, to leverage the Katy Trail. You know, we have the longest rail-to-trail conversion bike trail in the country along this amazing river for a big part of it.

Adam McLane: But that's a good plug for one of our other podcasts that was just recorded. That'll be out very soon, which is about the Katy Trail and about Ted and Pat Jones.

Roo Yawitz: Yep, I'm looking forward to reading the new book.

Adam McLane: Yes. Agreed.

Roo Yawitz: Which I think came out on Monday.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Roo Yawitz: So yeah, I don't know. I don't see any downside at all to getting more people out on the Missouri River.

Adam McLane: The more people with an affinity for the river, the better.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. We just, you know, we need to, there needs to be proper education about how to do it right and safely, and we need to be willing to invest in some infrastructure to make it a little bit easier. You know, we don't have enough access points on the Missouri between Hermann and the confluence to make, just to make it to lower—we need to lower all the barriers to using the Missouri. And if one of them is there just aren't enough physical places to get on the river and get off the river. You know, some people don't want to do 18 miles in a day and that might be the stretch between two boat ramps.

Adam McLane: Right. Are you seeing, you've talked about some of the perception issues obviously with the river and how you're combating those and a lot of that's word of mouth and getting people out there. So you see progress there, and then also some roadblocks to being able to access in more meaningful ways. But are you seeing any, are there positive developments that come to mind in the ways Missourians are living with their rivers that you think are positive that if we continue to build on would be great for the future?

Roo Yawitz: That's a good question. I think, you know, we're in the in the urban core right now in of the City of St. Louis. So it's hard to know. I think the growth of the 340 river race is proof positive that there is significant interest because a lot of those people are Missourians. You know, it does attract people from all over the country, but I don't know if .... That's a tough question. I don't know what concrete actions are going on, for example, at the Jeff City level.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: And things like that about, you know, the water and soil. As a state, we support our parks, we support conservation. You know, we do a lot of really good things in this realm, but I think the Missouri sometimes gets overlooked for ...

Adam McLane: For investment?

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. I don't think people realize the potential that it could have for the state, and it doesn't necessarily maybe get brought into projects because maybe when you add the Missouri River into a project, you've just made the project bigger than the project that you can work on.

Adam McLane: Because when you're, and because you're looking, because we've had conversations before, I mean, you view the Missouri and Mississippi in the confluence area akin to a national park. I mean, it's that special.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah.

Adam McLane: And we don't, we don't treat it at that level. We don't treat it like it's Yosemite in our backyard.

Roo Yawitz: I think that's definitely true. We do not. And you know, it's not that I think that we shouldn't, that there's no commercial use for these rivers, but yeah, that is a very different lens. If you thought about the Missouri River as the entire river being a National Scenic Riverway, and what would that look like? And how many more islands could you reconstitute and how much more habitat and ecology could you let the river recreate? It's not necessarily a lot of work that has to get done. If we just stop fighting the river, it's going to recreate its own habitat from millennia.

Adam McLane: Right.

Roo Yawitz: And, you know, seeing that happen, it's the national park idea or the protected river idea isn't as much about the river, it's about protecting the river to then let the river become again the thing that you would want to protect.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: Right now we have a, we have the Missouri River of today, which is an amazing river, but if it had the type of protections that we have been able to put on other rivers and let in, get rid of some levees—and when I say some, I mean, tens of thousands, you know—and if we just let the river spread out and recreate the nature corridor that it was, that's the river that you would say yeah, of course that needs to be a national park but it's ...

Adam McLane: You have the possibility of it.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. You have to be able to picture what that would look like. And that isn't the river that we have today. And the whole riparian corridor isn't the one that it was 500 years ago. Right. But if we had it, we would want to protect it.

Adam McLane: Hmm. You've got kids, fairly young. What's your greatest hope for their connection to the river or what it looks like, some change that when they're your age, when they're your age, <laugh>, what is that? Which is a long time.

Roo Yawitz: Oh my, yes. Very long.

Adam McLane: What is, what's your, do you have any hopes for them in that river? Are they intertwined at all?

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. I mean, my hope is that they're just willing to get in a canoe with me and spend multiple days on any river.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: You know, because that is part of our special time together that can continue into adulthood for them. I mean, I haven't thought about it as far as the great rivers as much as just wanting to get my kids out on rivers to understand the importance of water quality and just general stewardship. We are, I think conversations about the Missouri and the Mississippi seem are so hard because the challenges are so massive, you know, that it just takes a lot of long-term creative thinking to even be able to envision what that version of the Missouri that I'm describing would look like.

Adam McLane: Yep.

Roo Yawitz: You know, there wouldn't be six massive reservoirs on that version of the Missouri River, which means the river would be 200 miles longer and we'd be able to return a lot of land to Indigenous nations that had their ancestral lands flooded, things like that. So that didn't really answer your question, but I would just love for my kids to ...

Adam McLane: Fall in love with rivers.

Roo Yawitz: Fall in love with the river and have the river, you know have some positive momentum in that people in our time have been working on it.

Adam McLane: Yeah. That's awesome.

Roo Yawitz: And not feel like that they have to start from scratch.

Adam McLane: Right, where you did. Speaking of positive momentum, I'm just thinking, as we paint this picture about what St. Louis has and knowing the Ozarks and the streams that you listed down there and Big River, MR340, people come from there, Katy Trail—we have a lot of the component parts for the St. Louis area becoming more of an outdoor recreation destination. We have a lot of those components. What's missing, or what do you think could help get more people out to make that a reality that people, this really is a destination city for outdoor recreation?

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. I think it's definitely possible. I think we are already an outdoor recreation city that doesn't know it. You know, you see it all over the place, whether it's people out on mountain bike trails or driving around with boats on their cars and things like that. And I think that St. Louis has a really great range of outdoor recreation opportunities, both in different sports that you can do, but also in the difficulty range, meaning that there are a lot of great entry-level activities that you can do in St. Louis and more advanced ones. You know, we don't have alpinist kind of mountaineering stuff.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: Because obviously we are where we are. But I think that our location in the country, how easy it is to get here and the fact that you can combine urban and wilderness experience in a three- or four-day package in St. Louis, where you can spend some, you know, basically you can wake up on a sandbar on the Jacks Fork and have dinner at Busch Stadium, eating a hot dog watching a Cardinal game. So that kind of being able to do those things and not sit in traffic for eight hours between the two places.

Adam McLane: Right.

Roo Yawitz: So I think accessibility is really key. And ...

Adam McLane: We need like the Bourbon Trail of outdoor recreation.

Roo Yawitz: Sure. Yeah. I mean, you know, water trails and the Katy, I mean, that's messaging. To me, it isn't about that we need to add a lot of things. We don't tell our story of ...

Adam McLane: We need to package it.

Roo Yawitz: We need to package it. It's just messaging we need, you know ... Terrain Magazine is a great example. They're flying the flag for St. Louis outdoor recreation to St. Louisans, like read the magazine and learn about stuff that you can do in St. Louis you didn't know about. And you know, we need to get out and get outside here and do awesome outdoor stuff. And then other people around the country will hear about it and want to come here and do the same.

Adam McLane: Yeah. OK. Speaking, this is off topic, but you mentioned rock climbing. Do you still rock climb at all?

Roo Yawitz: Yeah, sometimes.

Adam McLane: Did you see that MDC has one out at Rockwood reservation now?

Roo Yawitz: Yeah.

Adam McLane: Have you done it?

Roo Yawitz: I have not gone yet.

Adam McLane: I've driven to the parking lot, cause I didn't know what was going on. And I was like, "Oh, rock climbing." Looks pretty sweet.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. I mean it's, you know, that is awesome. It's the closest sport climbing to St. Louis. Also, Robinson Bluff on the Big River is open now, and they're gonna have 300 routes bolted.

Adam McLane: Wow!

Roo Yawitz: Like by the end of this year, plus canoe or paddle-in paddle-out camping. So there's some really neat stuff going on around, but it's, like I said, it's ... Bourbon Trail is an interesting thing. It's like Kentucky has, you know, one day there is seven amazing distilleries, and they do X. Then, the next day, they call it the Bourbon Trail, and it automatically becomes three X, even though they didn't change anything.

Adam McLane: Right.

Roo Yawitz: They just started talking about it in a new way. And then people from all over the country want to go to Kentucky and bike or drive or do whatever, you know? So I think there's the opportunity for Missouri to do that, but I don't know exactly what that looks like, but it's all there already.

Adam McLane: Next podcast, let's figure it out. OK? Which is like an hour of brainstorming.

Roo Yawitz: Sounds good. And then you mentioned bourbon too, so yeah. <Laugh> You said it.

Adam McLane: <Laugh> OK. I did do some investigation on the website and thinking about questions. One I don't wanna skip over is Full Moon Float. That just sounds super cool that you do a Full Moon Float.

Roo Yawitz: We do. We do three a month. We just finished.

Adam McLane: OK. So what, take me take our listeners to there: what that is, what it sounds like, smells like.

Roo Yawitz: Sure.

Adam McLane: Looks like, or doesn't look like cause it's pretty dark.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. So the Full Moon Float was kind of like the original named trip that Muddy Mike was doing going back 15 years, you know. Every night on the full moon, he would go out on the Mississippi, go to an island, cook dinner, and back then it was calling his phone and saying like, "Hey, I heard you do this. Can I go out with you?" And he'd tell you where to go, and you'd show up and go out with him. So now we run three full moon floats a month: the night before the night of and the night after the full moon. It's up to 20 people, which for us, is only two canoes, because they're 30 foot canoes. So they each hold 10 clients and a guide. And it's not always the same stretch of river. So it kind of moves depending on river level and when sunset is, when the moon's coming up. We're always trying to figure out the best place to be.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: So in general, you're gonna meet up with us in the late afternoon at the takeout, get in a shuttle with your guide with a big canoe on a trailer on the back. We're gonna go up river on the Missouri or the Mississippi, between six and nine miles, you know, get our gear on, get our life jackets on, talk a little bit about canoeing. Everybody's going to kind of like put their personal gear and dry bags and get ready to go out on the river. Then we're going to take a short paddle to an island beach, and immediately the guides snap into action, getting driftwood, building a fire, setting up some tables, putting out people's personal coolers with their own delicious adult beverages. And you know, the sun setting, moon rising, maybe some appetizers, hang out. We have a cooking fire and a gathering fire so that you can either watch the campfire, gourmet dinner being prepared, or just hang out at the gathering campfire and just take it all in. And then we do a beachside dinner depending on the season, you know, try to use local ingredients as much as possible. And if the timing is right, the moon's out and it's a cloudless night. And so, you know, you're just sitting there around a fire, having eaten a great dinner on an island, staring up at the moon, chatting with your friends, making new friends. And after a couple hours on the island, we're repacking camp, getting the fire out, putting everything back in and getting back in the canoes. You're stuffed. You probably don't want to paddle because you're so full <laugh>. And that's, the good part is that we don't go back up the river to where we started. We're gonna go down the river to where we met up with you. And so have a nice paddle down to the river or down to the takeout. Sometimes, we're paddling into the Arch. Sometimes we're taking out at a boat ramp on the Missouri. It just depends on the trip. And there you go. And then you're back home to relieve the babysitter by 11, <laugh> and you had a great night and you tell all your friends.

Adam McLane: That's really great. I'm how often, I'm picturing myself in that canoe—and I need to do it sometime, so I'm not just picturing it—I'm imagining wanting to stop paddling for a while and just like be in pure silence.

Roo Yawitz: Sure.

Adam McLane: Does everybody get that moment where they're like, "Let's just, shhh?"

Roo Yawitz: We definitely do that. That's the hardest thing to do with the kid trips when we have students out, but when you get, you know, when we tell people that you can't hear the birds right now, because you're all talking so much.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: And then we get people to actually do like 60 seconds of silence. And then it's like all the wildlife on either side of the river just sings. People notice things that they didn't notice before. So yeah, no, it, I mean, it isn't an active athletic kind of activity to go out with us because we go with the current we ask people to paddle because if we're moving slightly faster than the current, it allows the guide to steer better. But you know, it's not, you know ...

Adam McLane: You're not cranking.

Roo Yawitz: Yeah. It's not like an X Games kind of like extreme experience. You know, the rivers are big, but five and a half miles an hour is not very fast.

Adam McLane: Yeah.

Roo Yawitz: So once you're out there, you're in the flow, and it's pretty relaxing.

Adam McLane: Wow. OK, final questions. Since you know a thing or two about sandwiches from Gramophone: favorite —and you've referenced beverages several times—so Roo's going out on a paddling trip, your favorite sandwich to have or prepare, your favorite drink and then what music?

Roo Yawitz: Oh, wow. Great question. So I'm gonna go out with a Jive from the Gramophone. That's my go-to river sandwich. That's what on the trips, when we don't make our own lunch and we use Gramophone catering, that's the sandwich. It just holds up really well.

Adam McLane: OK.

Roo Yawitz: And you know, some of the Gramophone sandwiches need to be eaten the moment they come out of the toaster. That's why you're there, and you eat it as fast as possible.

Adam McLane: The ooey gooey-ness.

Roo Yawitz: Yes. So the Jive does great on the river. So it's a Jive. I've probably got a 16-ounce can of Citywide from 4 Hands and hopefully you know—am I listening to live? Did I bring a musician with me, or am I just listening to my phone?

Adam McLane: No, you're listening to your phone.

Roo Yawitz: OK. Yeah. I mean ...

Adam McLane: What, what fits the mood?

Roo Yawitz: OK, well, right now I've been, I am obsessed with the River Kittens, it's a local duo, and I've been listening to their most recent EP like crazy. So yeah, so I'm listening to the River Kittens and sitting on an island, drinking a beer, eating a sandwich.

Adam McLane: Love it.

Roo Yawitz: And hopefully you can find me doing that tomorrow.

Adam McLane: Good. <laugh> Good. Well, and to all our listeners, you could be doing that tomorrow, too. If you reach out to Big Muddy Adventures. So, Roo, thank you very much for chatting today. It's been fun. It always is when I talk with you, and I feel a little more adventurous than I was before. So for anyone interested in learning more about Big Muddy Adventures, visit That's the number two or stop by the new shop. 4662 Washington Boulevard in the Central West End. Thanks for listening and take care, everyone.

Episode 10: Roo Yawitz, owner of Big Muddy Adventures, talks Missouri rivers, paddling and … sandwiches.

In this episode, hear the story of the canoe trip that opened Roo’s eyes to the wonders of the Mississippi River and ultimately helped the owner of a live-music club find his way into the river-outfitting industry. Plus, can St. Louis become an outdoors city? Roo argues it already is—it just doesn’t know it yet.

Two men sitting at a table with headphones mics on
Understanding Mitigation TNC Mitigation Specialist, Wes Hauser (right) talks with MO State Director, Adam McLane for this episode of It's in Our Nature. © Doyle Murphy/TNC

Understanding Mitigation

Episode 9: TNC Mitigation Specialist, Wes Hauser helps us understand mitigation banking and its benefits to nature.

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Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit

Adam McLane: Hi everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. Thanks for joining us. Our episode today is kind of a double introduction. We have a newish staff member to introduce to you and some newish work to talk about, but don't turn off the episode yet. I promise it's gonna get really good. So Wes Hauser is our mitigation project manager and he started in October. So just about six months ago, you may be thinking what the heck or you wouldn't have "heck" I don't know...depends on how you form thoughts in your head. What does a mitigation manager do? Well, that's what we're hoping to answer for you today. With Wes' help, I think we can do it. So without further ado, welcome, Wes. Are you nervous?

Wes Hauser: I'm excited to be here, Adam. Thanks for having me.

Adam McLane: No nervousness whatsoever? Come on.

Wes Hauser: I'm excited.

Adam McLane: I need to look more intimidating. Well, um, I'm really excited to have you, uh, here joining us on the podcast because I know I was confused about this topic when we first started thinking about it. And then I'm also really excited to have you on the team because you're bringing a wealth of expertise. So what I've learned about mitigation is that it can mean different things to different people. Um, so I had to look up the official definition here. So mitigation is the action of reducing the severity, seriousness or painfulness of something. In terms of our work though, what are we talking about when we say mitigation?

Wes Hauser: Yeah, that's a great question. So for our work, what we're thinking about is impacts to water resources, so impacts to wetlands or streams - filling in water bodies for construction projects, infrastructure projects, facility expansions. Mitigation is the third in a hierarchy that we're looking at. So first you want to avoid your impacts to the extent possible and then minimize where avoidance is unavoidable. And then finally you get to mitigation, which involves building wetlands or streams where, um, impacts to those resources are unavoidable or can't be minimized. And so all of that is regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state regulatory agencies too, through provisions in the Clean Water Act.

Adam McLane: Okay, cool. So what kind of scale are we talking like this isn't in my backyard, I have a little, uh, little low area that comes off my deck and goes through. And when I move something, all of a sudden it changes the water flow. We're talking a bit more. I mean, in terms of what we're focused on is the scale is, uh, highway development, large development, those kinds of things. Is that right?

Wes Hauser: Yeah. It all depends to some extent, there are thresholds, which you're alluding to for, um, mitigation requirements. The regulatory agencies ultimately set those, but sometimes if it gets to be, you know, about a 10th of an acre of this low spotter or a wetland that you're referring to, if you're filling those in, then you may be getting into, um, areas where mitigation would be required. Where you may have to offset your impacts to replace what ecological services that wetland is providing in your landscape.

Adam McLane: Okay, awesome. Um, if I'm remembering correctly, you recently spent some time over in Kansas City, right? Uh, and you were kinda looking at the Blue River area and some work there. Um, can you tell us why, why the Blue River or just, how did we go from the whole state, which is our focus as The Nature Conservancy here in Missouri into zeroing into a certain area? I think we think about that a lot with our work in terms of biodiversity and where the pockets biodiversity are, and that kinda dictates why we work in certain places, but why, why the Blue River? Why Kansas city?

Wes Hauser: Yeah, that's a good question. So with the Blue River, one of the really nice things about that area is that there are a lot of conservation partners operating in the region. So you have folks like Heartland Conservation Alliance, you have The Nature Conservancy, of course in Kansas has been quite involved and we're looking to get more involved too, the Conservation Fund, as well as some state agencies too. So, um, Jackson County Parks has really involved KC Water. So there are a lot of collaborators that are interested in this area, flourishing as, you know, a spot where folks can connect with nature. And the Blue River is a great vehicle to do that. Um, it's possible that, you know, the Blue River runs through people's backyards. Where they're going and shopping and, you know, interacting in the city. But oftentimes it's not always highly visible. So there's a lot of industry in the Kansas City area. Especially on the Kansas City, Missouri side. And so, um, mitigation potentially can connect people with nature in this area. So building wetlands and building streams and preserving parts of the Blue River that folks can access through a very high-developed trail system, um, provides a really great, excellent opportunity for connecting folks with nature, which what we like, it's what we like to do with The Nature Conservancy.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. So a lot of momentum from partners enabling conditions, and it's just an asset that can be, well, something that helps people in nature, both thrive, if we work in that, that place. Is that exactly a summary? Cool. Well, I'm gonna double back a little bit and just kind of talk about you. Um, let people get to know you a little bit. So I mentioned at the start you had recently started at TNC, um, your position is a brand new one for us here in Missouri. So why don't you just tell us a little bit about yourself, where you're from? What were you doing beforehand? All that good stuff.

Wes Hauser: Yeah. I grew up in the DeSoto, Missouri area. So just about an hour south of St. Louis, but I went away and was kind of a transplant in Indiana for quite a bit where I did my graduate studies in college.

Adam McLane: Been there, done.

Wes Hauser: Exactly, exactly. So you can relate. Um, but yeah, so it's really nice to be back in the Missouri area. The Nature Conservancy brought me back, which has been awesome. And my background is mostly in environmental policy, environmental science. And before working at The Nature Conservancy, I worked at the State of Indiana doing permitting for wetland instream impacts.

Adam McLane: So, you saw kinda the other side of it.

Wes Hauser: Exactly.

Adam McLane: Very neat. Um, I'm trying to envision you as a child. Like, did you grow up wanting to be a mitigate in the mitigation realm? Like, did your parents give you like stream credits instead of like timeout and other things? How, how did this love of conservation in genera...and then how did you eventually evolve into this space of specializing in mitigation?

Wes Hauser: Yeah. If you're gonna picture me as a child, it would help to picture a small Boy Scout because that's what I spent a lot of time doing as a kid. And so I went through the whole program was an Eagle Scout, was a nature director at, you know, a local Scout ranch and, you know, Southern Missouri. So yeah, had a very strong connection to nature from a young age and working in the policy realm and the science realm really helped me find the tools to connect with nature in a professional environment.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. What, um, when you landed in mitigation, what did you see? When we started looking at mitigation as a chapter, we zeroed in, on it as a point of leverage for the future. That impacts were going to happen that our kind of top priority was avoiding those impacts as you talked about the hierarchy. Um, but then once we got to this place where mitigation needed to happen out in the world, um, we think that's going to continue to happen and that there's opportunity to engage in that space and make it more beneficial, I guess, um, less bad and more good put in the right places. Is that when you started to get into mitigation, what made you gravitate towards it? Was it that logic or something different?

Wes Hauser: Yeah, it's very similar for me. Um, working as a state regulator every day, I was going through the process of riding off impacts to environmental resources. So mitigation was kind of like the other side of the coin, actually building wetlands and streams and putting them back on the landscape. So it was kind of as an environmentally minded person, that was a very positive aspect of, of the job. And so I think that you're exactly right, that mitigation provides an opportunity to build high quality, um, green spaces on the landscape that, that folks can interact with and can address some of these looming problems that we have to contend with like climate change. And, you know, urban conservation issues and that kind of thing as well.

Adam McLane: Very cool. Do you have, did you have a certain, um, place mitigation bank, et cetera that was permitted or that you saw from kind of start to finish what it was and what it became that like comes to memory like, "oh my gosh," I, it was this and look at this good that got put back on the landscape. Do you think of a certain place when I describe that?

Wes Hauser: Yeah. In my last job at The Oak Openings, wetland mitigation bank in far Northeast Indiana, um, around the Fort Wayne area. There was a project there where you could kind of see the success that was coming out on the landscape and they were building emergent wetlands there and they've been kind of amping up their program where they're potentially gonna build a forested wetland system just right next door. So seeing that progress, seeing that being a natural area on the landscape that folks can take advantage of and benefit from it, it's heartening to see.

Adam McLane: What do you like to do outside of work when you're not, when you're not making mitigation happen across the landscape and repairing all this damage? What does Wes love to be doing?

Wes Hauser: Yeah. I love to be spending time out in nature. I love, um, enjoying green spaces going for hikes, doing distance running. We recently got a pandemic puppy. And so, um, spending time with her outdoors, it's, it's all good for me. I really enjoy that.

Adam McLane: All right. What kind of puppy? And what's her name?

Wes Hauser: Uh, her name is River, so....

Adam McLane: Ah, (laughs)

Wes Hauser: Very fitting

Adam McLane: Son of a gun who would've guessed it.

Wes Hauser: And she's a Bernadoodle puppy. So lots of energy.

Adam McLane: Benradoodle?

Wes Hauser: Lots of energy.

Adam McLane: Does she run with you?

Wes Hauser: Yes. Nice.

Adam McLane: She loves it. She keep you paced.

Wes Hauser: Yeah, she does a pretty good job most of the time. I mean, there's always the question of who's walking who or who's running.

Adam McLane: Right, I would require my dog to be dragging me basically. <laugh> um, that is awesome. Well, um, getting back to mitigation, there's lots of different players in this space. It's not, um, it's not just public, it's not just private. It's a mixed bag of private industry that can do mitigation work. It's, uh, nonprofits that can do mitigation work, et cetera. Um, why do you think it's important for TNC to be involved in mitigation credits? I mean, we could just sit it out and say, you know, this is, this has a private industry component behind it that can move these things forward. So we'll go focus on something that's exclusively done by nonprofits, et cetera. Why TNC, why this space?

Wes Hauser: Yeah. There's a lot of good reasons for TNC to be involved in the mitigation space. We have a lot of expertise across TNC, both in the North America region and globally. I think that leveraging that expertise can help us launch mitigation projects more quickly, which in turn can provide revenue streams to fund our ambitious 2030 and 2050 goals. Yep. So for that reason, I think that mitigation can serve as a vehicle to get our conservation projects on the ground and help us meet our goals. But on the flip side, I think that there's also potential for mitigation to be, um, a space where the bar can be raised and TNC entering this space, putting good quality restoration and mitigation projects on the ground. Regulators see that, and they take note of what mitigation can be. And so when that happens, it raises the bar for everyone.

Private mitigation bankers are held to higher standards and often their end goal is not what's best for the environment. Their end goal is to, you know, make buck profitability. So, um, they're not reinvesting their funding into future conservation work. They are, you know, putting something else on the ground and maybe, you know, the quality is questionable, that kind of thing. And so, um, hopefully by TNC being engaged in this space, we're reigning in some of those maybe bad actors that may exist in the mitigation banking space. And also, you know, putting good projects on the ground, amping up our goals and getting our projects moving forward too.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. And I love that you called out specifically, you know, that it could be bad actors because there's certainly can be, um, in our private mitigation banks that are for-profit that do a good job yes and have intent to, um, you know, came into it with a good mission. In addition, they want to be profitable obviously, but so that they can continue the business. But there's also the flip side of that. Um, which is when you don't come in with that ambition and it's really just about driving the most profitability possible. Um, that's where the, the bad actor, um, label gets placed. And that's what we want to try and change and improve for everybody. So I'm confident private mitigation banks that are doing, doing great work and doing it for the right reasons, um, want to see requirements be elevated too, to see impact too. So, um, it's a great space to work. I mean, truthfully, to work in a space that is occupied with private industry, doing a lot of the same things as well is actually awesome, I think, for the, for the greater good of conservation. It'll be a good thing if improving nature is also profitable for a business model and can lead to other people opening those kind of businesses and making sure that more of this happens out on the landscape.

Wes Hauser: Absolutely. And it's honestly, it's a resource for businesses too, because if we're operating in the space, they can take advantage of those credit sales to meet whatever mitigation requirements they would have.

Adam McLane: Awesome. What did, so we talk about hierarchy and we've kinda zeroed in on the mitigation, the repair, um, of these places and how to best locate those and optimize the benefits. But how about the hierarchy portion for The Nature Conservancy in terms of avoidance? How, how much do we work in that space? Or do we just leap down to the, if it happens, here's how we're gonna try and fix it?

Wes Hauser: Unfortunately for us, a lot of that is left to the hands of the regulators. Okay. Because they have the final say as far as what gets approved in a section 404401 permit. However, TNC does have some flexibility whenever they're selling mitigation credits. So we usually reserve the right to not sell credits to folks that maybe are pushing through an environmental project that we may disagree with on principle because maybe those steps like, you know, avoidance have been skipped over or not fully taken advantage of to the extent that we feel they should be.

Adam McLane: Okay. Cool. And then we, I assume our U.S. government relations policy team and stuff tries to work on strengthening that, that side of the regulation as well. Very cool. And, um, you are, you're also helping with other states, am I? Right? So you're focused, you know, a big portion of your role is focused in Missouri, but this isn't an exclusive project of Missouri and we're the only ones within The Nature Conservancy doing it. They're surrounding states that are going through a lot of the same challenges and trying to figure out how to operate in that space. And I think you're helping lead a network within that as well. Aren't you?

Wes Hauser: Yes, absolutely. So that 25% of my job is devoted towards coordinating a multi-state initiative to start wetland mitigation banks across the Great Plains Midwest and Southern divisions. There's seven states involved. Okay. And it's, you know, an exciting opportunity that we're all looking to leverage expertise within the Conservancy to make those projects, um, more affordable from a time standpoint and you know, just getting good conservation on the ground. That's kind of the goal that we all share.

Adam McLane: Awesome. Just in case any of them are listening, which one is your favorite state to work with? <laugh>

Wes Hauser: Oh, Adam, don't put me in this position.

Adam McLane: <laugh> all right. Fine. What makes, so going from hierarchy, we talked a little bit down and now, and we've dug into the mitigation piece a little bit, but I'm still, or a viewer/listener. Thank goodness. You're not viewing, I'm losing most of my hair, going gray in my beard. Just not a good look. Um, so just listen to my voice. What, what, from a listener standpoint, should they think makes a good mitigation project? Like, is it, any acreage that you can turn into a mitigation bank and make it a great site? Or is it soil types? Is it location? Is it attribute? What, what makes a site that has Wes go "Ah, this is an exceptional place to do a mitigation bank"?

Wes Hauser: Yeah. There are several key sort of parameters that I'm looking for when I'm evaluating for mitigation potential. One is seeing what, what does the site look like from a restoration standpoint? Is there potential to build wetlands or enhance streams on the property? So that could be checking out things like old aerial images to see, you know, if a block is already forested, it's not gonna make sense to build a forested wetland there, for instance. Um, checking soils, like you alluded to seeing if there are hydric soils on the property or indicators of hydric soils. Looking to see if the national wetlands inventory flags as a potential wetland that may have been drained in the past, or maybe there's existing wetland on the property. Those can often make good mitigation banks. From a size standpoint, you wanna have a good, um, amount of acreage to work with or a good amount of linear feet of stream that you can parlay into a mitigation bank. Otherwise, you're not gonna see the return on investment that will make the project sustainable. So for us, I mean we wanna see maybe 150 to 200 acres that we can build wetlands in, um, including upland buffer to surround the wetlands and protect them in perpetuity. In terms of stream, having some frontage associated with, um, a major, you know, intermittent or ephemeral stream can also be beneficial to diversify your credit. So building streams and wetlands on your property, that's obviously more credits that you can sell.

Adam McLane: Okay. So we buy 150 acres and decide that we're gonna turn it into a wetland mitigation bank. What are the next steps? So then, well, you alluded to 'em you apply these tools based on the site, um, or these interventions, I should say, you're gonna do stream bank stabilization. You're gonna repair the buffer area. You're gonna build wetlands. You're gonna hold water. Voila, you're done with quote/unquote restoration of this site, what then happens? Like how, how do credits get generated and how does, how do those go to market? All of that good stuff.

Wes Hauser: Yeah. Taking a step back. Um, once you have a site in mind that you're looking to put through this mitigation banking gauntlet, um, you need to develop the restoration plan first and the IRT or the Interagency Review Team, which consists of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state regulatory agencies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They have to sign off on the mitigation plan that you're looking to put in place. And they also are the final people or folks agencies that determine what types of credits would be generated from the site and how many credits would be generated. And then to answer the other part of the question, the process, what that looks like. So you're generating this mitigation banking instrument, it's the guiding document for your mitigation bank that tells the credits, restoration activities, et cetera. Um, once that gets approved, there's, you know, stages to the restoration.

So you build the wetlands and streams. There'll be some time to monitor those, to make sure that what you're building is successful. Um, there's also adaptive management that goes into that following the site up for invasive species and controlling for those. There are specified amounts of invasive species that are allowed in the mitigation banking instrument. So, um, there's a lot of specifications to that document and there's a lot of, um, on the groundwork that needs to happen as the site goes forward, but there are certain milestones that you'll achieve too. So once your mitigation banking instruments are approved, you'll be able to release some of your credits for sale. Usually, that's about a quarter of your credit - so 25%, and then you're able to sell those to, um, folks like departments of transportation or Walmart industry, folks that are doing facility expansions that need to buy these credits as part of their permits. So, um, and then as you start meeting your restoration objectives then more credits are released over time.

Adam McLane: All right. So two questions that were, that would worry me just hearing the description from my past experience. So one thinking about, um, like energy, like green energy sales, I try to find parallels green energy, can I, where you can have a wind turbine or create renewable energy, but then like sell it all the way to California where the highest market is. And all of a sudden you start like losing the local impact of it and you start picking out these locations. Can you sell credits anywhere around the nation?

Wes Hauser: No, you can't. Um, there's a service area associated with your, your mitigation bank and in Missouri that translates to an ecological drainage unit. And so there, there are maybe eight to 10 ecological drainage units throughout the state and your mitigation bank would service that particular region, which would be got several, um, sub watersheds.

Adam McLane: Okay. So if you, if you did, um, damage in a service area, you have to repair it in that same service area or buy credits in that same service area. Okay. All right. And then the other one is like the Conservation Reserve Program. So payments and monetization of doing incredible restoration or good restoration and habitat on the ground, turning corn and soybeans into tallgrass prairie. And then the term comes up 10 years later, 30 years later, whatever it was, all of a sudden the payments are gone and it's turned back into corn and soybeans and you eventually didn't, you know, make up ground. Can, can that happen to mitigation? Can, once you saw your credits, can you turn it back into development or corn and soybeans.

Wes Hauser: That can't happen.

Adam McLane: Thank, thank goodness, Wes.

Wes Hauser: In this case with mitigation, the really nice piece of this is that there's a conservation easement or similar protective mechanism tied to the property once it's approved as a mitigation bank. And all of that would be again detailed in that mitigation banking instrument, but the site's protected in perpetuity to prevent that from happening.

Adam McLane: Okay, cool. Um, what do you see in the future for mitigation and The Nature Conservancy? Is it more projects or do you think there's big changes on the horizon and the way mitigation is used in conservation, just crystal ball, less, yeah. Six months in crystal ball, what's gonna happen six years from now?

Wes Hauser: I feel like a weather forecaster here. So you can't blame me if this, if this goes out fair enough. But I would imagine that President Biden's Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act will likely lead to more demand for mitigation in some areas, as infrastructure projects expand and, you know, inevitably may expand into wetlands or streams. There will be mitigation requirements. And so that's an area where TNC or other mitigation providers could potentially see some business from that, which would be really great. Um, another opportunity or change that may affect the realm of mitigation would be where things touch down with Waters of the U.S. So that's something that with every change in administration, you often see the pendulum swing back and forth as to, um, you know, what waters are regulated by the federal government, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and so if that shrinks, there may be less demand for mitigation in that case because some waters may no longer be regulated. However, if you know, the pendulum swings the other way, maybe we'll see more regulations in place to protect waters that exist in the United States. So, um, those would be two big things that I would watch coming forward in the future.

Adam McLane: Okay. Total turn of questions back to you. Um, and you personally, if knowing where you're at now, what you're focused on now, if you were to go back to college and take one class that you didn't take, what would that class be?

Wes Hauser: Hmm, I think I probably would take more, uh, on-the-ground soil sciences classes, because that's really crucial for wetland delineations. And unfortunately, I don't think my program was as forward thinking about that as, as they are now, there are so many classes on soil sciences. Yeah. That I see folks taking I'm jealous of. So I'll probably get back someday to take, take a few of those.

Adam McLane: I was gonna take like bowling <laugh> you're gonna take soil science. I feel like such an underachiever, but, um, you know, I'm glad, I'm glad Wes. Um, alright. So staying on you kind of as the last question, which was this wasn't too bad, was it Wes?

Wes Hauser: No, this has been great.

Adam McLane: Good. Uh, we're not quite done yet because a few months ago, our staff participated in this fun activity where we were, we were still in the throes of pandemic so we were trying to find anything that could connect us in, um, do trivia and other things that just kind of kept team morale going. And we had some new staff like yourself that were coming on board. So we had to get to know Missouri facts about ourselves. And then we all had to guess who the facts belonged to. So guess what, Wes, I happen to have your list in front of me. Let's all get to know Wes. So fact one that was written down by Wes. As a kid. I was an amateur magician. I mainly started this hobby to compete with my twin sister in the elementary school talent show. True?

Wes Hauser: It's all true. Yes. Um, we've all been there. We all have those siblings that you'll do anything to compete with. And that was a case of that.

Adam McLane: Okay. And, and have you kept it up, could you still rock out...what kind of magic?

Wes Hauser: It was sleight of hand that kind of thing. Some card tricks, um, like the metal rings that would, you know, be connected and the not, so those types of tricks.

Adam McLane: Nice. Did you ever have an audience boo you?

Wes Hauser: Ah, no. <laugh>

Adam McLane: Good job, Wes. You were a prodigy?

Wes Hauser: No. Yeah. <laugh>

Adam McLane: Okay. Fact two. Practicing mindfulness is a personal goal I'm currently working on for the past month or so I've been meditating for 20 minutes or so each day. And past month or so this was a little while ago. So have you been sticking with it?

Wes Hauser: Yeah, for the most part, um, it's been really nice as things have been getting nicer outside to just go outside and, you know, feel the breeze and chill out and stay mindful. So.

Adam McLane: Very cool. I think a lot of people, um, I, I took a lot more walks during the pandemic - getting outside. I needed a recharge of some kind, so it's neat to see how different people coped with the new reality that we were all facing. So, yes. Um, mindfulness is a great one. All right. Fact three. One of the scariest moments I have ever witnessed involved a tense interaction between a student group, I helped lead in an angry cassowary. What is a cassowary and what the heck are you talking about? You have to take us to this moment.

Wes Hauser: Yes, absolutely. So I spent a gap year living in Australia. In far north Queensland and the wet tropics. And a cassowary is a giant scary-looking bird, very ostrich-like that looks really cool - bright blue coloration, but very vicious can impale you on sight.

Adam McLane: Like a little velociraptor?

Wes Hauser: Yeah. Basically. And some students were trying to get a selfie moment with the cassowary.

Adam McLane: Brilliant. Like the people that go take pictures with bison at Yellowstone.

Wes Hauser: Exactly. That kind of thing. So very terrible. But fortunately, no casualties. So.

Adam McLane: Wow. That does sound like a scary moment and Australia, how far off is Crocodile Dundee from the normal experience of Australia?

Wes Hauser: I mean, there are certainly aspects of that. I think they play it up a little for tourism and stuff.

Adam McLane: <laugh>

Wes Hauser: You know, did the gator tour and all of that, but there's a lot more to that.

Adam McLane: That had to be an incredible experience. You say you were a year?

Wes Hauser: There. Yeah. A year there and, you know, within driving distance of the Great Barrier Reef. Got the best of all environments in Australia.

Adam McLane: Very neat. Well, Wes, thank you so much for being our guest today and walking us through mitigation. Um, I have a feeling in that crystal ball that it'll be a topic that we all learn a little bit more about, um, in the future because we see it happening more around us and we see the good parts of it when it's done well or we see the bad parts and we come to really understand what's going on with it, uh, if it's not done correctly. So, um, thank you for giving us the insight into that space. Um, and again, we're really excited to have you on board and guiding us through this whole world, which is confusing and you said a lot of numbers of 4014 stuff and variety of other acronyms that I didn't understand. So I'm glad that you understand all that, that you wake up each morning, eat your breakfast, and then think about mitigation and how to make that, uh, have an impact on the world for both people and nature.

So, thank you for doing that. To the listeners, thank you. And we hope that you learned a little bit today. You can follow along with Wes' work and all of our work in Missouri at

Thanks for listening and be sure to subscribe to our podcasts so you can watch future episodes, take care. And um, if you have any bright ideas for future podcasts, we are all ears. So you can also, uh, leave a little note to us, let us know, and we'll do our best to bring more, more learning your way. So thanks for spending time with us. Have a great day, take care.

Episode 9: Meet Wes Hauser, The Nature Conservancy’s first mitigation specialist in Missouri.

In this episode, Wes talks about how TNC’s mitigation work helps to offset damage from development by creating “mitigation banks”—nearby sites where we can carry out new conservation projects—and sell credits! Learn more about what mitigation really is and how we are using this strategy in Missouri to reach our conservation goals.

Kylie Paul and Kelly Martin talking during a burn
Learning Together Kylie Paul (left) and Kelly Martin talk during a prescribed burn at Bennett Spring Savanna in the Ozarks. © Doyle Murphy/TNC

Lighting the Way

Episode 7: Two female trailblazers in the fire world sit down with us to talk about breaking barriers in a male-dominated field.

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Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit

Adam McLane: Hi everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri State Director for The Nature Conservancy. Thanks for joining us today. I'm being joined today by two women who have recently spent time here in Missouri, helping us conduct a training on something that's very important to our Specifically controlled burns. We hear a lot about the destructive power of fire, but there's another side. It's actually key to rejuvenating forests and grasslands, many plants and animals depend on it for survival. This year, TNC is celebrating 60 years of putting what we call "good fire" on the ground. What started with a controlled burn on The Nature Conservancy's Helen Allison Savannah in Minnesota on April 26th, 1962, a date that I just pulled out of the top of my head, cause I have it memorized - I don't really it's written down for me - has evolved into a robust fire program that now spans the globe. I could probably spend, and we could, this whole episode talking myself about fire, but you're here for my guests. So I'll get to introducing them. Here in the hot seat with me - get ready for all kinds of fire puns today - is Kelly Martin. Kelly was Yosemite National Park's, chief of fire and aviation for more than a decade. And I believe the first woman to hold that position. Am I right Kelly?

Kelly Martin: That's correct.

Adam McLane: Wonderful. Well, she retired in 2019, but apparently couldn't stay away. So TNC lured her back to work as a burn boss on our national fire team. So welcome Kelly very much to the podcast.

Kelly Martin: Thank you, Adam.

Adam McLane: Next, we have Kylie Paul, who by far has the distinction of traveling the farthest of any of our guests on the podcast so far, we'll try and top it, but Kylie is from Cape Town, South Africa, where she's a wildland firefighter. She's visiting us in Missouri to take part in TNC's training, which we'll talk about as well. So thanks for joining us Kylie.

Kylie Paul: Thanks Adam. It's good to be here.

Adam McLane: All right. Well, before we jump into the burning questions, see there I go again. I request for our listeners. If you enjoy this podcast, please share it with others. Maybe it will spark their interest. Okay. Kelly, (laughs) let's start with you. I'm done. I promise I can hear everybody that just started the podcast. Just turning it off. And the dad jokes already and being like, I'm not interested.

Kelly Martin: No, I would've done the same thing.

Adam McLane: Well, let's start with you, Kelly because you have one of the greatest job titles of all time, I think. What exactly is a burn boss?

Kelly Martin: Huh? You know it's one of my favorite jobs titles. Yes, I'm a qualified burn boss working for The Nature Conservancy and I'm super excited about this new role after retirement. I really get to go all over the United States and my recent trip, like you had mentioned in Missouri, to really help people learn how to burn. I think about the date that you said when The Nature Conservancy first started in 1962, I have to tell everybody, okay. So, that was a year before I was born. So really super excited to be part of this celebration and helping people put good fire back on the ground. And I think that that is probably, I, I look at this as probably the highlight of my career and the capstone of being able to give back to local burners, local people that really wanna learn how to burn. And I can pass my skill and expertise along to people in Missouri for example. Just really was very, very thrilling part of my job for sure.

Adam McLane: Well, that's great. And I know we are certainly appreciative of that effort within TNC, but more broadly throughout the conservation community. Thank you for that work. It, it means it means a lot. Well, my first question is I mentioned in, in my opening that we often focus on the destructive force of fire. You've spent a lot of years fighting wildfires. If you could talk to us about controlled burning, like what role does it play? And if you could kind of describe for our audience who might not know, what exactly is a prescribed fire or as it's also called a controlled burn.

Kelly Martin: Sure. A kind of a good analogy is to hold a coin in your hand and you see the one side, you see the one side of fire that's on our TVs every night and really that, that destruction of people and property. And, and yes, that's a very, very bad side. It can be a very bad side of fire, but flip that coin over, and I want you to envision the good side, the good piece, the good fire that is so essential for healthy ecosystems, resilient ecosystems, biodiversity. This is really truly the emerging work that really needs to be done because we have over a hundred years of fire suppression pretty much nationwide and worldwide. I'm sure Kylie can speak to that as well, but to get to help people understand that this is such a precious element on the landscape, that's absolutely essential for biodiversity and healthy landscapes and clean water and recreational opportunities. And, and to me, that's the, that's really the side of the coin that I really like working on that I really wanna promote more because there is a lot of people that already have the experience of wildfire. But now it's our turn to really tell people about the other side of the coin.

Adam McLane: That's great. And as a follow-up question, you mentioned fire suppression. So what can you describe what that word means or why we would, why we've historically suppressed fire and what exactly that looks like, and what some of the reasons were for that over time?

Kelly Martin: You know, there's always gonna be a balance there's whenever life and property is at risk around major developments. And we're seeing that more and more is that because of the success of fuel buildup and because of the encroachment of urbanization in the, these wildland environments, we will always need some kind of fire suppression. So that's not going away. That's been instilled in our culture since the early 1900 when we were massively suppressing began a major suppression effort because of World War II and the need to protect commodities, both grazing, timber harvesting. So it became very much culturally ingrained that fire suppression has to be done in order to protect natural resources. The only thing we didn't really understand is that element by trying to exterminate that element has really caused unintended consequences. Yes, we will always need the ability to suppress fires when human life and property is at risk, but then we also need to say, okay, when that threat is over, we also need to put good fire back on the land.

Adam McLane: Yeah. Wonderful. Thank you very much. Well, I'm gonna bring Kylie in here. So Kylie what has been your experience with prescribed fire? And I noted that you're, you're coming to us from South Africa. Is it a common practice in South Africa?

Kylie Paul: I think the trend is pretty much global of what we're seeing in America. We also see in South Africa we also went on the suppress, suppress, suppress mission where we put out every fire and fire was the big, bad guy and we had to fight it. I don't even like the term firefighters to be honest. And yeah, I have six years of suppression behind me. So I've, I've seen that side of the coin as Kelly explained the analogy. I've been on that side of the coin, the majority of my career, but when I became a professional, wildland firefighter, I worked for an environmental firm. So I got to actually see the other side and I got to be involved in a couple of prescribed burns, and I, I fell in love. It was just, it's a, a good classroom. You can teach people about fire. I've learned so much, I feel like a student every time you don't have the stress of protecting property or life. So you can take that time to really engage with fire and, and try a few things you've always wanted to try. And yeah, and I've seen the goodness when you come back to land after you put a good fire through it, and it's just, it's a beautiful thing.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. Why have to ask too, since you said you don't like the term firefighter, do you have another phrase that we could coin right here today on this podcast fire manager? Or what, what do we, what should we call it? What, in your, in your what you would like to it called? What would it be?

Kylie Paul: I mean, fire manager has a, a level of leadership to it, so maybe fire practitioner.

Adam McLane: Okay. I like it

Kylie Paul: Just be working with it.

Adam McLane: That's great. Well, I don't know that I'll be able to edit myself from saying firefighter throughout the rest of the questions, but I'm gonna try fire practitioner I'm on. Well, can you tell us a little bit...

Kelly Martin: Yeah, I was just thinking that you know, there, there's a kind of a developing group that wants to call themselves firelighters. And so there's, again, that two sides of the coin, you know, suppression and applying good fire and applying good fire is really the art and science of applying lighting good fire. So the, the terms matter words matter if you will. So the practitioners from the prescribed fire perspective are also wanting to kind of be recognized as, as good firelighters. So, so fire practitioners, firelighters, firefighters, it doesn't really matter to us. I think we're, we are very fluid through those different jobs and positions. For sure.

Kylie Paul: I wanna change my answer in vote for firelighters.

Adam McLane: (laughs) All right. We're settling on firelighters, world. Take notice. Kyle, can you tell us a little bit more about your background? How did you get into fire lighting?

Kylie Paul: (laughs) So originally, I was a, a primary school teacher and I discovered the volunteer wildfire services in my hometown, and I realized I could be a teacher and I could assist with wildfires. They're quite prevalent in my community. We live in a fire-adapted biome. So it's, it's feel like fire driven. So we need, we need the fire to regenerate our land as well. So it's really integral part of our society and I love serving my community. So I thought a great fun way to do that. And while I was a teacher making my way through that career, I actually got offered a job in the industry. And that's how I ended up in that environmental firm. At current, there is no real job opportunities for women and wildland fire professionally. So to be headhunted and offered an opportunity was a once in a lifetime. And I got to lead the first all-female crew in Africa. And that just opened up a whole bunch of doors for me to go into fire lighting and fuel break, fuel reduction, you know, the other side of fire where we can do more preventative and, you know, good work for preparation.

Adam McLane: Very neat. Well, before I move over to Kelly for that same kind of question about how she got inspired into this place, you referenced earlier and it's been sitting in my mind just wondering an answer to this, which is, it was really fun to be able to try stuff out in fire when life and property wasn't at risk. I wanna know something that you tried out in fire that like epically failed or was awesome. And it was like, that worked way better than I even thought it did.

Kylie Paul: So we get this formation of fire called a fire whirl. So you get your dust whirl and it picks up flames and you get a fire whirl and I've experienced a lot of those in suppression. And, you know, when we see those, we have to leave the line. It's, it's a threat to our lives, and it's a really scary thing, but I've learned when I'm lighting and igniting, you know, there's ways that you can kind of create these fire whirls accidentally on your own. So I've had two fire whirls that I've created myself and yeah. Fortunately, a safe space to learn those lessons, but also just how fire pulls together and how it starts rotating on you. So that was a really good way to learn what that's about.

Adam McLane: That's very neat. Thank you for that. Okay, Kelly, well, to the question of how you got into the field, what inspired you to pursue this path?

Kelly Martin: I get that question quite a bit as a matter of fact, and what I tell young people too, especially young men and women in high school is if you have an aptitude for sports and you like the outdoors, you're gonna be a natural fit as a wildland firefighter. And my parents always took us up to a cabin. My grandma taught me how to fish. My dad taught me how to hunt. So I was, I was always a natural outdoor enthusiast. I don't honestly growing up, I don't really remember spending a lot of time on indoors. I, I think a lot of that has changed now. And unfortunately, a lot of kids are on their iPhones and iPads and, and I'd love to feel like I've got maybe a little hand of trying to think about how we get kids back in the outdoors. So that was really, truly a love of mine that, that I developed at a very, very early age. I did track and field when I was in high school I went on to college. I got a criminal justice degree cause I thought I was gonna work in the woods as a game warden. And then I heard or figured out that I had to carry a gun. And I didn't wanna do that. So then I found Northland College, which was an environmental liberal arts college and got a degree in outdoor education in biology. And it was very much an experiential program of learning, which that's how I learned best is actually by doing things. And so that kind of really began my journey of really thinking about, you know, how do I mesh my love of the outdoors and experiential education, you know, with a job. And I started working for the National Park Service when I was still in college. And that really was the springboard of my career for the federal, working for the federal government. And then in 1986, my dad helped me buy a 72 Dodge pickup. He helped me pack up my teepee and all my worldly belongings in this 72 Dodge pickup - the color was red by the way. And off I went to Grand Canyon and I ended up traveling to Grand Canyon by myself. When I was, you know, 21 years old, 22 years old. And I'll never forget that moment of like excitement, trepidation that I'm beginning my adult life if you will at this really incredible place. And that's really where I got started in fire. I mean, imagine as a 21 or 22-year-old flying in a helicopter over Grand Canyon and then getting dropped off on the north rim with three other firefighters and people telling you, oh, we'll pick you up in a week. And I'm like, really? I get to stay out here. Yeah, yeah. You gotta map the fire, you gotta take weather and, and sleep in the rocks. And I'm like, "okay!" So day seven rolls around. I get back into this helicopter and I'm flying over Grand Canyon. I'm looking to the west and the sun is perfectly setting in the canyon in the west. And right then, and there, that was the epiphany of going, I have to do this for a job. This is just this, this takes in everything that I love, that I admire, that I respect, that I care about. And that's how I started my fire career that, and I'll tell a lot of people, this is that you have to have that undying passion to do this work. You can't just kind of think that you're gonna come into this job. You know, do C-level work. It really demands you know, persistence and perseverance day after day, year after year to really be a good, solid firefighter, firelighter. But that early in my career was very, very pivotal moment of like, yep, this is what I know what I wanna do for a living now.

Adam McLane: Hmm. I can relate to that epiphany. And I think it's so important. Thank you for sharing that image of being in the helicopter too and seeing the sunset. So I think on radio and podcasts, it's hard to, sometimes you're just talking and it's hard to really get into that setting. And I think you just painted a wonderful picture. And I so many conservationists, I think, have those moments in their life that, that had them say that exact thing. Like I need this to be my life - for some reason, one way or the other. So that's really interesting. And then I have a follow-up question on your 1972 Dodge pickup. Do you, you don't still have it, do you? And if you don't have it, do you regret getting rid of it? Because I, my favorite car ever was a 1986 Toyota 4runner and I, so regret ever getting rid of that thing because I loved it dearly. And it sounds like you have a soft place in your, your heart for your 72 Dodge.

Kelly Martin: I do. I was not a mechanic. And so the hood was up more than it was down. And as a 20-year-old woman, I just was like, I can't figure out how to do this. So yeah. Do what do I regret it? So here's the deal. So it is still a part of my heart and soul because I have a Ram right now I have a newer Ram. So that Ram has stayed with me my entire life. So every time I've ever bought a pickup truck, it's always been a Dodge Ram. And it reminds me of that, that freedom and that, that just that euphoric feeling of like, ah, I get to be an adult now I got my own car and I'm moving away from my parents and my, you know, where I was born and raised. And, and so, yeah, it definitely has a special place in my heart.

Adam McLane: This segment was brought to you by Dodge Ram, please visit your local.... That's great. Well, thank you for that. OK. Well, I so the, so the piece of Missouri and the Missouri training, I wanna dig in a little bit more to that and have you both kinda comment on what that experience has been like and why we did this workshop. So you both recently spent a good bit of time in Missouri for The Nature Conservancy, DEI prescribed fire workshop. So diversity, equity inclusion. A little background on the workshop for our listeners working with others across TNCs prescribed fire teams, we saw the need and launched a new training in Missouri, to increase the diversity, equity, and inclusion in the fire field. So basically creating the opportunity for women and other historically underrepresented groups to further their knowledge of fire leadership, to work on their position task books, which is kinda how they get certified for higher management positions. And if I'm not explaining that correctly Kelly or Kylie please correct me. But to do that, we're hosting these three 2-week sessions where diverse participants come to Missouri and spend their time assisting on live burns and doing other activities and trainings that, that get them, the checkmarks that they need in that book is that, one accurate capture of the workshop. Okay. I get thumbs up. And then at this point we've completed two full sessions, and Kylie you've been here for it all. And Kelly, you were here for the first session Kylie questions for you other than a little snow and ice, how's it going in general?

Kylie Paul: Yeah. So the, weather's obviously a huge guiding point for these types of workshops. So it's kind of been burn, burn, snow burn, burn, snow burn. Your weather's wild out here, I gotta say. But we've been chasing the windows left, right, and center. So we've been to Mill Creek, we've been down to Dunn Ranch. We did a burn at Wah'kon-Tah on the prairie, so we've been chasing the burn windows, but I think, yeah, all the objectives of what you just read out, definitely achieved. A great diverse group of people came to through. I've learned so much. I felt like I went back to my first day of my first year. It's very different here and everyone's just been so wonderful and yeah, it's some amazing conversations, amazing growth. Just the support networks are growing and that's also really important in our industry is to get connected and to support each other. Realize a lot of what we are doing is very similar and we can help each other a lot. But yeah, it's been amazing with Ryan and Lindsey and some amazing birds, some really great I've just opened up my task books now because we don't have them in South Africa. We'll be just kind of working on that concept. So I've put myself into the system and I'm also trying to achieve what the, what the attendees are trying to achieve. And that was also really humbling and amazing. And think I'm almost done with my first two books.

Adam McLane: Wonderful. That's great. You spoke to the similarities and finding similarities, which I think is a great part of the effort. I'm also curious about the differences. Were there did differences in fuels or topography types stick out to you in some way, throughout the different burns here in Missouri?

Kylie Paul: Yeah. So I mean, back in Cape Town, we've got fynbos, which is a really special, unique floral kingdom and it's, it's a very oily shrub-like low nutrient soil. So it's, it's vastly different in what we've been burning in here. We've done a good combination of prairies and, and wood-oak forests, two environments I've never burnt in. So that was very different. The fuel intensity and the family intensity was a lot lower than what I'm used to. So that was really nice. But you guys have all the toys, you just, you just have all the toys in, in the world, and I've just been like a kid in the candy shop.

Adam McLane: I hope Ryan Gauger hears that, and you know how lucky he is rather than just keep throwing more equipment in the budget each year, more toys, Ryan, just joking.

Kylie Paul: He takes care of his toys he takes care of. But yeah, so we, we, we often walk into fires. We don't very often have water. So yeah, I felt really spoiled in the experience.

Adam McLane: Hmm. That's interesting. Well Kelly, I'll, I'll go to you. So you've been in the fire field for quite a while. So our TNC training, isn't just about controlled burning. It's about kind of, who's doing the burning, right? I mean this diversity, equity, inclusion training, we're trying to make it easier for more women and people of color to enter what's traditionally been a field filled with almost exclusively men and almost exclusively white males as well. Is this helping, do you feel like these kind of things are really helping change the dynamic?

Kelly Martin: Oh, absolutely. And I'm, I'm so proud and grateful for The Nature Conservancy to really recognize that men in powerful positions really need to be deliberate, you know, for these types of opportunities. These don't happen they don't happen by me coming on stage and saying, "Hey, I wanna do a, you know, a DEI." It, it really is collectively at the top leadership that says, this is important for us to be productive, competitive, safe, relevant. And, and we want everybody at the table, we want all voices to be heard at the table. So really recognizing that, you know, as a, as a need for the company I think is just really, truly incredible and phenomenal. And I think The Nature Conservancy has just done a phenomenal job at, really promoting and creating this safe space and an opportunity for, for training and inclusion. And I, I'm just really excited to be a part of that. And, and really, truly the, the exciting piece of this for me too, is that this was probably more than likely developed by men and led by men. And I think we all know that that men are, will always be ever-present in fire both suppression and prescribed fire. But just to know that my colleague supports me and supports equity and inclusion just - I can't even begin to describe how that feels to be part of an inclusive team that really wants, you know, high performance and, and expects high performance because of the diversity of the team. So I think The Nature Conservancy is really onto something. When you're thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, it's not just checking a box that people are really committed to this because it's a, it's, we know this as good business practice. We become safer. I think we make better risk based management decisions when there's more voices at the table who don't look like us, that bring a different perspective. And that's really where I start to see teams really blossom is that people are given a voice. They're not oppressed, they're not humiliated, they're not bullied. And so when you feel like you're working in a safe environment, that is truly inclusive, you wanna give more, you wanna make sure that the team succeeds this isn't about "me", it's about the team. It's about putting good fire back on the land. It's about developing trust and respect with the landowners. And it, it's just a, the magic really happens when you really see something like this really develop and, and come to fruition. So hats off to you for, or providing this opportunity for Missouri. And I, I have no doubt that you're creating it to template that can be replicated across many states.

Adam McLane: Well, thank you. And thanks for all the leadership in making it happen. It wasn't possible, but for you two. So thanks so much for that. And I couldn't help, but think about as you described that just there's very, I'm trying to think of parallel jobs within The Nature Conservancy where trust within the team mean as, as important as it is. I mean, you, you really are putting each other's, I mean, your life in other people's hands in lots of different ways. And if trust is not a huge part of, of that team, then I, that's high risk and that's the, where people aren't gonna perform their best. And so diversity, equity, respect, valuing of each other's differences, seems like it's so critically important for trust that I'm thrilled you pointed that out and that that this is happening. And then I also was brought to, I mean, I think one of the things that The Nature Conservancy takes the most pride in sometimes is exporting people and things out from our organization. So we love it. I mean, sometimes it's hard to recruit new people and hire on somebody new, but when, when people are within The Nature Conservancy, then they go to a partner organization around the world and help lead within there, that's a great thing for conservation success. And I think this is an example that we hope continues piloting out and, and having impact within the fire field well beyond TNC's team. I don't know. I was gonna say speaking of, excitement, I try and find, you know, transitions and I don't think we were talking about excitement. I'm excited about this project. Speaking of excitement an exciting moment, Kelly was we had CNN crew join us a Bennett Spring Savanna to film an upcoming of it's series Represented by CNN and Kelly. That was really a focus on your career in the fire field. Correct? Is that I think, yeah, but I think, yeah,

Kelly Martin: CNN found me you know, I don't, I don't go looking for I, I am in the media a lot. I'm on the internet at a lot, and I, I do a lot of advocacy work with as president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. It's a nonprofit group that's really looking to reform a lot of changes within the federal system. So I'm kind of wearing two hats, you know, working with The Nature Conservancy in doing their grassroots piece of that. So a lot of my work you know, is available on the internet. And so Chris found me and it's no big surprise, but in 2016, I, I did testify and, you know, before Congress regarding gender bias and sexism in the workplace within wildland fire I just really felt like I'd made it through most of my career, but so much of, you know, what I did was normalize some of the actions and behaviors throughout my career that I thought were pretty egregious, but I thought, you know, it was self-preservation, I really wanted make sure that, you know, I made it through my, through my career. So that was a piece of, you know, the piece that CNN was really interested in, but more than anything, I just, I've seen how, how amazing teams can be with women, but I've also seen how oppressive the conditions, you know, can be. And the behaviors that can be exhibited that sometimes people don't even know that they have implicit bias or, or sexism, you know, towards women, you know, on the team. And so I'm hopeful that, you know, CNN their series is called Represented and I hope I represent that well, that you know, TNC has been one of the progressive agencies or nonprofits to really include, you know, more women in non-traditional roles and career fields like fire and that we can help encourage more young women to pursue this as a career. And that dare, I say that the old-school way of having to remains silent and, and feel that you have to normalize, you know, bad behaviors in order to succeed and thrive in this organization. I'm hopeful that we can be this tipping point to kind of create this like new paradigms we go forward, you know, in climate change and worldwide need for fire, that we can understand that creating this, this environment and having women represent the, both the suppression and the prescribed fire of the good fire side of the coin is absolutely imperative for all of us in our, and for the health of our generations to come. So yeah, I'm, I'm excited for the CNN piece and excited for, for TNC, for being very open and accepting of bringing in national attention you know, through this effort.

Adam McLane: Thank you. And Kylie, I noticed you were, are nodding a good bit as Kelly was talking too, so I want you a chance to weigh in. What do you know if you had a hope for what a story like that can provide exposure for that leads to change? Would it be a lot of those same things or anything different on your mind?

Kylie Paul: Yeah, it's, it's definitely the same. I mean, my experience as a volunteer at the Volunteer Wildfire Services, we have 40% female or representation on the fire line. So when I started out in this world, I just saw, you know, these really cool women all around me doing the job. And I just kind of considered myself a firefighter. I never knew I was a female firefighter. And then on my first day on the job as a professional, and then I took a look around and I was like, oh where's everybody. And, and there was that stark that, oh, I'm a female firefighter. I'm now put in this box and this is a responsibility. So I think for me, it's just really about showing other women that it's possible. Because even in an industry where we have 40% females, if you look at the leadership side of it, we make up less than 1%. So I think we're getting the woman in the door in my country, but getting them into leadership is the next step. And I firmly believe that you need to show it being done. Words don't really carry as far as actually just being on the frontline, leading crews and showing that it's possible and that we actually, we are really good at it. So that's pretty much been my experience.

Adam McLane: Hmm. Well, you just touched on this a little bit, but other than sticking with you Kylie, other than kind of basic fear why, why do you think it's important to diversify the ranks, especially in leadership too, if you talk about 40% in South Africa in terms of the crew as a whole, but then leadership being a much smaller percentage, why do you think it's important to diversify that?

Kylie Paul: Because as you get stuck in that sentiment of, "well, we've always done it that way" or "that's the way we've always done it." And we don't have the same challenges we had when those were the ways that things were done. So just like the ecosystems and environments diversifying, we need to diversify and the healthiest ecosystems are diverse ecosystems. You've got different backgrounds, different experiences, different opinions, whether it's racial or cultural gender or anything, we all have something to bring to the table that's unique. And if we have unique solutions coming together, then we can, we can move forward in a really exciting way. But if we're gonna stick to the way it's always been done and we call it the mid-65-year-old white man's club we, we're not gonna progress anywhere and the industry's gonna stay the same, which we are all realizing is not gonna work for the future.

Adam McLane: Hmm. Thank you for that. And as I'm not 65, but I am a member of the white men's club for sure. But I have a daughter that's 12, named Morgan, and I don't want that club to prevent her from doing whatever it is that she wants. So I'm so grateful to you too. And, and leaders like you when the leaders like you in the field of conservation in a whole suite of fields where the past and, and that's the way it's always been done is being tested and changed as a result of your leadership and courage. So thank you both very much for being willing to do that. The question for both of you kind of my next question is what makes a good, you know, speaking of diversity and people can bring different perspectives to fire lighting. What makes a good fire lighter? Kind of characteristics, I'm sure there's differences, but just in your minds, as you think of a, a quintessential somebody that you would, you would love to see as a firelight, what is it that makes that person potentially great. You talked, Kelly earlier about being athletic and loving the outdoors. Does that play a mix or what, what goes into that?

Kelly Martin: Yeah. You know, if I think about character attributes, I love you know, somebody that's a team player, somebody that's not snarky. You, you know, we're, we all have an opinion. And I think sometimes, you know, opinions are, are good to express, but not in a way that's negative towards the person, you know, or the team. I love it when people take initiative and they see something that they could do that they don't wait to be asked. I love that. I love the fact that people can feel like they can make mistake and I'm not gonna hold that against them and they can learn from their mistakes and I'll be there to support them, you know, through their growth and their learning. I love it when people wanna reach beyond what they even think is possible. And I think this is probably more relevant for women is that we hold back. We are afraid of making mistakes. We see men that you know, run into positions and, and they're given those opportunities because they have some of those character traits of really being assertive and, and progressive and forward. And, and if we do that, we're kind of seen as pushy or a steam roller. I can't even begin to tell you all the words that I've been described as, but don't let that stop you. You know, the, the other thing is you know, learn from others, you know, having a good mentor a coach, a sponsor, you know, all those become, you know, very relevant later on in your career. But I think that I look back if you can make it as a firefighter/firelighter for the first four years, we may have you for a career, but it's really those four first four years that are very, very formidable in terms of, do you really like being away from home a lot? Do you really like, you know, working in rough rugged conditions, do you really like being around a lot of smoke? These are, these are very harsh conditions and, and if you can, after three or four years say, you know what, this is something I wanna commit to, then those are, those are the folks that we're looking for, that we need that we're really trying to recruit for, because we know we're, we have a recruitment gap, we have a retention gap, we have a promotion gap. And so we're really looking for, you know, those folks. We know that we've gotta really increase opportunities for everyone, not just, you know, women to enter this workforce

Adam McLane: And in the face of a changing climate, I'm sure. It won't reverse itself in terms of how much fire lighting and suppression we need out there. So I hear you Kylie, any, anything you'd like to add to characteristics? I think I, I feel like Kelly described, gave a recipe for being a really great human being you know, good team player, all sorts of really good stuff. So...

Kelly Martin: You know, can we just have a conversation about what it's like to be just a good human being?

Adam McLane: Yes.

Kelly Martin: It's just like, man, then the magic really happens, you know, at that point. And it's pretty cool to watch, but anyway, go ahead, Kyle. Sorry. I interrupted.

Kylie Paul: No, I mean, you, you, you did cover it all. I would say attributes to our industry as being a good communicator. Communication is absolutely everything out there and definitely being a person who wants to learn. So I consider myself a lifelong learner, and I think if you are always willing and open to learn and grow this is the industry for you. If you think you've gotten to a point where I've been doing this for a few years, I know everything it's a dangerous position to be in. So lifelong learner. And then I think something uniquely female that I think we bring to the line is intuition. And I've definitely found that's, that's been my saving grace throughout my career is just trusting my gut and my instincts. And yeah, I think women do have a stronger intuition people, you know, so blocked by, you know, ego and all of that. So those are three good things, I think that are also important.

Adam McLane:

Love it. Thank you both for that. Well, what's, as we kinda wrap up, what's next for both of you, Kylie, I'll start with you. So I think you're going to, where'd you say, Virginia next and doing some training there, or, and then as you go back, when you go back to South Africa, what are you looking forward to in the next several years?

Kylie Paul: Yeah, so I'm kind of at a pivotal place in my career where it could go any direction. I have a huge passion for prescribed burning, so I'm really investing in that right now. I'm gonna be traveling all over the country one of the Carolinas, Virginia, Minnesota for a month, Maryland. And then ultimately California, I'm hoping to go out and visit Kelly at her place as well in Idaho. So I'm, I'm getting around and I'm seeing all kinds of landscapes and meeting all kinds of people. So, I'd have to redirect that question to future Kylie in about five months’ time. I'm just really enjoying my opportunities.

Adam McLane: Sorry. I, I stepped over here. What I heard in that was that you could potentially be available for higher in Missouri in five months is what I heard. So name written down. Next 5 months, check in with Kylie. I love it. Kelly, how about you? What's next for you?

Kelly Martin: Yeah. So in about 10 days, Kylie and I are gonna meet in Virginia for the women in fire training exchange, which was really developed and promoted by The Nature Conservancy as a way to really think about, you know, how do we network as, as women fire practitioners. And, and I, I think I, I was with the original group in 2016, and that was just a shock to be able to walk into a room and see all these women in yellow shirts and going, oh my God, I've never seen so many women in one room as firefighters. I've dreamed of this day, my entire career that I, I could work in, in practice along other women. And it's, it's really been a very, very fulfilling and very enriching opportunity to be able to do that. So WTREX in the near future. And yeah, I think is you know, I'm, I really enjoy, I was working with Jeremy Bailey in Northern California for Indigenous cultural burning. I think The Nature Conservancy has a really interesting support for Indigenous cultural burning is really, really pretty powerful and very, very much needed. So excited to see that program expand, but I'm a very idealistic person. I'm a dreamer, you know, a lot of stuff doesn't stick, some things do. So who, who knows I'm, I'm excited to, you know, be a Nature Conservancy employee and helping people learn how to burn. So very proud to be part of this organization and, and you know, really proud to be part of women's history month here with Kylie and hosting so many really great events that TNC has been hosting and super proud to be part of the 60th anniversary of The Nature Conservancy burning program as well.

Adam McLane: You're here. Well, I, I think being dreamers served you both really well. I unserved the world well by, by letting you take on things that seemed like a big challenge. So thank you both for doing that. And I'm thinking back to my kinda opening statement that I could rattle on a little bit about fire you know, for a whole podcast, but boy, that would've been a terrible podcast. If it, if it was left to me to do that, because I feel like both of you have experiences that you could each write a book about - you really deep rich experiences. And so this conversation was so much better as a result of you two being willing to do this. So thank you very much for, for joining us today for sharing your stories and just doing what you do. I'll reiterate that. I think you, you are both an inspiration to young girls out there and others, quite frankly, who just see challenges and barriers, but keep on with the pursuit of their dreams. So thanks again to both of you and please stay safe on the fire line.

Adam McLane: And our listeners. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please share our podcast. You can learn more about TNC's fire program and read an in-depth story about the training on our website at And speaking of that website that's also, if you're interested in watching the CNN episode that we referenced earlier that Kelly is featured within, we'll have a link to that at So thanks for listening!

Episode 7: Two female trailblazers in the fire world crossed paths at a diversity, equity and inclusion prescribed fire workshop that The Nature Conservancy hosted in the Ozarks. 

In this episode, Kelly Martin, a burn boss with TNC's North America Fire program and retired Yosemite National Park fire chief, and Kylie Paul, a fearless wildland firefighter from South Africa, paused to join Missouri State Director Adam McLane for a new episode of It’s in Our Nature

A man wearing an audio headset.
Joel Pugh Recording episode of It's in Our Nature podcast. © Route 3 Films

Meet Joel Pugh

Episode 6: We get to know one of Missouri's newest trustees and learn about the path that brought him to TNC.

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Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit

Adam McLane: Hi everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri State Director for The Nature Conservancy. I'm excited to have you join us for a special episode today. Our goal with this podcast is always to share inspiring stories of what can happen when people and nature work together. And a big part of that equation obviously is people. We have some tremendous staff who care so very much about this important work, but we also have a board of trustees who are located around the state and who volunteer their time, their talents, resources, and most importantly, patience as we navigate the complexities that come with our work. Today, you get to meet one of those trustees. But first I have one request. If you liked this podcast, if you get anything out of it, please share it with others. So we hope the stories we share inspire a deeper connection with the nature and people around you. Without further ado.... Joel Pugh, welcome to our podcast.

Really excited to have you here. Joel was handpicked largely because I just like hanging out with him and spending time. So it was like, why not do a podcast? Joel just joined our board last year in the middle of a pandemic. So that was probably pretty awesome. Back to that patience mindset that we talked about earlier, we've only been in the same room, I think like three times, but you've already made a big impact on our chapter. Joel has a really interesting story about how he came to The Nature Conservancy and spoiler alert wasn't originally through our chapter in Missouri - we'll get to that soon. But first Joel, welcome. And tell us about growing up, you grew up in a rural town in Pennsylvania, right?

Joel Pugh: Yes, I did. So I grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania. And it is, it is in the middle of Pennsylvania.

Adam McLane: Spell Altoona.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. It's A L T O O N A. The, the big namesakes are The Horseshoe Curve. I think if I didn't mention that anybody listening from Altoona, would be like, "what!"

Adam McLane: It was your moment to shine Joel.

Joel Pugh: Exactly. And it's also the home place of Sheetz, which is like the QuickTrip...but of Pennsylvania.

Adam McLane: I thought it was where sheets were invented. It was like good for them. What did we do beforehand?

Joel Pugh: No, it's a very fancy gas station/restaurant.

Adam McLane: Oh, so it's a step up from QuickTrip

Joel Pugh: It is, there is inside seating. There's super Sheetz.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Joel Pugh: But yeah, it is very rural though. My in-laws are actually dairy farmers.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. And sorry about that if there's any QuickTrip owners, I just said "a step up from quick trip". We do still have sponsorships available for this podcast. So my apologies.

Joel Pugh: I love QuickTrip.

Adam McLane: I do too.

Joel Pugh: Yeah, because of Sheetz.

Adam McLane: Okay, good. Good, good. Well, what, so you grew up there. What were you like? What was Joel Pugh like as a kid?

Joel Pugh: Yeah. So as a, as a kid, I was, I had a lot of energy as a kid.

Adam McLane: I could see that.

Joel Pugh: I was, I was raised by my grandparents and I'm very thankful for that because I think they provided a lot of resources for me to, to handle that. But I love being outside, I loved hanging out with people. So yeah.

Adam McLane: That's, that's awesome. And did you help around the farm? So childhood, like for somebody growing up in Altoona.

Joel Pugh: So that, that is a, that's a great question. I think for many people, but I actually didn't grow up on a farm. I grew up in what the people at the farm would call the big city, which was Altoona, was the big city - it's about a 40,000 population.

Adam McLane: Okay. That's pretty sizable actually.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. It was like a neighborhood here in St. Louis. So I think Chesterfield might have more people than that. But, yeah, so I mean, growing up there I feel like experiences vary, but for me, I didn't, I didn't have a whole, whole big idea of what the world was around me. So that was, that was one of the things that when I, when I moved away that I was like, oh, wow. You know, like this is real cool. I actually grew more appreciation for some of the things back home. So, I mean, like I actually, my grandparents they did a lot of things. They didn't have just like one set job. They sold like Tupperware. We did like anything to like to kind of make the ends meet. But I really, I really got an appreciation for that. Like, cause they weren't big on like, oh, you like sit down and watch TV all of the time.

Adam McLane: Right.

Joel Pugh: We were like out doing stuff, picking weeds...

Adam McLane: You're welcome to come back for dinner at six o'clock. I don't want to see you until then.

Joel Pugh: Exactly. Yeah. There, there was a—speaking of that—there was a school that was like kind of near my house that I would always go play basketball at, that I don't think it's there anymore, but yeah.

Adam McLane: Well, that's cool. I grew up on two acres I think. And my job as the youngest of four was always picking up sticks before the lawnmower. It was the most torturous job, like it was mind-numbing.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. Oh yeah. When I worked, so I worked on a couple of different farms after high school and the one, the first farm - the main farm that I worked on - that was one of the tasks was not to pick up sticks but it was pick up rocks from the fields.

Adam McLane: Okay.

Joel Pugh: So the tractors didn't hit them. Yeah, exactly.

Adam McLane: That might be worse.

Joel Pugh: And you're like, how did these rocks keep forming? I mean, you think after the first couple of years you'd think you'd have them all, but like, no... they just, they just kept coming. I just remember you just be walking in the field, somebody be driving the little Bobcat thing and you're just...

Adam McLane: Just chucking them in there.

Joel Pugh: It's just yeah, there's, there's a lot of very interesting memories.

Adam McLane: But look at you now though, Joel. Look at you now. It gave you all this hard work ethic, doing good things with.

Joel Pugh: Exactly. Exactly. That's it. I was going to say, look at me now. There's nothing wrong with farming. Farming is a very, it's very awesome. But yeah, there's a lot of interesting stories about working on a farm.

Adam McLane: Very cool. And then, so after...did you do AmeriCorps?

Joel Pugh: Yeah. So kind of how things worked for me was after high school. I didn't go straight into college after high school. So what I actually did was kind of a bunch of just life.

Adam McLane: Odd jobs?

Joel Pugh: Like not even odd jobs, so kind of just kind of -

Adam McLane: Whatever you wanted to do for a couple of years.

Joel Pugh: Just around. I was a bit of a put it lightly. But actually, one cool thing I did after high school was myself and a couple of friends, we actually backpacked out to California from Pennsylvania.

Adam McLane: Woah.

Joel Pugh: And so, oh yeah, it was...

Adam McLane: There was a lot of hitchhiking in there

Joel Pugh: It was one ff the cooler things from that time period of my life (laughs). But yeah, well basically we said, oh, okay. We have these friends here kind of scattered throughout all the way from here to San Francisco. And so then we just, where it was just a matter of connecting the dots, whether it be taking the train, whether it be like we did a little bit of walking, but not, not too terribly much. We, we all worked at this like camp together. That's another big thing in central Pennsylvania, throughout Pennsylvania, I guess probably plenty of rural areas.

Adam McLane: Like a youth camp?

Joel Pugh: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It's just so we all worked at this youth camp together and we decided to save up all of our savings. This was to give you a bit of understanding of where I was at in my life. They said, okay guys how much do you think we need to save for this trip? And then I said, "I don't know. I'm not used to saving money," because that's not what I think about.

Adam McLane: Right.

Joel Pugh: And they said, let's save up $800 (laughs). And I was like, "sounds good to me." So at the end of camp, I was like, oh, I saved $800. And they were like, oh, we saved like $1,600, $2,000 or so. And I was like...

Adam McLane: What about our plan? (laughs)

Joel Pugh: Should I have saved more? And then so consequentially, I actually ran out of money in San Francisco and I called my grandparents and again back to them being very patient and guiding with me. They were, they, they flew me home.

Adam McLane: Wired you money?

Joel Pugh: Yeah, exactly. But then after that but it was, that was really cool, I think that was really foundational for me because it kind of showed me that things are different outside of just Altoona. And I mean, cause a lot of times with those small towns, you get a lot of the same thing. And so, and that's not always a bad thing, but for some people, I think it's helpful to see that there's, there's more out there and you're not as alone and you don't have to, you don't have to necessarily fit into some type of puzzle piece. So, but it was, it was really cool because you see the, even just the landscape changes, right. You go from these rolling tree covered, Appalachian mountains and valleys to like, it's just flat as far as you can see to like, in Colorado, we were hiking in the flat irons and it was just like, it's just, it's just flat and then just shoots, juts up and it's like something out of a storybook almost. And then and then, and then you head out to San Francisco and just see, then you're like, oh, this is a hill.

Adam McLane: Yes.

Joel Pugh: This is what it means to really have a hill. And then you get to see the water and just that cool things around that and stuff. But yeah. And so then after, after the kind of that I came home, my grandparents were like, you need to get a job now. And I was like, yeah, you know what, you're right. So I chose to still not to go to school. And so I chose to I was like, yeah, I'll start working on a farm. You know, there's plenty of those around and work with my hands and whatnot. And after about a year or so doing that, I was like, well, I mean, I have a lot of respect for farmers, but I don't think, I want to do this anymore (laughs).

Adam McLane: Yeah, want to do this all my life.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. I mean, and you know, a lot, I have a lot of respect for farmers because they, they just, they keep going. They, and that's kind of their mentality. Anything that comes at them, they just were like, we got to solve this and we got to keep going. And so I was like, you know what, let me see what else I can do. And I actually applied to AmeriCorps because I had a friend who told me about it and I wanted to have that service kind of mentality. And so I also wanted to live in Pittsburgh. And so I had applied to a program in Pittsburgh and I absolutely loved it. I loved it so much, so I told everyone about it. I actually convinced Morgan to do it - my wife - to do it during one of her summers. So she did a summer thing of it. And then I also convinced my sister to do it as her first job. And then Morgan did it when she graduated as her first job, like she worked on staff as her first job.

Adam McLane: Why did you like it so much?

Joel Pugh: Well, cause I liked it for several reasons. One, it, it was really helpful for me to kind of get myself grounded and say like, okay, like I want to start building a career, I want to start thinking of like long-term instead of short-term. And I want to like start growing in certain areas that have not been areas I had focused in before. But then I also really liked it because you learn about not just differences in places, but in people and how to be welcoming for those differences and how you can really be impactful by welcoming those. And what they did was they also placed you in several different schools throughout the area and you just provided afterschool care or you just provided homework help and teacher's assistant type stuff. But it was also really impactful to see kind of how different socioeconomic levels and how it, what goes into that. And just, just help and just being there for some, for a kid, who might not have too much else.

Adam McLane: Yeah, a human being who needs it.

Joel Pugh: Right. Exactly. And you see a lot of like families and you so often are told about narratives of like certain families and just seeing, like how hard that most of us just work to us to be able to take care of our kids and like how every little afterschool program and thing like that can be really helpful and impactful.

Adam McLane: Wow. That's really neat.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. So it was cool. You should do this AmeriCorps program. (laughs)

Adam McLane: Take a sabbatical from The Nature Conservancy.

Joel Pugh: Exactly. (laughs) But it was, it was really cool program and I really liked it.

Adam McLane: So when I think of you, I think of like 'continuous learner' looking it up in the dictionary as I was seeing like this picture of Joel, because then you're like, oh, I like birding too. I want to learn about birding. You're so eclectic. And it's like, whatever you do, you're always learning, which I think is really neat and something that one makes you a great person. And two, I think is a great role model for us at The Nature Conservancy having on the board to just constantly be learning and trying to reinvent ourselves to be as effective as we can.

Joel Pugh: So, yeah, funny, funny story about that. So that is absolutely who I am. I spend an inordinate amount of time on Wikipedia, but the other night I was we were sleeping and I woke up probably like five o'clock in the morning. And I had in my head gone back in time and I was like, okay, I'm back in time. But I have the knowledge of all the future and stuff from my timeframe. And I was like, I need, what is the first priority I need? I was like, I need to make soap. And I woke up at like five o'clock in the morning. I was like, Morgan, I she's like, what are you doing? And I was like, I have to look up how do you make soap. So I was like, Wikipedia'ing, there's like four different main methods for how to make soap.

Adam McLane: So, what does Morgan do?

Joel Pugh: Fortunately, you're not married to me. (laughs).

Adam McLane: What does that look like? Oh my gosh, I'm going to, we might have to do a podcast with Morgan as a follow-up to this.

Joel Pugh: And the crazy part is that somebody entrusted me with a child. So Morgan and said like, "Hey, this guy seems like, yeah, you're a good dad."

Adam McLane: That's right. There'll be a clean child. You do know how to make soap? (laughs).

Joel Pugh: Exactly.

Adam McLane: So after AmeriCorps and you have that learning experience and that starts to give guidance to your life, then you, you moved to St. Louis and went to Wash U. Is that when you came here the first time?

Joel Pugh: So while I was in my second term of AmeriCorps, one of the things that areas I wanted to kind of work on in my life was I was like, I want to go back to school. So I'd worked really hard in high school, but then when I got to my senior year, I kind of fell apart. And so that was kind of some of my hesitation. I had in high school, I had that mentality of I did not, no one had told me the old expression of like hard work, beats talent when talent doesn't work hard type thing. I didn't know that, but I was like, okay, you know, let me actually put in some hard work. And so I wanted to go back to school and I started going back to school and Morgan had done an internship out here. And she had told me about Wash U. And I was like, oh, that seems like a really cool school. And so I applied then I got in.

Adam McLane: What did you study?

Joel Pugh: I studied political science and public policy. But I was a non-traditional student. So I worked all throughout the day. I worked full-time during the day and then went to his classes full-time in the evening. But yeah, I studied political science and public policy. I didn't get to double major like, or triple major, like a lot of, a lot of my peers did, but it was, it was really helpful because it really, it definitely put me to the test and cause you can learn things and you can like, you can learn things and it definitely challenged you to, to learn things. So that was kind of what my first introduction into Missouri.

Adam McLane: And how, how proud were your grandparents at that point in time? They had to be pretty ecstatic, I would guess.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. That's a that's that is a funny thing. And I hope not too many people from Wash U listen to this, but so one, my grandparents actually had passed away by then.

Adam McLane: Sorry to hear that.

Joel Pugh: So yeah, it is it is what it is. But when I went home to talk to like family about, I'm like, oh, I'm going to Wash U and stuff. What I have found is that with Wash U, a lot of people from the area and a lot of people that are, that have like relatively decent education backgrounds, know what Wash U is, but back home on the farm

Adam McLane: They didn't know it was the Harvard of the Midwest

Joel Pugh: And they didn't, they didn't, they weren't particularly...they definitely gave Morgan a hard time. Like, so why are you moving to Missouri? But you know, who did appreciate it? Morgan's grandparents. They actually, they would make probably at least four trips out to St. Louis specifically to go to Branson a year. (laughs).

Adam McLane: (laughs) I love it.

Joel Pugh: Morgan used to have the story she used to tell you about because of my grandfather, I know Moe Bandy, I think his name, is on a first-name basis. And I was like, well, that's pretty impressive.

Adam McLane: It's top of the resume right there.

Joel Pugh: Exactly. And I'm sure Moe Bandy is great, but I didn't know who Moe Bandy was at the time. So I'd always give her a hard time about it. But yeah, so they were, they were impressed. They were like, oh, good job, you know, type of thing.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. All right. And so then from Wash U, then you moved to Massachusetts?

Adam McLane: Yeah, my, again, I'm thankful for Morgan being in my life and being as patient as she has been. So after we moved across the country to St. Louis, then I was looking at grad schools and I knew that the based off of the, what little research I did that having just a political science degree, wasn't going to get me a whole lot of job offers. So I wanted to go to grad school and I wanted to kind of, my mentality was around maybe starting my own AmeriCorps program. And so I was looking at MBAs and I applied to one MBA program at The Heller School and they offered me a wonderful scholarship and the opportunity to go there. And it, I honestly was one of the greatest choices I think I've ever made in my life.

Adam McLane: Really, why?

Joel Pugh: Because one of the things that I loved about it was that one, they probably, at least half of the people were either Peace Corps or AmeriCorps alumni. And so they all had this like heart of service. Another thing I really liked about it was when I was a kid, I guess I didn't, I didn't talk about this kind of what my background and what kind of brought me into the environment and conservation. But when I was a kid, I had a friend whose family I kind of was like, I adored because they were like, I went over to their house once and they were like, we turn off - we have this powerstrip that turns off automatically and conserves power. And we have this - like, things I hadn't even been introduced to, so I was like wait a minute, people can live like this? Like you could, because, you know, when your kid you're always told like, oh, you should like take care of the environment. But then like when it comes to actually seeing it lived out, it doesn't always align up to what is told. And so for me that I always kinda jetted. And then once I saw that, I was like, oh my gosh, like, this is possible, and it's here in Altoona too. I kind of wanted to model my life after that. And so but the one son of this family that I had was going to school with, he introduced me to a lot of like political rights advocates, and stuff like that. And Abby Hoffman, which I say lightly as in, like, that was a timeframe of my life. I was very interested in him. But he had gone to Brandeis. And so I was like, oh yeah, that was another interesting thing. I was like, you know, a little bit of homage to my younger self going there. And then they also had Anita Hill works on staff there and Angela Davis is also alumni of there. And so I was like, you know, this seems like a really cool school and that their whole focus is social justice. And so, like, I was really really appealed to me this idea of studying business but also having that socialization.

Adam McLane: Yeah, I was just going to say that. That's an interesting intersection to weave together.

Joel Pugh: Exactly. Yeah. And so, like a lot of my classmates in my cohort there, most of them were dual degrees and they would be studying public policy and they'd be studying business. Or they'd be studying sustainable international development and they'd just be studying business. And so it was really cool to be able to kind of be in that atmosphere and be with people that just kind of, they are, I mean, they're all super high performers, just like Wash U, but like all had, in addition to being high performers, they all had like a heart of service and it was just really cool atmosphere to be in. I made some really good friends and then they also provided me a lot of opportunities that I had not had prior. So like for example, they had startup challenges and stuff that, which is what I focused in. I focused on social entrepreneurship. So they had like a lot of startup challenges that you could participate in and I could help organize and such. And then they also had a board fellows program, which brought me to TNC.

Adam McLane: How you came to TNC.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. So they had listed a bunch of different organizations and I was like, I immediately scan, I was like environmental, environmental, environmental. Where is it? And I saw it - The Nature Conservancy - and I was like, oh, this sounds awesome. And, and so then I applied and in the end, they interviewed me and they sat me down and they kind of talked to me what they wanted to try it out. Somebody at the at the chapter had said, hey, let's do, let's do this - let's reach out.

Adam McLane: Like a fellows on the board, is what they were trying out.

Joel Pugh: Exactly. And so and so they picked me, I was their first board fellow.

Adam McLane: Very cool.

Joel Pugh: It was yeah. Kind of how I got introduced to TNC then.

Adam McLane: Yeah. And that's where I met you was in DC, I think at our Trustee Summit and where we do advocacy day on The Hill and we met each other somehow. And then the rest is history, but let's go through some of that history. So when you moved to, you why did you move back to Missouri? And then how, like what, why The Nature Conservancy again? What had you reach out in the way that you did?

Joel Pugh: Definitely. So we had, so we have a, almost two year old and we were like, okay. Like I graduated we were very fortunate that when I graduated...Evelyn was born in October and I graduated in December. So Morgan's maternity leave ended just as I graduated. So I was able to stay home with her. And we had planned on going back to Pennsylvania, being close to family. And that was kind of our goal years ago when we first left for St. Louis, but I was like, you know what, I'll, I'll take my time. I'll enjoy my time with Evelyn. And I'll apply to jobs. And then once her school year ends - cause she teaches - once your school year ends, then like, I'll really start like getting close to the ending, I'll start buckling down and really start job searching. But then March happened. And then I was like, oh, I guess I need to start applying to jobs like now. And it just was not working out. I wanted to try.

Adam McLane: To get to Pennsylvania?

Joel Pugh: Exactly. And I wanted to get into the field of community development, but I didn't have, besides my education, I didn't have a whole lot of experience working in that space. So it just wasn't, it wasn't working out at all. It was just, I mean, either they were either, it, it was like, sorry, you're not the best fit. Or it was like sorry we're on a hiring freeze because of COVID. And so then we didn't want to move somewhere new. So we thought about it and prayed about it, and we decided that we would try applying to St. Louis and Morgan had a job offer almost immediately. And then I, shortly thereafter also, I, it wasn't necessarily a job I wanted, but it was still a decent job. And, yeah, so that, that's kind of what brought us back to St. Louis, but when I asked for why TNC, so.

Adam McLane: Yeah, cause you, I mean, you're a talented dude.

Joel Pugh: Well thank you.

Adam McLane: And time is time is I know a premium, so what, what, why The Nature Conservancy? You probably have lots of choices on boards to sit on.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. So I wanted to...I decided a while back that I wasn't going to work in the environmental space because having not worked in it, I could very quickly get burned out. Just because there's, there's a lot of work to be done. And so I was like, you know what, that, I think what would be easiest for me to do it on a volunteer basis. And so that way I can, if I need to step back to recharge, I can do that. But also like can be involved and more than just doing my own stuff in my own life. And so, so that, so what kind of drew me to TNC was several different things. I actually, I wrote this down.

Adam McLane: Oh you did, ok.

Joel Pugh: So the first, the first thing, the first reason why I chose TNC, it was cause I had the past experience with it, right? Because they had taken a chance on me, I was like that gained all kinds of stars in my book. But also I was able to really connect with the people that I served within Massachusetts. And I was just like this, I really appreciated - and this is the one thing I appreciate about TNC as a whole is that it can be tough in the environmental space to kind of step away from like political ideology when it comes to the environment. And so one of the things I really liked about TNC is that it's like, hey, we're here for the environment. It doesn't matter what, like your background is, we want to form partnerships. We want to find solutions to these problems. And, and so like, that's, that's something that really appealed to me, especially because of kind of my own experience of like when I, when I live, when I'm in the city and where I live and work and such, it's a little bit different ideologically than it is when I go home. And so I, it's always really important for me to find that kind of balance because I don't want to alienate those who I love at home and I also don't want to alienate those at work.

Adam McLane: Yeah, and you respect them both. There's common ground there. One side's not evil compared to the other.

Joel Pugh: Exactly. That's exactly right. And so, and so I always really appreciated that about TNC. And so that was kind of one of the things that also drew me to TNC. And then particularly for Missouri, I always...knowing that, that my I have this, this thing from the house of representatives that was given to, it was given to Morgan's grandfather, grandparents - I guess I should say. So one of the things, in addition to their own trips out to Branson, Missouri, they also, there's a lot of Mennonites back home and they will drive Mennonites to different places or along the route. And so they'll do these long trips and back in 93, when the big flood happened they just started making all kinds of trips out here with Mennonites, with family members and bringing them to work out in the flood and such. And so one of the things I kind of really appreciated about The Nature Conservancy in Missouri was that the levee setback project. So I was like, oh, you know, like, that's really crazy that I'm working on, they're working on part of the thing that was down the line from what your grandparents had worked on. And then also the, the cities program is also really strong with say with Missouri. And, and so like that part also was like really attracting for me. And so I was like, you know, like, I want to go into this and see, see if I can serve as well for TNC in Missouri. And you guys said, yes.

Adam McLane: Yeah. Well, we're glad, we're glad you reached out and we're thrilled to have you on the board. And I'm going to ask this question carefully, which is, what's been your favorite part of your time with TNC in Missouri because I don't want to pit you against one chapter and the other chapter of The Nature Conservancy. And, I'd be really mad if your best time at TNC was not in Missouri, so I'm just saving myself.

Joel Pugh: Okay. Well, so for my best time for TNC in Missouri I think, I think it's still yet to come. I mean, I know I definitely have had the best time so far, but I'm really excited for when things kind of start to open back up and I can get out to some of the preserves. That's like, I'm very excited.

Adam McLane: We are too, because Kristy's going to have you writing stories about every preserve you visit.

Joel Pugh: Yeah, listen, I'm game for it. But I think I, ah man, best time thus far, it's been tough because we've been on zoom.

Adam McLane: I like that it's yet to come. I really like that.

Joel Pugh: I'm very excited to see those prairie chickens, you know, it was, it was something wild actually too, before we had moved here. I, so what ends up happening with me and Wikipedia is that I go there for one subject. I go there, so like, oh, I, you know, I want to re I just want to know a little bit about this person. And then I'll be reading and then I'll see something. And I'm like, oh, what is that? And then I'm like, oh, I got to understand that if I'm going to stay with this person. Right. So then I click into it and then like three or four clicks deep. I'm like, I forgot what I even came there for. But the greater prairie chicken was one of those things I landed on. And I was so blown away by the fact that they pop their things up to look like ears and they puff their chest out. Because there, I think what brought me to them was that they have a very close relative that has gone extinct. And so seeing that there was work being done, I actually remember setting, when I found out that you guys have a live feed of the prairie chickens, I set it up. We were living with some people at the time from church. But right before we had moved from Boston and I remember getting them all together and I set it up for them to watch...

Adam McLane: In the morning?

Joel Pugh: No, it wasn't, I set it all up and nothing happened. (laughs)

Adam McLane: He like popped popcorn. Like everybody just wait, it's going to be amazing. They do this dance...

Joel Pugh: I made like a whole big thing about it. I was like, listen, prairie chickens, these things I like showed them pictures and showed them like the distant cousins and stuff. And then we set up the video, nothing happened.

Adam McLane: That's where the highlight reel comes in. You can click on the highlight button for that reason.

Joel Pugh: I think that's what I ended up doing. But they were definitely, I don't remember them being like, oh, I'll get out of here with all this. But, they also are very patient people, so who knows? They probably were just like, yeah, okay.

Adam McLane: Yeah, we're staring at a field. (laughs).

Joel Pugh: Right. But literally, that's what happened.

Adam McLane: That's great.

Joel Pugh: So I'm very excited, to go back to your question of what the best time thus far, I think being able to kind of start to meet people and, and like you know, I actually really enjoyed there's actually a couple of things now that I'm thinking about. I'm like, well, you know, that's really cool. Being able to talk with Becca and meet with Yoni with We Power cause that's, I, I have a lot of respect for what We Power is trying to do and doing. And so being able to meet with them and talk with them and kind of see how this partnership is starting to form and, and being even part of it in a little bit is, is super cool. And then I also really enjoyed working, being able to meet, even though I didn't, I didn't do too much speaking with the, with the conservation day and meeting with the State House representatives and Senators and whatnot. So that was really cool as well.

Adam McLane: So you already answered a little bit of this question, but how about hopes? So you said what, you know, best things to come. What, and you mentioned preserves, is that what, when you two years from now, if you go, oh boy, this was like the best decision to be on the board, and this was a great moment or this was a great collection of stuff. What would that look like?

Joel Pugh: Yeah. So I think one of the things I'm very excited about outside of being able to go out and just like, see the work being done is the conservation centers. I feel like I don't, I don't know what the timeframe is exactly for those, but I'm really hoping. And even if it's after I'm done serving, I'm still very excited to kind of see those grow and being able to like, just the idea of having a space for scientists to come for just people researching or just for people wanting to see and spend time, or being able to take partners there and seeing like how work can be done and being able to spend time there. And not just being like, oh, I go there and I go home and not like, cause I think there's something different than seeing like there's, there's something different between seeing a picture and a field trip and there's something different from a field trip to spending some time there.

Adam McLane: I agree.

Joel Pugh: And so I'm very excited for that and I, and I hope to be a part of that and see how that kind of develops. And then also I'm just excited to kind of see how the cities program develops. And then I'm also just excited. Just what are the big projects? I mean, I know a big levee setback was a big one that happened. I know right now, I think there is a map that you guys are working on. And, and so for a GIS map, and I'm excited to kind of see how that, how that unfolds and what all can be used for that.

Adam McLane: That's really cool. And the conservation centers that Joel was referring to as Centers for Conservation Innovation, but we're starting to look at deploying across the state. And I think it largely stems from the experience that, I mean, it wasn't because of this, but it's a parallel thing that you felt when you were at Heller, that you had multiple people in the community that come forward with ideas and try and do research together to advance something. And everybody's coming with a service mentality. I think that's the hope for these places? So our first one is going to be at little Creek farm, which is up by Dunn Ranch, and we already have that infrastructure built, but then COVID. So we couldn't we couldn't really deploy it and start to do fellowships and fund various research and with universities and things, but we're getting to that spot and do have some funding in the door - that's gonna allow us to do that. And then we have a couple of other spots picked out throughout the state. That'll be completely different ecosystems to engage in. And I'm excited about them too. So I'm glad you are as well. Yeah. And I hope it's not, they're not after you're done. You've got eight years. If we don't get these things on the ground in eight years, Joel, we messed up.

Joel Pugh: I didn't want to put that pressure on you.

Adam McLane: I'm pretty sure you're allowed to, you're allowed to put pressure on me because you are quite famous. So you have these extra stars behind you within the chapter because you were officially the 400th Missouri member of TNC's Legacy Club. And at the same time, your legacy club commitment helped our chapter receive Legacy champion status. So that's two big things that I'm going to talk about for the listeners first. Thanks and congrats. Like you timed that beautifully roll right in for hundredth and get us to champion status. You have a good sense of timing.

Joel Pugh: I waited. I waited.

Adam McLane: Well done. Well done. So Legacy Club is it's our plan giving mechanism. So TNC has done this for a really long while and it's a really important part of how our work remains lasting. And in essence, people have conversations with us get language, leave it in their will or various other vehicles for things that they want to accomplish after they're gone and that what they want their legacy to be. So that's why we call it our Legacy Club. I think we have 29,000 legacy club members throughout the Nature Conservancy in general, but you became our 400th in Missouri. And each one of those I can just say from personal experience over the last six years, they're transformative. Like no matter what level those things come in at, I think one is because of the idea behind them and that you talk about burnout and environment and why you chose not to and why to volunteer. That's a risk always cause you're swimming upstream against stuff - pretty consistently. And so to have a gift come in from somebody that they entrusted a part of their legacy of their life and how much money they made and what they poured their time and energy into. And they want you to have a portion of that for a specific purpose - whew - like beyond the funding, that's really helpful at critical times that drive this amazing work, just the spirit behind that. I can see it in staff and trustees go, "wow," it's like an up, it's a boost of energy and it also doesn't have to wait until they're gone in order to have that happen because when somebody does sign up like you did again, that's a "yay", like somebody else on this team with us moving forward and wanting to see long-lasting stuff. So thank you very much for doing that. I appreciate it.

Joel Pugh: Absolutely. Absolutely. I did it specifically just for you, Adam.

Adam McLane: Okay, good. I'll put that on. My annual review. That's good. All right. I have two closing questions. Maybe more, I don't know. We'll see. One is you, you recently went down with a few trustees and staff in the Ozarks to check out a new property that we acquired. How is that starting to scratch the itch of getting out onto properties and how was that experience for you?

Joel Pugh: Yeah, absolutely. So one, it was nice to get, to meet some people in person. Anytime I get to talk to Janette about scuba diving. I felt bad when I left, cause I was like, man, she, she might not have wanted to keep talking to me about this, but this is so fascinating.

Adam McLane: No, I saw her. She was enjoying it.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. I just find it so fascinating.

Adam McLane: Janette is another one of our trustees. They were bonding over planned scuba diving trips.

Joel Pugh: I would love to go scuba diving, so I'm just waiting for the invite (laughs) I'm just joking! But and it was also nice to get to meet Ruth in person. And I had, I didn't get to talk to her as much about birding, but I definitely hope to and it was just nice to get, to meet some of the trustees that I've kind of connected with thus far in person.

Adam McLane: And you didn't get to do the field trip, right?

Joel Pugh: Unfortunately, I did not.

Adam McLane: We had gone...The Nature Conservancy - for listeners - had recently acquired what we're calling Mill Creek right now, which is down on Mill Creek and it was taken care of by an amazing person in the past. And we're really grateful that they sold it to us - Renata Culpepper. And so much incredible work has already gone into that place. And it's really, really neat and well taken care of. And so for, and there's also some infrastructure that makes an ideal place to think about another Center for Conservation Innovation and consolidating some of our operations down there. But yeah, it's a remarkable place. And as soon as we're all clear, Joel we'll go down and visit it together.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. I'd definitely be game. Morgan – every time I feel like I go to like a meeting, she's like, "see if there's something we can go to." (laughs) Yeah. So she was like, she's like there a cabin we can stay in or something. I'm like, I don't know. I'm not going to ask that.

Adam McLane: All three of you should be coming up and seeing the prairie chickens next spring. And yes, there's a place to stay.

Joel Pugh: That is definitely on my to-do list then. Yeah, it was, it was unfortunate not to be able to go to see the preservation, but I did, it did really enjoy getting to meet with people. And then they also told me about where we met was right by the Big Spring.

Adam McLane: Oh yeah, yeah.

Joel Pugh: They told me about that.

Adam McLane: Oh you have to visit all the springs in Missouri.

Joel Pugh: I did.

Adam McLane: Oh you did!

Joel Pugh: No, I didn't do all the Springs in Missouri.

Adam McLane: But you saw that one?

Joel Pugh: I saw the Big Spring. Yeah. As it's known, I guess it's the Big Spring.

Adam McLane: Aren't they amazing.

Joel Pugh: It was, it was, I was actually quite taken back by it. I was like, oh wow, this is really cool. And then I read the little plaque in it, probably because it's so big and the force is so intense that it actually looks like it's bubbling up above. And I was like, "whoa, that's interesting" to know.

Adam McLane: Face to face with nature.

Joel Pugh: Yeah, exactly,

Adam McLane: There are big forces out there doing things - sometimes we don't pay attention to.

Joel Pugh: So it was really cool to be able to go and see that and whatnot.

Adam McLane: Very cool. Okay. this question I have, I do have more questions. I know you have a love for podcasts, possibly an obsession for podcasts on par with Wikipedia. But is this the first podcast you've been on?

Joel Pugh: This is the first podcast I've been on, yes. Yeah. I don't know if I should say something like goofy now, like "blahblahblah"

Adam McLane: No. All good. Well, that's great. And we're glad. You're a good ambassador for our podcast and so we're grateful for that too. And thanks for doing it. I think the very first question that I started with for you was what were you like as a kid? And I'm going to flip that to Evelyn and say, what do you hope Evelyn is like, as she grows up.

Joel Pugh: So we will stay here all day and talk about Evelyn if you let me. But, no one of the things before we had Evelyn I was talking to Morgan and I was like, you know, like outside of being able to raise her, you know, at a certain point we're responsible besides like going to school and stuff we're responsible for how she learns. Right? How she just knows about things. And I was like, you know, if I, if I felt like I wanted to, I could convince her that blue is actually red and red is actually blue and she wouldn't know until she got to like school and somebody said, "hey," but that'd be like years from after she was born, right? So I was like, in a lot of ways we can just really like, I can, I just like a little science experiment in a way. And I had joked with Morgan that I was like, you know what I want to say when she's born is like, "she's aliiiive," but I refrained because it wasn't my moment.

Adam McLane: I wanted to do the Lion King thing, holding up over a rock.

Joel Pugh: So many different opportunities! But no, I didn't do any of that. But with keeping with that type of mindset though, I just love teaching her things. And I, and I hope that that kind of my curiosity and things kind of rubs off on her. And so like we, the library people will probably know us at this point on a first-name basis.

Adam McLane: You don't even have to show your card anymore.

Joel Pugh: Exactly. We burn through so many books. I mean, we have, we have a pretty fun routine where in the mornings, especially now that she's like old enough to get up and walk where she like she'll wake up...She used to wake up then we changed her crib so she can get in and out type of thing - cause she's a toddler now. And so she used to wake up and be like "Momma! Dadda!" But now she gets up and she'll like run over to our room and then we'll just burn through a bunch of books. But what I like doing with Evelyn is like, if we see something in a book, let's say, I think the most recent one we did was a snail. So I don't know why I struggled with that, but a snail. And so we were like, she saw the snail and she didn't quite know what it is. And so like we're like, thinking of like, okay, what sound does this snail make? Or what, what, how can we teach you what a snail is? So that way, when you see a snail, you can communicate like, this is a snail and I like know what a snail is right. And so, so then we have a couple of, we have an encyclopedia, which has just a bunch of everything, and then we have an animal and encyclopedia. So then, so then I'm grabbing like every single book that has a snail in it. And then I'm showing this is snails, snail, snail. So they use all the different forms that like a snail might come in and then we go outside and we have a glass jar that we keep by the door and we try and capture things inside of this glass jar. I understand that nature is best kept on its own, but in my backyard, if it happens to wander in my backyard and I'm, and I'm trying to teach Evelyn about it. Yeah. There might be might get caught in the jar. But we do release it back out into the wild. But yeah, so then I catch a snail and then we had it like just actually on Sunday the same thing happened with the slug. I went out one night and there's a bunch of slugs going and I was like, well, okay. So I grabbed the jar, flipped it upside down and it came back in the morning and they're still trapped in the jar. And I brought it in while everyone was eating breakfast. And so it's like trying to like escape out of the jar. And the Morgan's like, "Joel, it's escaping out of the jar!" And I'm like in the shower, I'm like, "okay, well, I'll be out."

Adam McLane: I'll find it in a little bit (laughs)

Joel Pugh: I was like, if you want, you can take it back outside. And she was like, "I'm not touching it." And so it's like, literally on a table, just like going...but she, she does it - so when she sees a snail, she's like, she does like this like hand motion of where its eyeballs come out and like makes that sound.

Adam McLane: It's really neat.

Joel Pugh: But she'll do that for all kinds of different things. And so that's kind of what I'm hoping. And we do the same thing with bird watching. We do it with like everything. She is such a goofy kid. I say that, I say that lately, because Morgan says, is it her who's goofy or is it you? (laughs).

Adam McLane: The partnership is goofy. You own part of that.

Joel Pugh: Exactly. Exactly.

Joel Pugh: So we, when we bird watch we go out and we're, and we're like "shh, shhh" and she'll put her finger up to her mouth and we'll be watching for birds and stuff. But then if we see squirrels, I will, every time I see a squirrel near the, I have, I have an ongoing battle with the backyard squirrels as to how or who's more clever and they are more clever getting to the food, or am I more clever preventing them from getting to the food? And we have gone to great lengths. But fortunately talking to Ruth is the past board meeting. I've come up with some new ideas that we'll be able to implement. But every time in the mornings, when I would wake up, I'd look out and I'll look at those cool birds eating at the bird feeder. And then you see a bushy tail just like (making sounds of eating) eating all the birdseed, sorry for those listening. I just made that, that noise. But, I run out and I'm just like, "all right, get out of here, get out of here." And then they just scatter.

Adam McLane: You're that guy.

Joel Pugh: Absolutely. I have honestly, not spent a single second thinking about what my neighbors think about me running out there in the morning...until just this moment. But I do that every time and so much so that now, Evelyn, whenever we go outside, no matter where we're at, even if it's not by a bird feeder. She sees a squirrel. She's like, "ehhh, ehhh".

Adam McLane: It's like my dog, my cat.

Joel Pugh: Yes, my child is just like your cat (laughs)

Adam McLane: I'm going to retract that.

Joel Pugh: (laughs) I'm just joking.

Adam McLane: My dogs really smart for a dog. And a lot of dogs are smart, but my cat like scratches on stuff that it's not supposed to scratch. And so I'll be like, "Hey, stop, Dante get out of here." And so now, I mean, after six months of that, living with that, my dog now, as soon as the cat starts scratching, the dog gets up and goes, "ruff, ruff, ruff" and like starts barking and chasing the cat out.

Joel Pugh: I border on the line of like, on one side, I think like, it's super adorable. But on the other side, I'm like, well, we don't hate squirrels. Right. We like squirrels. We just don't like the meeting, our birdseed.

Adam McLane: Right. Yeah. There's plenty of other food out in the forest.

Joel Pugh: Exactly.

Adam McLane: Well, you're going...if you haven't already seen it, I'm going to send you a link for a YouTube video of a guy that was an engineer...

Joel Pugh: oh yeah, Mark Rober....I watched it. It is crazy how clever those squirrels are.

Adam McLane: It's like inspiration.

Joel Pugh: And so that's, that's I set that as my benchmark is what I'm up against. I know I've watched Martin, a benchmark Roper has a YouTube channel and he comes up with clever ways for those listening, clever ways for the squirrel ninja warrior course, basically he starts feeding his birds and then he realizes squirrels keep eating it. And then he was like, well, how, how far can I push this? And it is a very entertaining video to watch. It has been recommended to me several times and it is it's good. So I also recommend it to anybody else out there listening.

Adam McLane: Well speaking of recommendations. You already covered kind of some of my last questions, which was going to be about you and your, you know, what motivates you, but you covered that a lot. So I, I would say, you know, if you're, if you were going to encourage people to volunteer service to anything, not just the environment, what, how would you go about encouraging them to do that? What would the rationale be? Well, what would you want to tell them?

Joel Pugh: Yeah, I, I think when it comes to volunteering, sometimes it's a little hard to get into it. I feel like I've talked with a lot of people and they'll, they'll have like a lot of energy and thought that they want to get out, and like, "I care about this and I would like to like do more in this space," but they don't really know how and so my recommendation would be to just if you have a space, you want to look up Googling it and finding somebody that works in that space. And just going, even if it's even if at the first volunteering event, you realize it's maybe not what you want. You, you quickly realize that...I find with a lot of organizations, particularly if they're service-based that they are more than willing to have anyone just reach out to them and say, "Hey, how can I spend some time helping you with anything?" And and I, so I would say don't be afraid to reach out, even if there isn't like a clear volunteer opportunity, or if there isn't a clear pathway for how to communicate to somebody about volunteering, just, just find that contact and just being like, "Hey, I would love to do more of this." And I also find that a lot of times, people, even if they don't have volunteer opportunities are willing to connect you to other places that might maybe make good of your assignments.

Adam McLane: You referenced an old adage before. So I'll throw another one, which is 'I'm getting more out of it than I'm putting into it.' Does that seem true to you? I mean, in terms of encouraging people that haven't volunteered before, or maybe you're like sitting on the fence about doing these kinds of things.

Joel Pugh: Yeah. I would say definitely, definitely do it. And yeah just absolutely. I agree if you're sitting on the fence, just, just trying it. And even if it's just reaching out and that's what you do that one day, and you're like, oh, it didn't work out, but just reaching out that one day. It becomes easier. And so that's what I would say.

Adam McLane: Love it. Well, Joel, thank you so very much for spending time with us today, sharing your story. And most importantly, volunteering your time to support our mission. We are incredibly honored that you chose TNC and really enjoyed getting to know you even better today. Thank you to our listeners for taking time to learn more about our organization and the people behind it. For more information about planned gifts or the Legacy Club, visit, and to learn more about The Nature Conservancy in Missouri, just visit Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you can catch future episodes.

Episode 6: Joel Pugh has an obsession with Wikipedia and a desire to instill his inquisitive mind and curiosity in his young daughter. He is also one of the newest members to join The Nature Conservancy's Board of Trustees in Missouri and the 400th person to join the Legacy Club in Missouri. 

In this episode, we'll talk to Joel about growing up in rural Pennsylvania and the path that brought him to TNC—mixed in with plenty of stories about making soap, yelling at squirrels and failed prairie chicken viewings. And with that, we invite you to Meet Joel Pugh!

A man seated in a dark cave.
Mike Slay Exploring Fern Cave in Alabama © Pete Pattavina/USFWS

Cave Talk with Mike Slay

Episode 5: We go underground with Mike Slay to discuss the fascinating world of the Ozark karst system.

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Opening: You're listening to It's in Our Nature, the podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature with host, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director. For more information, visit

Adam McLane: I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. Thanks for joining us today. This is episode number five of our podcast, where our goal is to share stories that highlight the connection between people and nature and the amazing things that can happen when we work together. Today, we're headed down to the Ozarks and not only down to the Ozarks, but into the caves. I've always been fascinated by caves and the critters who live in them. So I've asked our friend, our colleague, and an all-around cave critter expert guy to join us. And his name is Mike Slay. But before I get started, I have one requests, the same request with each podcast. If you like this, please share it with others. So joining us today all the way from Arkansas via zoom is Mike Slay, who's the Ozark Karst program manager for The Nature Conservancy. Thanks for joining us today.

Mike Slay: Mike, thanks for having me. I was looking forward to it.

Adam McLane: And since it's a podcast, people can't see you. I can see your face. So to set the stage a little bit. Mike has this giant shaggy red beard and he's sitting with a hat on and a green hoodie. And he just told me something, as we were coming on about the length of his beard, he has a certain limitation to that length for a certain reason. What is that reason, Mike?

Mike Slay: So one of the things you have to be careful with when you're caving and you're using vertical equipment that allows you to repel down into caves, is getting material caught in your repel device. And so my beard is a certain length because any longer than that, and I run the risk of sticking my face into my repel device, which makes it very uncomfortable to get free from.

Adam McLane: Ouch, from experience, or you just can predict that?

Mike Slay: Almost from experience. And I have had, I have had friends that have actually done that and pulled, a lot of facial hair right out of their face because of it.

Adam McLane: My goodness. How muddy does that beard yet? When you start crawling down in the caves?

Mike Slay: It gets pretty, it gets pretty bad if you're in a belly crawl or in a watery, watery cave system. Yeah. I usually come out with a lot more grease and grime on me then. Although the front of my shirt, usually stays nice and clean because it filters all that stuff.

Adam McLane: I love it. All right, well, before we get into the work that you're doing with karst assessment in Missouri and your work throughout the Ozarks, just tell us how you became the karst expert that you are. Is it something that you knew you wanted to do when you were growing up?

Mike Slay: You know, I, I didn't really know that I was interested in this when I was growing up. Although one of my earliest memories of my parents taking me somewhere was a trip to Blanchard Springs Caverns, which is a commercial cave operated by the Forest Service here in Arkansas. And I just remember being in there and seeing some of those amazing formations that they have. And it's just, just, just amazed and fascinated by that, that kind of systems occurred here, you know, here in the Ozarks. And so that's one of the earliest memories, but I spent a lot of time, you know, outside of playing around in the woods, you know, playing around on the, on the property that my parents own. And it wasn't really until college that I got interested in, you know, doing cave work. And it was, it was mainly because I had a professor who was doing a little bit of cave research, was talking about it in an ecology class. And I had, I taken his class because at the time I was working with a psychologist who was a faculty psychologist who was really studying how memories formed at a neural level. And so I was really interested in that. I was interested in how we form memories and how the brain works. And so he encouraged me to take a lot more biology courses. So I took this ecology course thinking I was just going to get better background for that kind of work. Well because that professor in the ecology course was talking about caves. And I was really interested in that topic. I volunteered to go to a cave for him and go to see, you know, count the count the animals count the critters. And the first couple of trips that I ever made, I made major discoveries in Arkansas. You know, one site, we rediscovered a population of Ozark cave fish, which is a threatened species here in the Ozarks. And then another site, we discovered a cave crayfish population that hadn't been apparently there was one observation at that time, about 25 years before we'd gone there. And so it was just, I was just amazed that I could basically in my own backyard in Northwest Arkansas make these really amazing discoveries and I was hooked and I was so hooked that I just, I completely walked away from the psychology training and shifted gears and began to work with that professor on my graduate studies, focusing on caves.

Adam McLane: Wow. So you stopped trying to map the brain and you started mapping karst systems.

Mike Slay: Exactly. It's a little easier to do, even though it's still, you know, you're pretty much in the dark while you do it.

Adam McLane: [Laughs] I love it. So you talked a little bit about that first experience that you had in that one cave with your parents, but how about the first, first cave that you ever crawled into? What was that like, like where you had to crawl?

Mike Slay: I'd say, you know, it's one of the first cave experiences that I had that really made the biggest impression on me was that I've been to a few places at some of our state parks, you know, going with, you know, not really having the right equipment, not having enough lights, the kind of safety equipment that you really need to be able to do safely. And so I was at with some, some college friends of mine out on the Buffalo National River, and they've been talking about this pit cave and a pit caves, the one that you have to repel into and the plan was, is to repel in there. And one out of the six of us knew anything about how to ascend back out of a cave system. And so we all repelled into it cause we all knew how to repel, but we didn't know how to climb. And we all get to the bottom of this 90 foot drop and mess around in the cave for several hours and then proceed this, try and climb out, using the one set of ascending equipment that we had. And nobody really knew how to use it very well.

Adam McLane: Wow.

Mike Slay: First guy up took so long. I sat down there at the bottom of the cave and looked up at that entrance thinking, there's no way that I will ever get out of here on my own, under my own ability. And the next guy came up and he did some really dangerous moves that could have, you actually could have fallen off the rope and killed himself. And then when we finally realized that we just didn't have a technical skill, but we had two people on the surface, we rigged up a pulley system and use that to haul everybody out. So luckily, luckily no one got hurt and we didn't have to call for a rescue. We probably should have, that would have been the smartest thing, is called, but that imprinted on my mind so strongly that after that, I knew that in order to do this kind of stuff, because it fascinated me, I needed to have the right training and to work with people who knew how to do that, to get that through. That's probably one of the best of the trip that really sticks out in my mind from early on. And that sort of set the set the course for how I thought about doing this kind of research and how to do it safely.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. And how long ago was that?

Mike Slay: That was, I was probably, I think at that point was 21.

Adam McLane: And you're 75 now?

Mike Slay: At least that'll yeah. I like to say that this is my 10th anniversary of being 35.

Adam McLane: I love it. All right. So you, you you work for the Arkansas chapter of The Nature Conservancy, but tell us a little bit about the road that brought you there. How did you how did you know that you wanted to work in conservation? Well, you already answered that really and talking about the field that you were going into and how you arrived in different spots, but how did you, how did you end up at The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas?

Mike Slay: Yeah, so I, I knew as I was doing my graduate work, that this was something that I was really interested in and I sort of, I could kind of see across the Ozarks that there were people doing this kind of work. There were, there was active conservation going on and I wanted to be a part of that. And I realized as I was going through my graduate training, that there was a set of skills that I wasn't going to get just, just within the academic program, just within the coursework and stuff that I had access to. So I ended up taking a year off and I came up and worked for Missouri Department of Conservation for a year. And at the time they had a cave biologist on staff. And so I worked with him for a year and I got to travel all over Missouri, learning about the cave systems, learning about the conservation that was going on, meeting all of the different people that were really interested in this. And just, you know, between the work I'd been doing at Arkansas and a little bit in Oklahoma and that year or so that I spent in Missouri, I really had an opportunity to think about cave conservation across our ecoregion at that sort of ecoregional level, because I'd had some experience working in Missouri. So that really set me up well to, to, to work for TNC. And during that time, I also spent, I did some contract work for Illinois Natural History Survey doing some, just