Stories in Missouri

It's in Our Nature: A Podcast Celebrating the Connection Between People and Nature

We're sharing inspiring stories and lifting up the people and partners making positive impacts on conservation in Missouri and beyond.

It’s in Our Nature is a new podcast that shares inspiring stories and highlights Missourians who are making positive impacts in our communities and to conservation at large. 

"I feel fortunate that on a regular basis, I get to be deeply involved in conversations with partners and colleagues celebrating the large and small wins of our work," said Adam McLane, Missouri State Director—and host of the podcast. "We hope you enjoy this dive into some of those conversations."

Check back for new episodes or subscribe with one of our podcast hosts to be notified when a new episode is added. 

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!

Recording episode of It's in Our Nature podcast.
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!

Exploring Fern Cave in Alabama
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 some caves survey work and then ended up having time for two summers time during that same timeframe to work for the Buffalo National River, also doing cave and karst conservation work. And so I kind of knew that this was where I wanted to be. Knew this was kind of the work that I wanted. And I just took, I took those opportunities to kind of crosstrain from my academic training, into this sort of putting that boots on the ground and seeing how that can be done, to be able to be able to be, you know, an asset to TNC when they hired me.

Adam McLane: That's really neat. And you are an asset to TNC. I'm really glad you're here. The, I imagine, you know, you talked about Oklahoma and Arkansas and Missouri and a little bit of Illinois, but have you traveled a lot more around the world for karst systems?

Mike Slay: That's been one of the fun parts of the job is to be able to go other places and generate some of that information so that the local resource managers can use to do conservation. So yeah, I've, I've worked in the Virginias, I've worked in Tennessee. We had a couple year project out in Nevada at Great Basin National Park. We've done work down in Southern Belize, which was really amazing to work in some of the cave systems down and Belize for those couple of years. Then over the last five years, we've been working on the big island of Hawaii and the lava tubes. A lot of the Big Island of Hawaii has a lot. It's the largest number of lava tubes within that state. And also has some of the longest lava tubes in the world. And there's this entire especially adaptive group of invertebrates that live in systems that we don't know much about. And so we're working with some local conservation organizations there that are, that are trying to protect some of those lava tubes and protect some of those interests, providing that biological data for them to help their prioritization process. So that's been a lot of fun and it was a nice to go back to Hawaii to do that. Cause that's when my wife and I met, you know, when we were married, we honeymooned in Hawaii. And one of the first things we did while we were over there was go on an actual cave trip and, you know, find some really cool animals to see. So it's nice to kind of full circle, go back, you know, and continue to study the system. So I've been really lucky in that sense that now I've met a lot of people that do this kind of work across the globe. I've had opportunities to partner up and do research and projects with people everywhere.

Adam McLane: Have any idea how many caves you've been in?

Mike Slay: It's in the hundreds. I mean, just so I know for probably pre-pandemic I was averaging one to two caves a week, every year.

Adam McLane: Wow.

Mike Slay: So, you know, going back and that's probably 15 plus years worth of time doing that. So I don't, I don't know total, but I could be lucky enough that I could be pushing a thousand by now.

Adam McLane: Yeah. At that pace, it certainly sounds like it.

Mike Slay: That's why it's probably better that you don't see me cause yeah. I might have a red beard, but I'm awful pasty and white. I just spend way too much time underground.

Adam McLane: I, so we've been talking caves and karst and you know, the, are those interchangeable? Some people might be like caved/karst? Help, help them understand that.

Mike Slay: That's a good point. So yeah, a lot of times in, for example, so here in the Ozarks, you know, we, we often use cave and karst, terminology interchangeably, and that's because caves, a karst landscape is basically a landscape where the bedrock, the bedrock is actually can, can dissolve from slightly acidic rainwater. And that's what forms our caves and so on. And when you have a bedrock of limestones or dolomites you can have these sort of caves develop. And that's, that's kind of what that term karst means is. Karst is basically just the landscape term for an area that's, that's underlaying by limestones or dolomites that can form these caves, but you can have caves and other kinds of rocks. As I just mentioned, you can have caves in volcanic rock like lava tube caves, and granted some sandstone areas. You can have caves that develop under just difficult wind and water erosional processes. So caves often can mean a wider kind of landscape and a wider place in some of those areas that aren't limestone or dolomite base, where they have caves. They can also have these interesting subterranean animals too. But yeah, here in the Ozarks, those terms can be used interchangeably.

Adam McLane: You mentioned earlier that I want to go back to it a little bit. You mentioned that the, the idea of discovering things and how amazing it is and how quickly addictive that was when you discovered these things early in your career. I, from my research, you've helped discover over 20 species throughout your career, which is just wild. Tell me what it's like when you make a discovery like that.

Mike Slay: Sometimes it's sometimes I don't even know it. I know that kind of sounds funny to think of, but you know, a lot of times, you know, we go to these sites, you know, a lot of the biological species that we encounter now, most people think of when they go to a cave, they think of bats, they think of salamanders, but a lot of the biodiversity that we see are invertebrates and a lot of those invertebrates are, you know, quarter of an inch long or a half inch long. They're really small. And so to do some of those identifications for those, we end up collecting some of those and then working with specialists to get them identified. And so sometimes I've collected new species to science and you know, it's not for another year or two later when we're having a specialist work on that and was like, oh yeah, you collected something really interesting here, you know, and we want to, we want to put a name on it, but then there's other times that, yeah, we've, I've been there in the cave, I flipped over a rock and completely recognized immediately that this was something new. And I'll give an example of that real quick. You know, I mentioned earlier sort of my focus and interest on, on being able to cave safely. And so we work a lot of times with our search and rescue teams and other folks in the caving community to offer just basic cave rescue training courses, so that someone does get lost, we have capacity to go find them. And if I ever happen to get lost, I want to know that the people that I trust, you know, can come find me if that happens. So I was participating in is in a cave rescue class. And I was in the cave. I was, I was one of the people sort of sitting with a patient that was waiting to be found by the rescue. This was part of a mock training. And it was just taking a long time for them to find us. This is very systematic when you're trying to find somebody lost in the cave and I was bored. But I just started flipping rocks because there was nothing else to do while we waited. And I flipped the rock and I saw this found this tiny little beetles. This beetle was probably an eighth of an inch long. So this really super tiny thing. And I looked at it, I completely realized that this was a new space because it was a kind of beetle that we'd never encountered in caves before. But I knew from other places in the us that this was a group that could be a cave species. So we collected it. Within the next year I got it to the researcher. He looked at it yet. It's like, yeah, Mike you're right. You know, this is a new species. And so he described it. And so we actually named it after the search and rescue team that was providing the training that day. So that, so the genus and species naming, the genus was Speleochus. The species name was MACOSAR, which stands for Madison County Search and Rescue.

Adam McLane: Wow. That is really, really cool. Yeah. That's neat. Do you have one, do you have any named for you?

Mike Slay: I have one. So during my master's work, I collected a little tiny fly from some caves and mines along the Buffalo, the lower Buffalo National River. And the specialist that works in England, recognized it as new and named it after me. So I have a Conicera slayi. So I have my own cave fly.

Adam McLane: That's gotta be a fun like party story, or you can use it for our introductions, you know, at meetings when they say, tell us one thing that we probably don't know about you. That's gotta be your go-to right.

Mike Slay: It totally is. Yeah. I've got my own. I've got my own cave fly.

Adam McLane: I go the, I was once cousins with Bruce Springsteen. That's mine and I that's true. I was through marriage, but then, you know, I can no longer say that cause they're not married anymore, but it was a good one. I'd get the turnaround looks like, come on. Really. So, I love hearing critter stories and, and I, but before more critter stories like you can imagine a listener to a podcast listening into this and going beetle, fly, like who cares, like, why should we care about these things when we got a lot of problems in the world, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And we're, we're focusing a lot of time on trying to discover the next beetle or fly? How do you respond to that? I bet you've gotten that question before.

Mike Slay: Yeah, that's a good question. You know, I, you know, I think one of the, one of the ways that I think about this is the, I think this is in general when, when people are studying biodiversity, is that the, you know, the more you understand the different species that are there, the more you can, you can understand that, that, you know, be able to tell that that system is functioning correctly. You know, and so, you know, in the aquatic stance, I'll give this example, you know, in probably the early 1800s, when people were moving to the Ozarks and they were looking, you know, for water so that they could have it associated with their homesteads to drink or to use the water for their local gardens and some of these places, they would dig these shallow wells and they would dig up, you know, and they'd scooped the water out of them. Then they'd find these little white blind fish, which we now know is, you know, as the Ozark cave fish. Well, they call those spring keepers because they recognize that the presence of the fish in there meant that the water was healthy to drink. And so, you know, I, I think of this, I think of sort of the study of these systems is an indication of how healthy our underground habitats are. And we directly benefit from a healthy subterranean environment because most of our drinking water comes from those groundwater sources. So if we know what's there and we know that it's healthy, that's a direct benefit for us.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. Thank you for that. So critter stories, you gave us a great one flipping over a rock, any others that you can think of, just take us into a moment in time where something happened in the cave and there,

Mike Slay: Yeah. I'll tell 2. One is, well they're both kind of funny because I think my reaction to them. I had an opportunity to, to work with some researchers in Missouri and spend, we spent three days underground in a cave south of St. Louis. So we went in with a group and we were in there partially to train some students on how to do different kinds of monitoring techniques, aquatic monitoring, and terrestial monitoring, you know, some, some species identification while you're in there. And it was just fascinating, you know, so were on the ground for three days. And at long one at one part of the trip, you know, the group was off doing something. And I I'd wander down a separate passage just to see what was there, because it's just fascinating. It was this long elliptical shaped passage, you know, that went off into the distance. And what was really about it is that the passage has been flagged with tape because there were footprints in there from, from some dating that they'd done. They, this was a Pleistocene aged Panther, Pleistocene aged cat, and you could see that it was a mother and a small young one walking back and forth in the mud. And in the mud, you could see these perfectly preserved footprints.

Adam McLane: Wow.

Mike Slay: Walking through this cave passage. So I was in there just looking at that and thinking about, know what this cat and the young one was experiencing as they're walking through there and, you know, it's flag. So I'm walking along a path so that we don't destroy the footprints. I'm thinking about all this. I'm thinking about what was going on, you know, 20,000 years ago or more when this was, when this cat was in here. And I looked down the passage and there's two eyes, there's a pair of eyes staring back. And my, I just, my heart just drops. It's like, I freeze and I panicked for a second. I'm like, what is that? In my mind, and I, and I look at it and I look at it again, and it's two pieces of reflective tape. I thought I'd seen a cat.

Adam McLane: That is awesome. I love it. All right. What's the other one?

Mike Slay: It's actually from Hawaii. And you know, Hawaii has some really fascinating invertebrates species that live in these caves. And one, I say fascinating, when I, when I say what this is people going to be like, what, what is that? And why would I even care about that? That's some weird, ugly little animal. But I'm completely spacing on the name of the animal...earwig. So I don't know if anybody knows what an earwig is, but it's, it's a little animal. Usually you'll find these, like, if you're out running around at your house and you pick up, you know, a flower pot, and sometimes, you know, you see different invertebrates and bugs running away from you underneath, you see something that's kind of a long gated, maybe a half inch to three quarters of an inch long, but it has these funky pincher, like tail. It looks like a little claw. That's an earwig. Those are real common everywhere. But in Missouri, or sorry, not in Missouri in Hawaii, one of them became adapted to cave environments and it got huge. Whereas what we normally see is a half inch long, this thing is to have two, two and a half inches long. It has a large pincher on the end. The species was described from a couple of caves within this particular lava tube system back in the sixties. And no one has seen it since. So when we go, you know, one of the things we have talked about this a couple of times, what's fascinating is finding these new species and finding new records. And there's a group of us that do this, cave biologists, and we always talk about, you know, going to look for unicorns, because of the rarity of some of these things, and just the off chance that you might see one. So we go looking for unicorns a lot. That earwig was one of the unicorns that we were looking for. So my wife and I are in this lava tube, we're just walking down this passage and different than our caves in the Ozarks, in our caves, in the Ozarks, the food input comes from sediments that come in from the surface. It comes from guano, that from the bats are in there, it comes from animals and get in, you know, and die. And so that's kind of the food base, but in lava tube systems, the food base is the tree roots coming down from the surface. So that's what you target when you're looking for animals. So we're looking through this particular spot, looking for animals, where these, the roots are coming down the side of the wall and out crawls this earwig. And I'm just stunned because I didn't expect, I was really wanting to see one and just stunned to find one. And the thing about lava tubes is the floor is often very cracked because as the, as the lava rock, you know, as it moves, it begins to cool. It cracks everywhere. And so sometimes if you miss a swipe, collecting an animal, it disappears into a six foot gap in the floor, and you'll never find it again. So I called my wife over and like, you've got to help me. We've got to figure out how to get this thing. And I'm spazing out, you know, and it's crawling along the wall and trying to figure out how are we going to flip it into the, into the little container that we've got. And, you know, and she's trying to tell me to calm down when my hands are shaking. And then finally, like I reach over and flip it right into the cup.

Adam McLane: Nice.

Mike Slay: And so we were able to, we're able to get it and get photographs of it, you know, and demonstrate that the species dealing, that was the thing that species, that individual demonstrated that the species wasn't extinct.

Adam McLane: Wow. It had been 60 years, you said?

Mike Slay: Yeah. I just, you know, I completely worked myself up for nothing. I think for that

Adam McLane: I think you worked yourself up to be ready to perform. You did great. So kudos. That's awesome. All right. So moving from stories to kind of what you're working on now what, let's, let's talk a little bit about the karst assessment work that you're doing here in Missouri. It's something I know you've done an Arkansas and Oklahoma. What, what is it at work trying to identify?

Mike Slay: So, so one of the things, you know, as those of us who are working in the conservation field, you know, we're always struggling with where, where can we be most effective with the resources that we have to spend on conservation projects and conservation work. Where are we going to get the most benefit? So what we began in Arkansas that is expanded, you know, across the Ozarks, including the Missouri work that we're doing now, is that we wanted to be able to prioritize where across the Ozarks, could we get the biggest bang for the buck to do cave conservation. And that's where this assessment came from. So we've had, you know, some of my colleagues that worked here in Arkansas previously had had experience doing these kinds of GIS-based assessment projects in the past when they came from California. And so we use that sort of modeling technique to help us where we wanted to work in Arkansas. And basically what that prioritization work looked at is it took all of the biological data that we had for our rare species in Arkansas. And it overlayed onto that the, the sort of threats that we thought were occurring on the landscape that could be derived from spatial information that we had accessed. And then on top of that, we overlaid the aspect of landscape vulnerability, which is an easy way to think about it. That is how quickly can pollutants get from the surface into the groundwater. And so, you know, in an area where you have nonsoluble rocks, or you have thick clay layers, or you have fixed soil layers, even if you were to have a spill on the surface, there'd be less of a chance for that to get again, versus an area that's just chock full of sink holes. So when you take all of that and you, and you sort of put all of that together in a GIS framework, you can, you can score all of that on sort of a one to 10 scale. One being not very vulnerable, to being very hard and 10 being very vulnerable. And that allows you to sort of relatively compare all of this information across an entire area. And then what pops out from that are the places that have the most threats that are the most vulnerable. And it also popped out those places that have the least threat and the least vulnerable. And then you look, then you can look at biodiversity on top of that. And so, you know, in places that have high biodiversity with a high amount of threat, we definitely want we and our partners want to be working there. And at those places that have high biodiversity, but right now, low threat, those might be low-hanging fruit that if we can acquire and protect now, then we don't have to go to all that extra effort and spend a lot more, you know, resources and money to protection. So that's kind of the background behind what we did there. And so we expanded that work to, to the Oklahoma part of the Ozarks. And now we're expanding that work to Missouri as well, because ultimately we want to, in Missouri to be able to prioritize that same kind of, you know, use that same kind of process to figure out where's the best place as we can protect in a karst consideration. But in addition to that, we can actually look at, we can combine all three states and look at it across the entire ecoregions, say where across the region, does it make most sense to do work? Because there may be a rare species occurs in Missouri, mostly only one or two sites in Arkansas. And if Missouri has protected, most of those, it doesn't, it doesn't really help Arkansas to spend resources just protecting one or two populations. So we can sort of prioritize both at a state level, as well as a multi-state.

Adam McLane: That's really neat. And you talked about so you used the word vulnerability and you talked about one source of, or one thing that can a cave vulnerable being pollutants from above ground working its way into water. Is that the main vulnerability that, that karst and cave systems face are there others?

Mike Slay: There are other vulnerabilities as well. I mean that, you know, when you're thinking about water, thinking about the water, that's moving through the system, that's, that's one of them, but, but quarrying can be a problem as well in certain places where limestone coring is going on and that's, that's removing all of the habitat as opposed to just having a water quality impact. Visitation in some instances can have an impact. For example, for some of our bat species, particularly particular times of the year, when bats are there, they don't respond well to visitation, to human disturbance, particularly gray bats, as an example, when the raising their babies in the summertime, in the caves. So, you know, just, just visiting a cave at the wrong time can have an impact on the animals that are there as well. You know, inadvertently trampling, some individuals is the same way. And if you don't know what you, if you don't know what's there, you don't know what to look forward and you don't know to be careful. So those are examples of some other threats.

Adam McLane: I have a question. Why do you do this? I mean, you, you sound excited, you sound deeply passionate. Why, where does this come from? Why do you, why do you do this, Mike?

Mike Slay: I was never allowed to play in the mud as a kid.

Adam McLane: It was, it was forbidden fruit that led you down this path.

Mike Slay: No, I think, you know, I, I remember as a young kid being fascinated in general with, with sort of life. Just fascinated with, with discovery, fascinated, with what you could find. I remember, you know, I grew up in a very small town and at that time, you know, you could, you could drive into town. My mom would go grocery shopping and she'd let me stay out and play in the in the water because I was fascinated because there were, I mean, now I know what I was looking at. You know, there was green sunfish and, you know, mosquito larvae and beetle, diving beetles and water strikers and all this other stuff. I was just amazed by all that. And so I think what I do now is just an extension of that, you know, it's, it's targeted and it's focused because of subterranean environment. And these habitats really drawn me in a really interesting, but it's just an extension of kind of that natural, natural interest in. Because I'm fascinated by it, I care about it and I want to see it protected, you know, and I've, I've seen examples of where that hasn't happened. You know, it motivates me to figure out, what can we do to protect these places? What can we do to reduce the kind of impacts that they're having? And how can we do that in a way that still allows us, you know, to, to derive benefit, you know, just for our own selves and our families from, from the natural environment, but also, you know, protect these important resources, as well. Where's that kind of middle ground where we can, we can benefit everyone and everything.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. And I can picture you I could still actually picture you in a ditch looking at beatles and like, just like waiting around splashing, go ahead, clapping your hands, being excited. [laughing] Well, speaking of protection and w you know, partners of The Nature Conservancy and what protection effort look, look like for them is maybe different than the average person that might be listening to a podcast thinking about how can I help. What would you tell them or encourage them to do as a call to action kind of thing?

Mike Slay: No, I think there's a couple of different things. I think, you know, one, you know, if, if, you know, spreading, spreading the information about why caves are important biology, that's, there's important connection that we have to a, through, you know, groundwater and drinking water source. I think that's important for people to understand. I think a lot of people are fascinated by caves, but they're also a little scared by caves. And so, you know, just in generally increasing your understanding awareness of what these systems are and what the resources are and why they're important is very, you know, that's, that's an important component to, you know, for people to really understand. And I think, you know, in addition to that, just if, you know, there are opportunities for, for folks to support this kind of work, whether that's financially, whether that's, you know, in a volunteer component is to get out, you know, and, and do that, get, you know, get involved with that boots on the ground component. Because as you know, as we know, The Nature Conservancy takes all of us be able to be effective in conservation work. We rely heavily on our partners and we rely heavily on our partners and we rely heavily on our donors to help us do this work. And so being engaged in, in whatever aspect of that, that the person is excited about, you know, really helps us do this kind of work.

Adam McLane: Thank you for that. And the one that I'll add, because it I mean, your story of playing in that pond as a kid or the little, the little ditch makes me think of my kids. So I've got a 14 year old son and 11 year old daughter. And so for all of us parents thinking about how to give our kids as much time outside as possible, getting dirty, being able to play around in the mud, that, that you never know what that can do for a child in terms of their overall career and their fascination with life. And we need, we need those people in the world. So I'm glad you're you're I think you said your mom lets you do that. So congrats, congrats to her and I'm glad she did. So. Thanks for joining me, Mike. Really, this was an awesome conversation.

Mike Slay: This good? It's good to see you and good to visit with you.

Adam McLane: Ditto. Well, thanks again, Mike, for being our guest today and taking us into the Ozark caves with you, that was really fun. We appreciate your time and all doing to protect the Ozark karst system. For more information about The Nature Conservancy and what we do visit or Thanks for listening and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can catch future episodes.

Episode 5: Caves are some of the last great places on the globe left to explore. That, coupled with the desire to ensure these rare places are protected for future generations, motivates Mike Slay to continue squeezing his way into amazing Ozark caves.

In this episode, we'll explore the subterranean world with our colleague Mike from the Conservancy's Arkansas Chapter. Mike is the Ozark Karst Manager and has recently helped with cave assessment work in Missouri. 

Mike will talk about his favorite cave experiences, his least favorite cave experiences, why he chose this as a career and all the little critters he's found along the way. Spoiler alert...he even has a cave fly named after him! 

Three generations of the Yocom family stand on their property along the Huzzah Creek.
Yocom Family Three generations of the Yocom family stand on their property along the Huzzah Creek. © Kristy Stoyer/TNC

Collaboration for Water Quality

Episode 4: Guests talk about what they are doing to protect the quality of Missouri's rivers and streams.

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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. This is episode number four 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 are talking rivers and streams. We're lucky here in Missouri to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful rivers running through the Ozarks and the state. We're going to talk with two people who are dedicated to improving our water resources through practices that they are implementing on their own land and what they are doing to help others who want to sustain and improve our rivers and streams. But before we get started my request always as if you like this podcast, share it with others. So joining us today, all virtually by zoom, tis the season for that for the first time ever in our long four episode podcast history we have, I haven't had anybody face to face to talk to in the studio. So I'm looking at two screens and they are as well, but I'm excited to talk to both of them. So Rachel Hopkins is a county engagement specialist in agriculture and environment for MU extension and one of TNCs partners with her family farm on the Huzzah Creek and Mike Kromrey, who's the executive director for The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks. Thank you both for joining us so much today.

Mike Kromrey: Glad to be here. Thank you.

Rachel Hopkins: Thank you for having us.

Adam McLane: All right. Let's get started. I'm going to start since we're in two parts of the state Mike's down in the Springfield area and Rachel is in the Huzzah watershed, which is over on kind of mid-Western or mid-Eastern part of the state. So I'm going to start with Mike and just having him tell a little bit about himself and then we'll bounce to Rachel, and we'll just kind of figure out how to counter conversation about the shared theme that we're talking about, which is water and streams. So, Mike I know Mike pretty darn well, and we've had great days of field and pretty recently we're fishing. What was it? The SAC? He promised me millions of fish and we caught like eight. But it was still a blast. So, Mike, tell us a little bit about The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks.

Mike Kromrey: Yeah, The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks is a nonprofit organization working to protect the drinking water in Southwest, Missouri since 1984. In order to keep our water clean and make it cleaner we focus on projects and education. So we have a robust watershed center, lots of field trips and education for students of all ages kindergarteners through engineers professionals, and then a lot of a groundwork out there in the watershed where we try to install practices, it'll make the water cleaner for the future. And an interesting connection, I think, between the history of The Watershed Committee and The Nature Conservancy is both were sort of formed out of crisis. Here in Springfield, Missouri, our water supply was jeopardized our drinking water lake called Fellow's Lake had algae blooms and our water tasted bad and the community got together and said, hey, how can we fix this? And one of the outcomes of that, that conversation was the formation of The Watershed Committee and our mission to keep focused on our local water supply and water quality. So anyway, it's an honor to do the work and we're making some headway, I think.

Adam McLane: I would completely agree. I think you're doing amazing things down there and thanks for doing it. Rachel, how about you, a little introduction about you and it's always hard for listeners in my mind to like get themselves somewhere when they're just listening to words. It's sometimes hard to make them feel immersed in, in a place, but I would love it if you could do that, if he can kind of take us to your family farm in Davisville, Missouri and Crawford county. And just tell us a little bit about the history of how you and your family came to partner on that management.

Rachel Hopkins: Okay. Sounds good. So just to kind of give the listeners a description of our place, our farm lies, it's nestled in the Huzzah valley. So just think of a moderate sized creek not necessarily a large river, but a moderate size creek. We mainly have the river bottoms and then upland hills from that. So, it's fairly rugged. It's very stony ground, not very good for crops or traditional type ag that everyone thinks of. They used to plow it. But then I guess in about 2010, 2011, we stopped, which made things go a lot easier to be completely honest. Our ground is very rugged, very hilly, lots of trees, lots of brush, upland pastures, natural springs, just traditional Ozarkian grounds. They're not conducive to anything but growing grass, trees, and cattle, that that's really what it's conducive for. So our family farm was purchased by my great-grandfather in the mid-1930s. He purchased the original track for a, actually a retreat for his salesforce. He worked for Warever. He purchased the original farm and then about the mid-1940s, he moved down there full-time out of St. Louis, right as World War II was beginning. They gradually added onto the farm and everything. And it came to compose about 1100 acres by the mid two thousands. So, we put it, or my family put it all together. And dad and I started partnership in 2012 when my grandfather passed. So, this a little back history as well in the 1947, 1948, when my grandfather came home from the second world war, they started a dairy farm and they dairied until 2000. In 2000, they stopped the milking and then they went full-time to beef 2012. My grandfather passed and dad and I formed a partnership. And that's when we slowly started to do more conservation work. There had been a lot of not adversity, but a lot of hesitation by my grandfather due to some of the practices that were tried to be shoved down throats with the Meramec dam and different things that had happened. He was very averse to giving too much control away and working with too many organizations from those experiences. So, we had hesitation. What led to it all the start of it was back in 2009. We started, we, we were having a lot of erosion in our stream banks. We worked with MDC and Ozark land trust to bevel banks. That was our first experience. And we fenced out of the Huzzah at one of the farms.

Adam McLane: ok

Rachel Hopkins: It was a very, it was stepping out into that unknown step. I mean, you just did not see a step there. Very, very unknown. So we made that leap, and we found out we didn't die. Everything's still held together. And in some ways, it made the management easier because then we weren't trying to maintain cross fences on th Huzzah. It made things easier. That was the first catalyst. The second catalyst out of that was through that beveling of the banks, we met Abigail Lambert with Ozark Land Trust. And late 2009, I believe a piece of property came up for sale. Mom and dad purchased it with the help of Ozark Land Trust, and they put it into the first conservation easement so that we figured out we didn't die with that one either. And we had to fence out of the Huzzah and everything with that figured out we didn't die. So that was another little baby step. And then we started doing more practices. Dad sent me to grazing school in the fall of 2012. So, we could participate cost-share. We didn't really know what we wanted to do, but we knew we wanted to do something. Start, start something. I went to it thought this is never going to work, but I did it to check the box, to get the money. We started doing more and more practices. We found out we didn't die. It was so we were becoming more and more receptive to it. The Beckham Place, what we call the Beckham Place is about a 500-acre tract of land up at Davisville. And in 2000, and I guess it was 14, we installed the watering system. We did miles of fencing up there, excluding Rock Branch, which is a tributary of the Huzzah at different, we did several different items that moved us to the catalyst of working with The Nature Conservancy. I guess it was in 2016 or 201, Rob Pulliam with MDC came to us and said, we think we have a partnership with you guys. We kind of need a guinea pig here. The Nature Conservancy and Steve Herrington is wanting to do a project here in the Huzzah. We need a guinea pig. We think you guys would be a good fit because you've got everything lined up together. We said, okay, let's, let's see what this is about. Right. And so that's what led us to doing the big practice with Steve Herrington and The Nature Conservancy was that contact with Rob Pulliam and Abigail Lambert and all the work we had done before then. So, each step was a little baby step that has brought us to today. We didn't plan to come in. We didn't ever plan to make it today, but this is where we let up from all the little baby steps that we took.

Adam McLane: I love it. Thank you for walking us through that. And I'm excited to explore a little bit more about what the project was in a second, but I want to pull Mike in by saying how, how much did that resonate with you? The, the, the required leaps of faith that we either take ourselves, or we have to ask people to take to move a little bit, to gain confidence and trust in things that involve conservation ring a bell?

Mike Kromrey: Yeah. So much. Rachel, I was just glued to your story. And, and I have a question along those lines. Would you say that trust you know, you said you found out you didn't die at each step, but would you say that building trust with the folks who are working with was a part of the reason that you continue to take additional steps?

Rachel Hopkins: Absolutely. Absolutely. Without that trust there, we would have never made it to where we did. We trusted Abigail, we trusted Rob. And that was after knowing them on a personal level, a personal level for seven, eight years, we trusted them. We probably would not have had that trust if a year into it they would have come to us and said, Hey, do you want to do this? We wouldn't have had that trust. We've become very good friends with them. And that having that personal relationship, that personal trust and the knowing that they're looking out for not only our interests, but the interests of the land, the interests of the water quality of making something better, that has helped as well. In addition to reaching their organizational goals. So, trust is a huge component of it. If you don't have the trust, you don't have that partnership.

Adam McLane: Yeah. And I it's. So it's so neat to see corollary things across the whole state and actually across the whole field of conservation. I mean, I was just a while ago to a levee setback project that we were working on up near Rock Port. And you all, all our listeners will have a have a podcast to that showcases that work. But Governor Parson came up for that visit for a visit there and a round table discussion. And there was some quote along the lines of like everything good comes from relationship. Like it's always, the secret sauce is always going to be relationships when you pull off big projects. So, so Mike talked to us a little bit about the work that you do with Watershed Community of the Ozarks, and how you, I don't know, like give us a flavor of a program down there that you, that you work with.

Mike Kromrey: Sure. and I'll just echo that the more I'm in this field, the more I realize it's all about relationships. So, some of the programs that we're, we're proud of and we think are a little bit innovative are I'm talking with you from the watershed center. This is a hundred-acre nature center type situation nestled on the edge of Springfield. And we've done field trips here for a long time, but on the education front, the, the real secret sauce has been working with the school district. Springfield's actually the largest school district in the state, and we've worked with their curriculum coordinators so that what we teach here about water and the environment is all connected and correlated within the curriculum of the schools. And so, they can come out and do hands-on environmental education, place-based experiential. And what we're teaching is what the teachers need us to teach. You know, we've, we've aligned that all up. And we, we operate the site sort of like our own little Sand County like Leopold, Sand County Almanac. We put a lot of love into this property and learning a ton of lessons along the way about habitat restoration. And I think we set out to teach about the site because of all the different karst water features, but as much as anything we've ended up learning from the site and applying that elsewhere. We can talk more about it later, but one of the things is sort of organically sprouted out of our need and desire to be stewards of this place was the formation of the Watershed Conservation Corps. For a long time, we were out in the, in the woods hacking at Bush honeysuckle with volunteers and making a little bit of progress, but we've, we've found a way to train young people with and employ them, pay them a decent wage to learn the skills of stewardship of habitat restoration and water quality improvement, and apply that to a bunch of different situations, whether it's green infrastructure in the city or doing riparian buffers out in the country. And you know, we have a fantastic team and that goes to our board and our staff, and then this wonderful community.

Adam McLane: No, it's not a result of your leadership. So, how did that come to be?

Mike Kromrey: (laughing) Yeah, we're, it's, it's really not. We're, we're standing on the shoulders of giants here. But here's one odd and special tradition we have that I credit for this tremendous and deep partnership ethic we have here. Once a month, we host a community meeting and talk about water. And for over 30 years, people have been getting together at 7:30 on Friday morning, the first Friday of the month. And learning about water, we always have a presenter. We have a chance for everybody in the room to share events or ideas, and then a chance after to chat, drink coffee, build those relationships. So truly, we have a foundational wealth of relationships and it's, it's kind of awesome when it's a water related challenge or a water related opportunity down here, it's just not hard to get people around the table focused on all the different aspects of a common goal. So, I'd have to say it's one of the most satisfying and heartening things to be a part of, it's a great community and good work to do, so.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. I love that tradition. And we do have this theme of relationships which is great. Now carry that into the question for you, Rachel, which is your, you also work with the University of Missouri extension as a community engagement specialist. I assume, you know, relationships are critically important there and it takes a while to build them. But I also like in addition to telling us a little bit more about that position and how, how to go about doing that, I'm intrigued to hear both of you talking so much about terrestrial stuff, you know. Rivers and streams, and that we're at, we're talking about stabilizing things. We're talking about cutting down bush, honeysuckle, stewarding the land. How are those two things linked up Rachel, and in your mind.

Rachel Hopkins: They really go hand in hand. I, you, you look at conservation along the rivers and promoting good habitat. It really goes hand in hand. To me, I think a driving force is looking back and seeing what we look, what the ground looked at, or look like essentially 150 to 200 years ago. And that's a huge misconception. I think that we have had is everyone thinks the Ozarks used to be this huge, vast forest. And in reality, there was a lot of upland savannah. There were the big trees, the big, big forest that areas that people expect today, they were isolated, or they were in the river bottoms. They weren't covering the hills. You had upland savannas; you had these huge grasslands that are not there anymore. So, I think taking that back and bringing that approach, trying to convert something or trying to make it look like what it did is incredibly important. Not only to water quality, because we look at the water degradation that we've had. It's due to a lot of different factors. So, combining the two, making the two go together, you got your warm season grasses, you've got your native grasses, you have good grazing management. That that's a lot of it, whenever it comes to livestock is decent grazing management. And having people realize that and realize how they can essentially benefit the environment because large herbivores, you don't have good land management - you've got to have that. So, it really all comes together. And if you can work towards better water, water quality from a livestock perspective, you have better animals. You have a better story to tell.

Adam McLane: So Mike, you talked a little bit about the Watershed Committee's Conservation Corps, but tell us a little bit more about that and how the size and scale of that right now.

Mike Kromrey:  Sure. So, the Watershed Conservation Corps we started at about four years ago, we're in our fourth summer of operation and it all started with a small community conservation grant from the Conservation Department to work at Valley Watermill and improve our habitat. And we ended up hiring a person named Caleb Sanders who happened to be in town and had been working with conservation corps across the country. And as he was working for us, he identified that there was a major gap in the Midwest of conservation Corps to serve this area. We were in a donut in a, in a vacant the area that the closest ones were like Minnesota and Arizona that were doing work in this area. And a lot of our federal partners needed it says to conservation corps because it's easier for them to get work done through the conservation corps mechanisms. So, he saw the opening and I saw a need, which is we're applying green infrastructure more and more in our urban environment. We're having more and more interests, rurally in native plants and restoration. These things have to work. We've seen some green infrastructure projects fail. And usually it's, it's due to a lack of either skillful installation or skillful maintenance. And so, you know we're preaching all the time about how we need to have nature in our cities and use nature to clean our water. And, but we're, we're at this place where city crews don't really know how to take it care of it. So, we definitely saw the need and just sort of started by the seat of our pants. You know, we didn't have any big investment and fast forward now, four years, employing I think we'll be employing over 20 people this summer doing this conservation work. And the income from it is, is actually greater than all of our other or income sources for The Watershed Committee, now it's basically doubled in size sheer, and I think they're going to do four or $500,000 worth of business this year. And we've, we've established that the demand just is, is continuing to grow. And for us being a, basically a locally focused nonprofit, one of the big epiphany's this year was what we really need to do is double down and work more locally. So, we set ourselves a, basically a 200-mile radius from Springfield as our, as our project area. So, we are doing some work in Arkansas. We're doing work with private landowners, federal partners our city and our county and city utilities here in Springfield. And it's pretty exciting because what a great, you know, if you're in college and you're learning about all this stuff or maybe you're not in a natural resources field, but it's meaningful work. You get to learn, and you get to take care of a place. And we find that it's a really deep and rich experience for our corps members and our youth that we hire, and we're excited about it. Thanks for asking about it. It's, it's been a cool program and neat to watch it evolve so quickly.

Adam McLane: Yeah, I am really I'm really impressed by that growth and just hearing the, the demand that it can produce that much revenue. I mean, that's great. That's a business model working to move forward conservation, which is the epitome of people in nature, thriving together. You know, the stories that we try and come up with of examples where these things really work, and this is possible. That's a shining example of that working. So thanks for sharing it with us. What's in the green bag. I know, I know listeners can't see this picture, but if you can imagine Mike sitting in the chair in this office and there's kind of a kitchen over on the right, and then sitting behind him on this table as this like mysterious green gift bag. And I, I I'm distracted. I haven't even heard a word you've said through most of this podcast because I just want to know what's in the bag.

Mike Kromrey: Yeah. it's, it's fantastic stuff, Adam. We had a board meeting last night and these are the leftover gift bags. And what is in there is all the swag from our new Fellows Lake operation. So we have this really cool logo and there's a coffee cup in there and some stickers and a, you know, the little foam things. You put your boat keys on float. Yeah. Key float.

Adam McLane: Can you save me one of those bags?

Mike Kromrey: Yeah. I'll, I'll put your name on that one.

Adam McLane: Thank you. I put applied pressure on them on, and then it's recorded. So, this is great stuff. I was hoping it was something good in there and I could claim it. Rachel, you mentioned a project with Steve Herrington being the first one that where you worked with Steve and The Nature Conservancy introduced by Rob and all of that stuff. What was that project? Can you tell us a little bit about what that specific project was and how it worked?

Rachel Hopkins: Yeah, I'd love to. So that initial project covered close to between a quarter and a half mile of stream bank. If you could stand there imagining there was about an eight to 10-foot vertical bank from where the Creek was up to the top and it stretched along two different places. So, what they did is they came in after they got the permitting process and jump through hoops and we had to have an archeological dig done on it to make sure nothing was being disturbed. It took about a year and a half to get through all of those hoops. Finally got in there and what Steve and his team did. I believe it was water force or water resource solutions. They came in and they harvested trees off of our place. That was our contribution to it. They went in, they harvested trees, they took whole tree lengths, roots, tree, trunk. And in all they moved, I don't know how many hundreds and hundreds of trees from the hills down to the stream bank. They dug back the stream bank, and then they created essentially a wall with the root wads sticking upstream. And they buried these trees in the bank, 30 to 40 foot back and layered them in and sandwich them in and then put whims in there, and they created this huge mass. Once we saw what they were doing, we realized this is going to work. And on one site, so they're do to the permitting process they were able to get one site done. I believe in early spring, the other site, they had to stop due to bass spawning or something like that. For whatever reason they had to stop. They picked back up in the fall, the second site they did in the fall before we could get a lot of good vegetative growth on it, we had a pretty good flood hit. It did a little bit of damage, but they came back in and they rebuffered the area that was having issues. And it was where Rock Branch was dumping into the Huzzah. So, it was a tricky place anyway. And now I believe that at some point here, they're going to come back and do the place above Rock Branch, that compromised, that were blew out. So, it seems pretty simple. It's incredibly complex. And the way Steve described as he is such a good, he's so good at translating what, how this is going to work together into easy terms for people who don't have water engineering skills to understand, but it was an incredibly complex process. We actually gained about 30 foot of bank with them doing it with them beveling the edges and doing all the stuff that they did. It's an incredible project that we have shown off to a lot of people. We had people from the state come out, DNR and NRCS, I think maybe even the Corps came out. We've had a lot of different people come out and look at it. It's not necessarily a new practice, but it's new for that watershed. And new for the area. So it it's one of the few ways to stop erosion. As long as you start and end at solid points. It's really an incredible process. That is one of the few that can work.

Adam McLane: That is awesome. Thank you for walking us through that. And, and yes, Steve is really talented at, at describing things in a way that's understandable, probably because he has to talk to me a lot, Rachel. So, he has to like, he has to dumb down stuff a lot and he does good at it. Cause I just used in, in a, in a podcast previously recorded with the Army Corps of Engineers. We started talking to engineering and I basically just started describing sandcastle making. Cause that's the only thing that can make sense to me from engineer's standpoint. But when I think of stream bank stabilizations, I was like picturing like a you're just like building this giant sub sandwich, right? Where you put the, you gotta pull, pull this thing out and you gotta put down a good strong foundation. Then you start layering stuff in there and buttoning it all down. And in the case of stream bank stabilizations, then you're throwing some condiments on top or something and that's in the form of willow staking and all the other stuff, the mats that go there, but you're building this strong, layered thing, which represents what nature would have done. Right? I mean, it wouldn't have been a singular thing that the original, what nature had there was a lot of deep intertwined, root wads and other stuff that was holding it up. And I saw Mike's face since I had the luxury of looking at him on zoom. Light up when you talked about bass spawning. And so Mike, have you, have you floated the Huzzah before and, or gone down that for small mouth? I know you love to chase small mouth.

Mike Kromrey: Yeah, absolutely. And that I was going to ask Rachel about that. I grew up in Sullivan and Franklin County and the who's on the Coda-Way and the Meramec, those were floats streams that we frequented. So, Rachel, have you had any fishing reports, post your river work?

Rachel Hopkins: I know my husband who likes to fish. He walks around it and looks and fishing's his deal. It's not mine. I prefer the cattle, the fish are just, if it's not suckers, I don't care to eat it.

Mike Kromrey: Well, you have good taste as a, as a gigger on the Meramec. I can tell you there's nothing finer. So that's good.

Rachel Hopkins: No, but it seems like there's a lot of fish that liked to get up under the root wads. Now for fishing, it, I'm not sure how easy that is now because the lures, I think get hooked out a lot more stuff. But I, it looks like the fish enjoy it.

Adam McLane: I agree, I think they, they become little fish factories. Those, those bank re-stabilization like that, that have all that structure below the water are just dreams comes through for fish.

Rachel Hopkins: Yes. Yes.

Mike Kromrey: Well, if you ever need anybody to do any sampling of the section for small mouth bass, I'm sure you could talk Adam and I to come in and out.

Rachel Hopkins: Yeah. We'll just go, go to the Davisville portion and then work your way north.

Adam McLane: All right. That's awesome. So Rachel, did, I, I had some notes down here that said you won conservationist of the year award for Women in NRCS, and that was recognizing all the work that you've done on this land. Is that right?

Rachel Hopkins: Yes, that is correct. I guess it was back in 2019. It doesn't seem like two years ago, but I was nominated for that by Sandy. She works for NRCS and she nominated me. I didn't even know I was nominated. We were at a conference meeting up in Columbia and I knew she was going to be talking. And then she started talking about this award and all of a sudden, she started saying who the recipient was, didn't say out a name. And I'm like, oh my gosh, that's me. And I was blown away by it. Absolutely blown away.

Adam McLane: That's really great. Well, I know it's well-deserved and you've been a remarkable partner to us and many other people in your family have down there. So, thanks for all the work that you're doing. If you, you know, thinking of your initial description of little baby steps and not dying along the way, I, I can completely assume that it's overwhelming for people when they look for the look at even the suite of potential conservation practices that they could use on their land and think about trying to implement them. Would you give like any piece of advice to landowners who might want to try and implementing some of conservation practices.

Rachel Hopkins: Start very small. Start with easy things, start with things that, you know, you can digest. An easy one for people who want to start, for so for us a little bit of background, it's much easier for us to work with MDC programs because we've got that really good partnership with Rob Pulliam and Jeff Dierking. So, we work a lot with MDC programs, not discrediting Soil and Water or NRCS programs, but there's a lot more hoops with those. I like less hoops. If people are lucky enough to live in a priority geography area. And I believe there's 11, nine or 11 Missouri priority geography areas here in Missouri. They can do a lot with MDC - MDC's got a lot less paperwork. And once again, I'm not promoting MDC over any of the others, but if you're looking to start small and easy, a lot of times, those are less complicated. Woodland fencing, if you've got some bluff areas or areas that you know that can never be cleaned or are essentially not useful for anything, but your livestock get into them. And it's a pain to manage it when they do get in there. MDC's got a really good woodland fencing program, super easy to do. Fencing out ponds is another one. That's incredibly easy for folks to participate in. If they build a new pond for their livestock to water out of, and they put a watering system at the bottom of it and you in one of those priority geography areas, and I'm not sure about the other geography areas, I'm sure they can participate, but I don't know the specifics of if you don't live in a priority geography area. I mean, fence it out with, through MDC. You benefited yourself by helping to promote the stability of the pond cattle aren't getting in there, so they have better water quality. If you want to stock it with a few fish, you don't have to worry about the fish getting torn up or anything like that. Your pond's not going to get silted in as fast, due to livestock getting into it. I, it really, it's a benefit all around to do those small programs. Once you, once you start with those, start working your way up Soil and Water and NRCS, they've got great programs. If you want to go out and do a bunch of rotational grazing, but it takes time to get to that point. You just don't go out there and jump into it in a week. It takes time to build up and starting with baby steps, makes it much more palatable for people.

Adam McLane: Isn't that the story of life right there, baby steps start small, gain confidence, take a bite off a little bit more, have trust in the people that you're taking those steps with. Love it. Thank you so much for that, Rachel. Mike on the congratulations front I think, did I hear right that you got the you recently got a USDA regional conservation partnership program grant to help our waterways? Congrats my friend, tell us what that looks like for Green County and what plans are.

Mike Kromrey: Great. We were awarded $2.1 million. It's a one-to-one match. So, we're looking at a $4 million project, but let me, let me make a very complicated effort, as simple as I can. And it really is built on hundreds or thousands of small steps to this point. So, here in our community we have realized that our farmers and landowners, private landowners are not our biggest challenge to water quality. They're our biggest opportunity. People like Rachel and her family, that's our biggest opportunity. And what we've also realized through some pretty hefty modeling is that we, we run this model called the sustainable return on investment model. And this is looking at all the different ways. We can make our water cleaner. Our city utilities, they provide the drinking water and they are interested in water from a source water standpoint. And the dirtier water is the more expensive it is to treat and deliver. Our city and our county have federal requirements for the quality of water leaving our city. So, they're interested in nutrient removal and sediment removal. So how do you do that? You can build bigger treatment plants, you can implement street sweepers, you can do engineered solutions. So that's, they put all these different ideas of how to make water cleaner into this model. Here's what came out on top, $3 return on investment for every dollar spent on rotational grazing practices, riparian, buffers, even education outreach like we do at the Watershed Center was one of the highest return on investment scenarios.

Adam McLane: Did you just rig the survey to come out exactly how you, did you just rig the model to come out exactly on how you wanted it? Is that what happened?

Mike Kromrey: (laughs) Nope. I didn't feed the engineers any information. This is, but boy, was it a validating? It, you know, we, we operated on belief I think for a long time and it really was validated. And now we have money. We have dollar figures that we can put to this. And also, it makes sense too, because working upstream on the land, we're getting at the sources of the pollution issues rather than trying to treat the symptoms on the backend. And here's the best part. We can improve our local farming economy. We can make more resilient farms, farms that not only grow more and better cattle, but sequester carbon and increase soil health and make stream corridors that are not only stable, but more beautiful. And perhaps even have their own uses like a growing fruit and nut trees or, you know, permaculture situation. So you know, it's a big, complicated project, there are 10 partners. And as Rachel mentioned, the NRCS, isn't exactly the most user-friendly scenario for putting cost share dollars on the ground, but it's very good. And it's the only funding of this magnitude that we had available. And we actually think that we're gonna be able to do enough practices in a concerted enough effort in area that we will be able to see the water quality needle move. And our benchmark is where we suck it out of the James River into our drinking water supply. We have really excellent data for 30 years on that. So, we're going to be able to see how well we're doing. That's exciting. Yeah.

Adam McLane: That is exciting.

Rachel Hopkins: Mike, I think that what you said there is incredibly important for today's environment of an attack on agriculture and livestock agriculture that we are having. And that farms specifically livestock farms can be a benefit and can be part of the solution and working together with partners rather than a flat-out elimination of them. There is, there is so much pressure to reign in or to eliminate livestock. It depends on what you hear from what source, but even eliminate livestock. And with that, you remove a huge, you remove something that can contribute to this, to a solution dislike carbon sequestration. You have to have the herbivores out there for good sequestration. You look back at the grasslands of the west; they had the huge herbivores moving through. It can be done correctly, and it can be done very badly, but livestock can be a part of the solution as well, rather than just a flat-out abandonment of it. So, I think that's a very good story that you're telling there that it can be part of the solution.

Adam McLane: I agree. Thank you both for reinforcing that message. And that's exactly what I mean, everything can be even the best of things done can be done in an, in the wrong place or in the wrong way, or, I mean, renewable energy can be a great thing, or you can fragment a bunch of landscape because you put it in the wrong spots. And so, there's this, there's no silver bullet that, that fixes conservation by getting rid of this other thing. It's always this partnership of people in nature, finding ways to reinforce each other balance, each other, sustain each other and the needs of nature and of people. And I think you both just captured that really well. So I'm, before I wrap up, I am going to ask I I've just had this curiosity, Rachel, you've got a little one, I think, it's a girl, did I hear her in the background a little bit earlier?

Rachel Hopkins: Correct. I had to shut the door earlier because she was relaxing on the couch watching some cartoons there, but yeah, she is five getting ready to turn six.

Adam McLane: All right. So I have to know. Or do you have any hopes of her taking over as the next generation to steward the land that you're working on?

Rachel Hopkins: Of course. I mean, there's always that hope. I know I always had that want to. I remember from an early age that want to, I know my dad did not pressure me into it, and that's something I'm trying to not do with her. It's incredibly hard because I have a huge passion for it. But you always have hope. So, you never know what the future will hold, but if, without hope what future is there?

Adam McLane: Love it. Thank you. Well, in those, in with the words of wisdom like that I'm going to give you each a, an opportunity as we wrap up to, to say, just if there's one thing from your work in Missouri's river, that you'd like people to know, what would that be? It's if that's a, as generic in general, as a question is, as I possibly could throw your way, but it's because sometimes there's nuggets that you, that you want to share with people and this is a good format to do it. So, if there's one thing from your work that you want to share, what is it Mike,

Mike Kromrey: A hundred feet of trees. Let me, let me explain that a little bit more, but a hundred feet of trees. So, we visited the Stroud Water Resource Center in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago, and they've done most of the preeminent work on water, quality and rivers and Clean Water Act legislation and things about biodiversity and streams and dam impacts. And, you know, they they've really boiled that down to the best thing you can do for a river is a hundred feet of trees. That's about what it takes to get the full value of the stabilization of the soil, of the removal of nutrients and bacteria for many overland flow or sheet flow or surface flow coming into a river. And if I had a magic wand and could just make things appear, I would just protect a hundred feet of repairing area up and down every single foot of stream and river in Southwest Missouri, or how, you know, the world, whatever. But like especially in the Ozarks trees do so many good things for the river and it'll be fine until you start to eat into that riparian, that forested riparian area. And that's when the trouble occurs. So that's that.

Adam McLane: A hundred feet of trees. I like it. And do you want to, I know you have a son before he thinks that you cussed on a podcast. You want to spell dam impact?

Mike Kromrey: (laughs) D-A-M.

Adam McLane: Okay. Okay. Got it. Okay. Well done. Rachel, how about you? One last thing.

Rachel Hopkins: So, I think it takes a give and take on both the organization and landowner. I know that's what dad and I have encountered a lot is the organizations they want X, Y, and Z and X, Y, and Z does not always fit with the landowner or what the situation is. For us for example, is we have the way our ground lays, you can't always give that a hundred-foot buffer because you've got roads there. You've got other, you've got things there that cannot be moved without a whole lot of impact. And so that's what we have come back to time and time again, is there is no one size fits all is you have to have a give and a take from both the landowner and the organizations that you work with. That that's our biggest obstacle that we have faced is there is the hard, fast rules that organizations want that do not fit with the landowners. And that's the biggest reason why a lot of landowners don't want to work with organizations is because of the lack of flexibility. That you have got to have flexibility on both ends for the whole for the pie to be made. So that that's the biggest, that's my kind of closing. You have to have give and take on both ends, and it cannot be one way or the highway. You have to have flexibility and compromise and working with each other to see where the needs the wants and what can be done, where it lies. And with the understanding that creeks are moving a living organism, almost that move with the ebb and flow, and they may ebb one way and flow another and you for fencing for everything else, it cannot be set in stone. You have to have a give and a take. So that's kinda, my closing is, is a give and a take with both

Adam McLane: Love that and I'm sure I'm Mike would agree. I can look, see if I get the thumbs up from him. Yes, I get thumbs up. And think even things like the a hundred, a hundred feet of trees, I know the space that we all work in and that Mike works in and that, that involves flexibility and having desired outcomes that are shared is what makes the world go round. So, thank you to our guests for joining us today. It was awesome. Really appreciate your time here. And for all that you're doing to protect our water resources.

For more information about the stream bank project on Rachel's farm that we talked about, you can go to And for more information about The Nature Conservancy and what we do in general, visit And then if you want to reach out to the Missouri Extension office, the best way to do that is through And if you need to make contact or learn more about The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, their website is Thanks for listening and be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you can catch future episodes, take care.

Episode 4: Missouri has some of the most beautiful rivers, streams and creeks running throughout the state. In places like the Ozarks, those streams are home to species that exist nowhere else on earth. Protecting out water resources is critical for people and nature.

In this episode, you’ll hear from Mike Kromrey, the executive director for The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, and Rachel Hopkins, a farmer and county engagement specialist in agriculture and environment for MU Extension.

We’ll discuss the projects, practices and people who are dedicated to improving our water resources through practices they are implementing on their own land and what they are doing to help others who want to sustain and improve our rivers and streams.

Aeriel view of the Missouri River in Atchison County, MO.
Missouri River Aeriel view of the Missouri River in Atchison County, MO. © Route 3 Films

Moving a Levee on the Missouri River

Episode 3: A collaboration of partners who came together to move a levee on the Missouri River to benefit people and 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 today. This is episode number three 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. And if there was ever a story to tell that falls into that category of amazing and people working with nature, instead of against it, this is it. We're excited to be a part of this project and excited to share it with you all today. But before we get started, one request, it's the request I always give in these podcasts. If you like it, please pass it along to somebody else. Joining me in the studio is Barbara Charry, who is our floodplain and nature-based solutions strategy manager in Missouri; and joining us via zoom - on the other side of the state is Corina Zhang, who's an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps Engineers - Omaha district; and Regan Griffin, who's a board member of the Atchison County Levee District. So today we're going to talk about how these people and a host of other partners and community members moved to levee. You heard that right...we moved to levee! So let's jump into it, Regan, well first thanks for joining. And second question-wise, just help us all understand Rock Port, where is this place? Just take us there. What's the community like. What makes it special?

Regan Griffin: Yeah. Yeah. So Rockport is in the very Northwest, well, actually first I want to say good morning. Thanks for, thanks for having me on, but yeah, Rock Port's in the very Northwest corner of the state of Missouri. It's funny actually, when you talk to some folks when you start talking about how far up it is, they think, well, wait, we're still in Missouri at that point...cause we're, we're our closest big city is actually Omaha, Nebraska. So

Adam McLane: That's're almost near Canada, I think. Is that right?

Regan Griffin: Yeah, we can, you know, I can see it from my house. As someone once said. But yeah, you know, it's, I feel like it's one of those towns that's like all the country songs, which is why I think people in small towns like country songs, cause there's one traffic light you know, just everything revolves around the school or revolves around life, in the small town. You know, it's, I think the big thing that makes it special town is very bonded together. I know we've been kind of growing up here as a town where it felt like we supported the youth well, and we still do just a town that cares for looks after each other care for one another. Just love to love to be people who are good to one another. So I think that describes it well.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. Well, on the country theme, do you have a dog and a truck?

Regan Griffin: (Laughs) No, I have a truck I haven't got a dog yet, although my two daughters want us to get one soon, so I'm sure that'll happen

Adam McLane: (Laughs) Very good, thank you. And you, you help run your family farm there. Is that right?

Regan Griffin: Yeah. Yeah. I just came back in 2018 to take over Griffin Farms. So I've been doing family has been in the farming business for about a hundred and well since 1860. So a fourth manager in that time. So it's been a long time.

Adam McLane: Wow. Okay. And then I'm also going to jump over here to Corina. So Corina welcome. Do you want to introduce yourself just a little bit and then I want to hear about how you were brought onto the project.

Corina Zhang: Yes, good morning. And thank you guys so much for the opportunity to come and chat with you guys. And it's like, I'm getting to hang out with all my good friends here. And yeah, great question of when we, when I was brought onto this project. So I was brought on you know, pretty early in the project. So I worked with the Corps and my role was one of the resident engineers. So I'm on the construction side of the Corps. And one of my earliest memories I remember was actually working with Regan and it was a bunch of us engineers and I think it was like the levee district. And this was after we had decided you know, realigning, the levee was a good idea or setting it back. And we were in like this little office and somebody like put a Sharpie in somebody's hand and said, okay, where would you draw it?

Corina Zhang: (laughs) And we were, we were looking and trying to draw out like, so what would, what makes sense? And you know, I remember talking about all of the real estate and all of the different landowners, you know, being part of the conversation. And I remember talking to to a few people and people's faces were like, oh, that's not gonna work about alignment's not gonna work. And and then when we finally landed on it, we started moving forward. But that was probably the earliest one we were just thinking about, would this even work? Is this gonna, this is gonna work.

Adam McLane: I'm mindful that I'm sitting here thinking like we've had this, we've talked to this language for two years on the project, a levee, a levee district, a levee board, a setback, a all of this stuff. And I'm mindful that a lot of the viewers or the lot of listeners probably have no idea what we're talking about. So let's do that together and then kind of deep dive into the project and the set. So maybe I'll go back to Regan. Regan, would you just tell us what a levee district is and how it comes into play within your community?

Regan Griffin: Yeah, yeah. So the Atchison county levee district are responsible for the 56, roughly miles of levee that sits along the Missouri river, which is all along the west side of our county. And so we were formed in the late 1940s, early 1950s as the federal levee program was getting started. And so originally the group was there to basically kind of work with local landowners to say, "Hey, where can we build this levee?" Kind of like Corina we're saying, get the Sharpie out, but back in the forties and fifties and say, where do we want this levee to set and work with local landowners to compensate them for that ground. And then since that time, it's the levee district or levee board's job to continue to do maintenance upkeep of the levees. And then a big piece is just the, the personal interactions and the connection of the Corps of Engineers who you know, basically is the, the arm of, you know, making the levee's work and, and continuing to make sure that they're all protected.

Adam McLane: Awesome, all right. And then before even getting into the project, you know, I kind of skipped us ahead. So I'm sorry about that Corina. I was like, "let's get into the details of the project", but why, why, why was the project even needed? Why did we have to draw things on a map and say, will this even work? Talk to us about the flood of in 2019 Regan or Corina.

Regan Griffin: Yeah, I mean, you know, the 2019 flood was, I mean, by far the worst flood we've experienced in Northwest Missouri. We had one in 2011. It was interesting, there was a meeting in November of 2018 where John Remus, who is chief of, I can't remember his title, I'm sure Corina can correct me, but he basically manages the river Missouri river for the Corps of Engineers. But he had a meeting in November of that year and a lot of local farmers and levee district people at the time got together. And I remember over and over people saying, this is like, it feels a lot like the fall of 2010, which 2011 was the last really bad flood we had. And so there's already some sense of, okay, 2019 could be a bad year. A lot of the soil was very saturated, had a lot of water on the levees the previous year.

Regan Griffin: And then that that winter through 2018 to 2019 had a lot of snowpack up north. And so there's some apprehension. And I mean, even the Corps was warning that this could be a really bad year. And then in March of that year is when the bomb cyclone hit, which just absolutely dumped a ton of rain on the area. Melted a lot of snow know that was already expected to hit, but then all of a sudden hit at one time. And it was just a kind of a perfect storm that, that really nailed us at that time.

Adam McLane: And what, how, what did, how long did it last that flooding, and what was the impact on the community?

Regan Griffin: Yeah, well, so I mean the original hit was in about March 15 when the waters first started over-topping to our levees and, you know, probably had our first breaches within about three or four days of that. And so that was March. I mean, we had floodwaters at least to October, November in certain areas. So it was it was the longest flood we've ever experienced. I mean, usually, you know, when you're talking to maybe a few weeks of that, but I think it was an all six plus months of water in some areas standing, which was just really, really devastating. I mean, we're an agricultural area. So, you know, a lot of the places that were hit were farming you know, for farm ground, but, you know, also just even we have a local elevator that was flooded and absolutely destroyed, and a lot of ways took a lot of money to build that back.

Regan Griffin: And then just other businesses the railroads, another thing BNSF has a railroad that runs right through the middle of our county. And that was shut down for a long time, which, I mean, the think you'd solve it, there's always BNSF guys out there trying to fix that. Cause I mean, that's kind of a main artery through the center of the country. Even shipping coal. I know there for awhile, I'd heard the stories. I'm not for sure if it's fully true, but they're responsible for bringing coal into certain cities for powering them. And I think there's a, there's talk for a while even the federal government having to basically kind of takeover to help with that. Cause they were worried that they could get to the places they need to. So just a lot of, a lot of stuff was, was on the ropes at that point.

Adam McLane: Wow. Barbara, I remember, I think you driving through that area, right. Weren’t you traveling at that time?

Barbara Charry: I was, I was coming down in May from a high school graduation visit and saw all the flooding and I'd heard about the flood in March and it was May, and it was like looking out at a lake and I said, this is supposed to be a river. I was blown away and I-29 was still close in some areas and we had a detour around yeah.

Adam McLane: And grain silos.

Barbara Charry: Yep, grain everywhere. It was, it was really devastating and, and really made a big impression on me. Yeah.

Adam McLane: Yeah, wow. Okay. Well, we get to get to the uplifting part of this whole thing. Cause I know that was tragic and had a tremendous impact on the community and Corina then gets to step in and say, okay, let's pull that Sharpie marker out. Let's start thinking about how to repair this right, Corina?

Corina Zhang: Yeah. And to help give folks an understanding of what drove, like why did it make sense to set the levee back? The Corps of Engineers the, the levee systems are driven by public law 8499, also known as PL-8499 and the damages really drive the technical solution that the Corps executes. And when we think through, as an engineer, you think through, you have a problem and then you have variables and constraints, and then you think of what are the solutions to that problem. And so when, when we were approached with this problem, the levee itself, the old levee was so damaged that when we considered well, what would be the least-cost and technically acceptable solution actually making a new levee started making sense. To give some context, the, the old levee on a levee system, L-536 that the Atchison county levee the overall damages for the existing levee was over 11 miles, if you included all the breaches and all of the damages to the old, the old levee system. So when we were thinking about it over 11 miles damage, and then you compare it to, well, what if we built a new levee and that's about the new alignment was four and a half new miles of levee. You start thinking that could cost that could cost less. And when we did the analysis, that's what ended up making sense. And so what was really risky though, was taking a strategic pause and saying, well, that means we're not going to close the breaches right away. The other levee systems, we started initially just closing breaches one after the other, but in order for this to stay the least cost, technically feasible solution, we, we took a year to develop the real estate of what that new alignment would look like. And so that took some time, but we all collectively agreed that even though that risk is worth this investment essentially. And so when, when everybody was on board with that, knowing the risks that, okay, we're not going to close the levee breaches, but we are going to make this new levee. And the levee sponsor was on board. You know, the community was on board. All of our local stakeholders are on board. So that's when a lot of momentum started happening. And and it was really cool to watch everybody like come together, but it just, we didn't skip a beat, even though there were a lot of challenges as I'm sure Regan and Barb could talk at length about.

Adam McLane: Well, and I just for cause I, it was, so I knew all about this project and I had seen aerial photography and images and all sorts of things, but until I actually got there to see the size and scope of this it is really, really something. And it's hard to capture in words, but in terms of a levee setback, trying to make that a familiar, or breeched even to a levee, familiar to the audience, I did a lot of sand castle building in my days by the ocean. And so you build this giant wall for your sand castle and you had your little front entrance and then the tide would start coming up a little bit and slowly but surely that just starts getting undermined. And then finally, boom, it blows out. So that's a lot of what would occur with a levee, right? And then, so we moved the sand castle back by 15 feet. So that, that tide wasn't going to get there or when it did, it was just going to barely be touching. And is that an accurate capture to the general public? Other than it not being an ocean and it's not sand...I get that.

Corina Zhang: I love that analogy. Yeah, I was actually talking to one of my colleagues, Lowell, Lowell Blankers, he's another engineer. And he said, you know, the, the simple engineering description is "you moved the levee." And so if you, yeah, like you're a little like the sand castle, you can, you know, almost you know, if you pinch your fingers together, when you look, you know, close to your eye and you, you, you pinch it and then you move, it that's really what happened to the levee. And it seems very simple, but when you start thinking about all of the different things that are involved in order to make that happen, you have to find a lot of, a lot of dirt, essentially, a lot of material that's clay, that's sand, that's top soil. There's a lot of real estate coordination. There's environmental compliance that needs to happen. There's contractual obstacles that happen, or just writing the contract in general. There's creating a new foundation that also has to happen for the new levee. So there's a lot of there's just a lot that goes in. It's not just a, you know, pitching it with your fingers and then moving it. There's a lot more that goes in. And for some context of the amount of material that was moved the, the new levee alignment took it - we've moved almost 2 million cubic yards of material. And just for some context that would almost fill the AT&T stadium where the Dallas Cowboys meet. So that's a, it's a lot of, a lot of dirt...a lot of dirt.

Adam McLane: Thank you for that description, Barbara, I'm going to pull you in here too. Cause I think, you know, as Corina described that moment in time where it started making sense that it was possible that a levee setback might be feasible and economically viable in this situation, that's kind of when the about at the time you got pulled in, does that sound right?

Barbara Charry: We were pulled in really pretty early on, I think it was June when we started the inquiries that, you know, one of the big issues for a levee setback is a need for real estate, you know, for the new footprint and then all the land that's going to be on the riverside of the new levee. And so that was a big consideration and, and a big problem to solve. So that was the initial reason we were pulled in. And it just seemed like such a compelling idea and such an incredible project that, back in August of 2019, I pulled together a whole bunch of partners to say, okay, this is an incredible idea and incredible opportunity. This is something that community really, really wants. How can we all come together and make it, make it work? So we had started having that discussion in August with that meeting in St. Joe. And then we continued to meet, and that was kind of The Nature Conservancy's role is, you know, trying to help figure out the real estate component and then bringing people together and convening meetings. And we just started meeting regularly in small groups and in large groups and encountering problems and, and challenges and figuring out ways to address them as we went on, you know, month by month through the process.

Adam McLane: That's awesome. So this is a huge project. Were there moments in time, you know, Corina spoke to some of the challenges in brief, but was there a moment in time that you were like, this can never's too big.

Barbara Charry: There were a lot of moments in time like that. It was a really big project. And honestly, in talking to lots of people there, you know, a lot of shaking heads of, yeah, this'll never happen. And so that was actually good going into this with eyes wide open saying, you know, this is really worth doing. It's worth learning about if we can make this happen, it will be such an incredible opportunity for the community. But we know it's a big challenge and it may not happen. And so that kept us going with realistic ideas and, and but, but we kept going and kept solving problems and every time we think, okay, we've got this figured out. And then there would be something else that we needed to address and learn, because it's really a learning experience for everybody involved. And we, and we kept solving problems and, and it's just incredibly excited to have a levee on the ground now protecting that community.

Adam McLane: Wow. Well, this is, I know having seen this project move forward, that there were a tremendous number of partners and what the win like this and success full completion. Do you want to name some of those partners?

Barbara Charry: I sure do. I mean, this is the ultimate partnership project. It was just an incredible effort. And each partner really had a really critical role and I really want to give a shout out to all of them. There was the Northwest Missouri Council of Governments, and they were really incredible on helping in the local level, helping with grant opportunities, environmental and economic assessments. And then there's the Missouri River Recovery Program. And they were instrumental in providing land and material for building that new levee. The Natural Resources Conservation Service was also critical. They were helping with enrolling landowners in conservation easements. And so this was a way to compensate the landowners for the now riverside land. They have a really important program called the Emergency Watershed Program - Floodplain Easement. And this is disaster funds that come after the 2019 fund that Congress appropriates them and makes them available through NRCS.

Barbara Charry: So that was a really important role. The Department of Natural Resources in Missouri, they were a real problem solver and they helped coordinate all the state agencies that were involved and worked with the Governor as well. And then the Missouri Department of Conservation provided funds for real estate, as well as the State Emergency Management Agency. Again, they were key for providing funding for real estate through appropriations by the legislature that they had made help levee boards and levee districts around the state recover from the 2019 flood. So it was, it was a great effort and each in each of those and all the staff for those different agencies really brought their "A" game. I mean, they were really tremendous problem solvers and team players.

Adam McLane: Wow, there's a quote, I don't know who said it, but I I, it always comes to mind in moments like that, which has many hands make light work. And it sounds like that was required for this levee district and I mean, for this levee itself. And then it also sounds like, I mean, there has to be a Venn diagram that had this project sitting right in the middle of that many different missions and future goals for the future. Is that rare, or do you think that that Venn diagram exists elsewhere too?

Barbara Charry: I think it exists elsewhere for sure. And I think, you know, the key role that The Nature Conservancy was able to play because as a nonprofit, we could bring all those different groups together and look at it holistically. You know, each of the agencies have these incredible missions and they provide different components. And, but bringing that Venn overlap part together was kind of our role. And I really do think it could be replicated elsewhere.

Adam McLane: Regan. So what was it like for I'm imagining this moment in time where the, the line gets drawn on a map and the engineering begins and it all makes sense and they start to do a cost analysis, but there's landowners involved and a community involved, in a new kind of project. What was that like when, when you went back to the community and the levee district started talking to the community and landowners around about this idea?

Regan Griffin: Yeah, I know I was, I was pretty apprehensive. I mean, we, you know, like I mentioned before 2011 had a flood in 93, I had a flood, we had high water events in between those years. And I would just say the general approach has been, always, don't give an inch, you know, kind of just put back in place. We gave you your, you know, we gave you the levee seventy years ago. You're good. And you know, I think in general, the thought was maybe if we start giving up, they're just going to basically want more ground or, you know, we're, we're, we're benefiting you know, nature groups with just giving up stuff, you know, kind of that sense of us versus them, unfortunately, mentality. But you know, really when we went to the landowners and it started talking to them one, I mean, you know, we looked at this just like Barbara saying, I mean, this was one of those opportunities that benefited, you know, groups that maybe wouldn't normally be on the same side together.

Regan Griffin: But then also, I mean, in looking at it, we, we kind of realized too, this is our best chance for helping some of our landowners in the way they'd been affected by the flood. I mean, they were there's some ground that was just absolutely devastated. And looking back, even at the 2011 flood, we had landowners, the same thing happened. And again, didn't try for a setback. I don't think it would have probably qualified then anyways, the way the, where, where it was broken at. But you know, there's landowners are still not able to use that ground. You know, it's still a pile of sand and a lot of places. And so our thought was we're helping our local landowners, the best we can, we're helping the, you know, by and large the community and the landowners in the area, because we're, we're hoping to give them better resiliency in a flood, hopefully in the future. And then all of the other partners who are coming together, everyone's kind of getting a part that they get to see something a key part of what they're trying to advance happen. And so we're kind of felt like this is, this is a perfect moment to do this.

Adam McLane: So Corina help us fast forward to today and where the project currently is. And, but I do, you do have to go backwards a little bit and talk about the dredging, the sand from the, from the river part of solving a challenge, because that's just too cool a story not to share. But then after you do that, take us to present day up there, what works still remains.

Corina Zhang: Yes. This project from a construction perspective was just so cool and innovative. I'm going to geek out a little bit here. But yes, but if you think about going back, how do you move 2 million cubic yards of material or approximately 2 million yards of material, you have to find that material from somewhere. And so that includes sand for your seepage berms, which is on the land side of, of the levee cross section. And we realized early on that we don't have enough sand actually to complete this. And so we were working with everybody. I remember we went into our meeting where there's like 20 different people. You know, that Barb is leading here and we were thinking, you know, we really need really need sand. And so it was actually one of one of our leads in the field, his name's TJ Davey. And he said, well, how about we dredge the you know, the sand seepage berms. We had already used this in a different form early on in our previous projects where we closed the breaches using dredging because it wasn't accessible via land. And so that was the best way to actually close the breaches quickly. And we thought, well, if we could close breaches, maybe we can dredge in place the sand seepage berms. And so that took a lot of coordination with ensuring that we are compliant with environmental regulations. I remember Dru Buntin from, from MDNR making a call to help us like expedite this permit that we needed. Otherwise, we were going to lose our window to dredge. Cause you only have a short window when you can do the, these sort of activities in order not to impact like the from an environmental perspective. And then also from like a transportation perspective, like there's freights that go up and down the river too. And we actually got it done, like we pulled it off and I remember that dread coming in and we figured out where it would be least impactful to get the sand material and we made so if you think about it, there's a slurry. So there's water and sand that is being dredged out and it's going through this giant kind of vacuum tube, so to speak. And, and then it goes in place where where we put it. And so in order to contain the water, we made these we called it containment berms on either side and made sure that the water went into these ditches that were already existing. And then they go out back into the river and when the water comes out and the sand settles you're left with fully compacted, sand seepage berms. And so they were, it was phenomenal. It was excellent material and it was so cool to see it happen. You saw my not miles, but a lot of pipelines from the river going into this levee and never been done before. And a lot of people were very skeptical. They thought is this, is this even possible? The entire group, whenever some sort of innovative idea happens. It's like, why not? Why not try? I love it.

Adam McLane: I was Corina. I, I could have told them it would work because I've dripped castles. Right. So I'm going back to my castle. That's my only engineering that I've ever done in my life, probably as clearly and obviously building sand castles by the ocean, but the slurry is really like a drip castle. Right? So you were just vacuuming drip castle material, spraying it on top.

Corina Zhang: That's it, that's it you know, some full concept there, kids do it all the time, right?

Adam McLane: Yes. It'll just be the explanation whenever, whenever you try and do innovative things in the future and you get pushback from other engineers, just turn it into a childhood story about sand castles or something and I'm sure they'll be like, oh, that makes sense.

Corina Zhang: Absolutely. I'm going to try to live my life as childlike as possible. But yeah, so to continue on with where we're, where we are. So we so we are pretty close to the end. We actually have, believe it or not, we have a levee in the new alignment. If you look on Google imagery, you'll see the old levee alignment, and now you see the levee alignment in place. It's, it's so cool. We are we're pretty close to the finish line. So in March was our big push to achieve a full height, levee you know, cross section and then get fully encapsulated by, by mid-March. And we were successful in that, and everybody had a part in it, every agency, everybody on the ground, a lot of the local landowners and the local farmers actually were the operators that help build this levee.

Corina Zhang: So that was huge. They were directly invested in making this happen and we yeah, we're pretty close. We're right now just finishing up the sand seepage, berms and placing topsoil, and then we're going to be seeding and just restoring the ground in between the old and the new levee. So it's a lot of restoration activities we're looking to be complete in the summertime this year, which is pretty incredible. If you think about when the flood happened back in 2019 in two years completing it, that's wild. That's wild.

Adam McLane: That is incredible. Thanks for sharing that story Corina and you know, I'm just trying to recap, and then maybe I'll hand it to you Barbara, to let us know the nature side of what the impact will be on the riverside and potentially for nutrients and that stuff. But in recapping, so we had 2019, you know, that, that two year window that you're talking about 2019, multiple breaches in this section, then deciding in partnership with the community and the levee district, that boy, this is really viable to do this setback, then full construction of that. And when you were talking about operators of the community, helping in these, I mean, that is heavy duty machinery from all around that's coming and moving dirt and moving dirt and moving dirt. And then now you're sitting in a spot where it's been realigned, it's back. It's complete on the one side and you're working on, you know, the other, the non-riverside, just wrapping that side up all within two years. Is that right?

Corina Zhang: That's a great summary. I also forgot this is a key detail, but I forgot to mention that in between that time, when we were moving dirt the, the Midwest got hit with a polar vortex. I believe most of you all experienced where it was like negative 20 for, for like several days. And then just freezing cold for gosh it was like weeks, I  feel like. But I gotta hand it off to the team who continue to be innovative. And they came up with this idea to use these giant tents where you can put thousands of cubic yards - and we had eight tenths that were spread around the site and we pumped them full of heat with heaters. I remember it was, gosh, it was, you know, it was pretty cool, like, you know, in the single digits and you would go on one of these tents, and I remember reading the temperature was like close to 80 degrees in there. So that was the job that people wanted on, when that's happening, you know, help man the tents. But that really helped us to keep maintaining our momentum because once the cold let up, we were able to continue directly placing, otherwise if we wouldn't had those, we would have been solved for several weeks. No doubt. But, but yeah.

Adam McLane: Well, and I saw those tents on that visit. And so listeners, if you were to think about like your little gazebo tent that you use at sporting events or whatever, they'd have the little frame that goes up on the side, multiply that times like 3 million. And that's probably the size of it. It was like two football fields would fit inside. There was a football field. What was it, Corina? Was it a football field would fit inside each one of those tents? And you had like 10 of them.

Corina Zhang: I want to say it was, I can't remember the actual amount, but you can fit a giant excavator in there and dozers. And, and so you can think about moving that. I think it was approximately two or three football fields, something like that.

Adam McLane: Okay. Barbara we've talked infrastructure on the site and the design of the levee itself. But there, but we're also talking about digging soils out and replacing them and then having, what a thousand new acres inside that are now connected to the levee or connected to the river is that accurate?

Barbara Charry: That's right. That's right. So doing this levee setback, we're ending up reconnecting over a thousand acres of land that was landward of the old levee - it's now river word of the new levee and reconnected to the river. So this has incredible environmental benefits and it's been seen in other places where, where land's been reconnected to the rivers and restored just an incredible amount of habitat. I mean, floodplain habitat is incredibly rich. It is just high value for lots of animals. One of the things that happens is the fish species really do great in there. They spawn, its nurseries. And so that in turn provides a ton of food for birds and mammals. And so it's just an incredible place for, for nesting animals and feeding and migrating animals. And so this area is actually, it's actually where the Mississippi and the central flyway come together up on the Missouri river in that area. And so you've got a tremendous amount of waterfowl that are migrating through and they are hungry. They need, they need a lot of energy to make it up and down on their trips. So we've seen, you know, in these places that there's a lot of response and a lot of use, and when the levee's restored all that land and they're excavating and building, they're creating these small depressions that are mimicking and become wetlands, right. Where, where all that food and, and feeding can happen. So that's part of the construction process is recreating those wetlands and then allowing things to sort of naturally vegetate and restore that way. And we know on the Missouri River because it's levee there, there's not a lot of these floodplain pools. And so they're really important places for wildlife or migrating along the Missouri River. So this is really creating a lot more of that habitat. And then also water quality. That's another, you know, another really key benefit for nature and for people to actually. That story you're talking about the the seepage berms for the dredged material. You know, it's the same thing when, when the waters come into a floodplain, all the water slows down and all that sediment and material that's in the water settles out just as, as you use to create the new levee that's happening in the floodplain. And so those sediments, which are have a lot of nutrients in them, they settle out, out on floodplains and help clean the water. So it's, you know, contributing to a cleaner water, which is, which is another great benefit of this project.

Adam McLane: Wow. Regan, can you tell me your favorite place to eat breakfast in Rock Port without getting in trouble with other people that have breakfast places up there?

Regan Griffin: (laughs) Unfortunately, there's, there's a few places that opened it up. I haven't tried, there's a new place called the Bowling Alley, I need to try out. But unfortunately we had a lot of restaurants closed because of the flood at least kind of two. And so unfortunately it was one of them that I like, so I need to try out the Bowling Alley otherwise it's, McDonald's usually, which wouldn't really call a good breakfast place. I'm not going to call it that.

Adam McLane: Okay. Well you go to this breakfast place, whichever one, it happens to be whether it's McDonald's or the Bowling Alley is that you said I was gone. Yep. Okay. Okay. So you go sit at the Bowling Alley for breakfast and have a cup of coffee, and there's a lot of other people sitting around having a cup of coffee, and they're talking about this project and how it all happened and whether they feel good about it or whether there's still anxiety or what does that coffee talk sound like right now in a community the size of Rock Port?

Regan Griffin: I mean, I think the big thing is just the hope for, we're not going to be doing this again in five or 10 years. And I mean, you know, there's a lot of issues, climate change, whatever that might be causing this to happen more regularly. But our hope was in doing this project, that we were not going to be fighting the same fight over and over, which we've been fighting now for years. But that, you know, this section of levee, at least we're not going to have to say, okay we had another catastrophic fail there, the next flood. But, you know, potentially it moved back and we don't even have flooding there. Or if we do, you know, that this new levee, the design of it, the way it was built, that it's going to stand up. And so our hope is that the landowners down there feel, Hey, we're secure for, you know, these, these events stand for 67 years. We're, we're good for another 67 plus years you know, be protected.

Adam McLane: What would you tell other levee boards or communities that you know, look to this as a, hmm. Is this something that we should consider? What would you tell those groups or how to go about even starting thinking about a process like this?

Regan Griffin: I mean, you know, it's kinda like, I was just saying, I think the big thing was, we just, we said we've got to do different you know, we don't, and I'm sure a lot of communities feel like this who've experienced floods or flooding, you know, 2019, maybe 2011, maybe 93, similar rests or, or other kind of moments like that, that, you know, you can keep fighting that same area, keep, you know, hey, we're going to figure out how to put this right back together, where it is. And then, you know, the next flood potentially have to deal with that same spot. Or you can say, hey, let's use the opportunity to look at other options for solving this situation. And, and that's what we did thankfully we had you know, the rest of the board was on board for that. Thankfully the community members, the landowners specifically, but other folks that we were working with were behind it. And I mean, I'd say the biggest thing, you know, you asked Barb, you ask Corina, I mean, we, we, this would not have happened without the partners involved and we're so thankful for TNC and all the work that they did, the Corps as well, and worked with some great folks, Corina and others at the Corps. But yeah, I mean, even felt very supported and backed by our Governor, Governor Parson and Dru Buntin, the DNR, and so many different agencies saying, hey, we want to help make this happen because I mean, this is a lot of money, the real estate piece, and, you know, putting all together, it was, it was a lot of money that a levee district like ours just doesn't have the money to do that. But thankfully we had, you know, bigger groups and bigger agencies who were willing to say, hey, if you guys are actually willing to do this, we're willing to come alongside you. I mean, that's a big piece is just, you know, it's, it's not, it doesn't have to be owned by your local community. I think if you start reaching out, I think there's groups that will help make this happen. If you start asking the right people and getting there.

Adam McLane: I love it. And since Regan started talking about hopes for the project and for it lasting a long time and hopes within the community, I'll ask Corina and Barbara both about what are your hopes from this project? So Barbara, you want to go first and then I'll hand it over to Corina.

Barbara Charry: Sure. So, you know, I really, I really hope that this, this project inspires people to find solutions for their community that really improve their lives, improve habitat, benefit, nature and that they reach out to develop partnerships. And that when things are difficult, it doesn't mean they're impossible. There's always way to get things done. You know, just what Regan was saying, you know, with community leadership and reaching out you know, really that's, that's the most important ingredient is that community leadership,

Adam McLane: Great, Corina? What are you, what are your hopes for this project moving forward or what, what was learned from this project or what is learned from the project? Tell me about your hopes.

Corina Zhang: Man. Craig question. I really want to echo what Bard said. And my hope when people look at this project is they see it and say, we can overcome big obstacles to that. There's nothing too big that can't be overcome and, and, and to bring people with them like you really need, you need everybody, you can't, there was no way this project could have been done just with one entity. There's, there's no way and big problems that, that a lot of people face that a lot of different agencies will face you, you need everybody. And that you're on the same team that I, yeah, my hope is that when people look at this, they see that even though all of these different agencies had different priorities or different resources, we were all on the same team and that we all wanted each other to win just as much as we want to have our priority met too. But yeah, you, you need each other, we all need each other.

Adam McLane: Last words that anybody wants to share with, or talk to about the partnership or anything else about this project before we kind of wrap up this story.

Barbara Charry: You know, I just wanna, I just wanna thank everybody. You know, I want to thank everybody for coming together for the partners, for being honest and, and digging deep for solutions being willing to take chances and going above and beyond, you know, it was a big lift for everybody involved and I really want to thank them for seeing what was possible. And, and again, the success of the project was really due to each agency and each person and Corina and Regan and, you know, all, all the others. So thank you.

Regan Griffin: I would just say kind of, I mean, even Barbara was mentioning earlier about the hope piece. I know one of the things we were even helpful to help, you know, be a pilot program, I guess you would say again, helping communities realize you don't have to keep doing the same thing over and over there's opportunities to kind of change and help set yourself to be more resilient. And so that was even one of our things going into this is realizing, I mean, this, this doesn't happen normally. And there's a reason why all this, all the hoops you had to jump through you, it was pretty difficult. So hopefully the next time someone decides, hey, I'd like to maybe look at doing one of these, that the blueprints there, we know how to do it now. And you know, you know, you guys at TNC or other agencies can step in and say, hey, it's, it's not reinventing the wheel. We can do this.

Corina Zhang: oh man, they all, everything that you guys said. I also do just want to thank everybody who's listening right now, who took the time and wanted to listen. And then and the, the leadership of all of the different agencies, they helped support us whenever we would make decisions. You know, they, they really supported us and were behind us. And I think you know, good leadership, sometimes it's hard to come by. And the leadership of all of these different agencies were very instrumental. And so they all know who they are and we all appreciate them.

Adam McLane: Well, I am going to share something Corina with Corina and Barbara. That's kind of personal. I have an 11-year-old daughter named Morgan who loves to build stuff and is like, she's strong-willed. And so seeing you too, in your leadership positions within this project, just like rocking out a levee and figuring out new problems and how to move them forward is like an incredible role model, like to look up to. And, and cause she thinks about, you know, out in the world, what is it that I can, and can't do? What are my skillsets gonna allow me to do? And seeing people like you leading these kinds of projects is really, really cool. So thank you for that leadership and for rocking this kind of stuff out for future generations to look at and go, yeah, I can do that. I can build levees. Heck yeah.

Regan Griffin: I'd like to get some quality women working here.

Adam McLane: Agreed. Well, thank you all very, very much. I know zoom is difficult to do these things onto and so you taking the time to share this story, I think is really remarkable. I want to share all my gratitude for the partnership that created this project. And I share all of these hopes that you all share in particular that it works and it works for a long, long, long, long time. Because I think that's a pathway forward to seeing more and more of these happen in the right places throughout that system. And I want to thank everybody that listened today. 

And if you have, if you have a desire to dig a little bit deeper into this project, pun not intended, but it's pretty good. One for more information on the project, go to - that levee with two E's. And for more info about The Nature Conservancy and what we do, you can visit, visit So thanks for listening and be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you can catch future episodes.

Episode 3: The flood of 2019 devastated many communities along the Missouri River, including the farming town of Rock Port, MO. The local levee district knew they had to do something different to stop the impacts of repetitive flooding and protect their community. The solution: setting back the levee to give the river more room.

In this episode, you’ll hear from Regan Griffin, a member of the Atchison County Levee District; Corina Zhang, an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District; and Barbara Charry, TNC’s floodplains and nature-based solutions strategy manager.

Host and Missouri state director, Adam McLane walks us through the complex process of moving a levee and all the pieces and people who came together to make it a reality - and how the new levee is benefiting people and nature.

It's in Our Nature podcast guest.
Doug Ladd It's in Our Nature podcast guest. © Route 3 Films

Fight for Survival: Missouri's Endangered Species

Episode 2: Guests Doug Ladd and Jeff Briggler talk about what's being done to save some of Missouri's most vulnerable species.

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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, the Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. Thanks for joining us today. This is episode number two of our new podcast. Where the goal of that podcast is to share stories that we just think really highlight the connection between people and nature, the amazing things that can happen when we work together. And fun episode today, I'm prepared for laughter. And because I'm spending time with someone who usually does that to me, we have a fun episode. It might get a little nerdy, just caution, but we have a guest that many of you know, and surely admire, but before we get started, my one request always in these podcasts, if you like it, please share it with others. So drum roll for our guests, Doug Ladd, the former director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy. How long Doug, how many years?

Doug Ladd: A little over 32, little over 32 years.

Adam McLane: And today the reason we brought Doug in today, we're talking endangered species. In 2019 TNC launched a partnership with the giant screen/IMAX film, which is called Back From the Brink. It tells the true story of three animals rescued from the brink of extinction California's Channel Island, Fox China's golden monkey and the migrating crabs of Christmas Island. And exciting for us...TNC is featured, with our colleagues in all of those places. And it's been playing in museums, science centers, and other cultural theaters, actually playing at our science center here in St. Louis now, depending on when you're catching this podcast. I'd encourage you to go to tocheck it out. And if you're an educator by chance, or if you're stuck at home with kids like I am and looking for something to listen to, you can also download a Back From the Brink activity guide for grades three through eight, from that site - So check it out.

Adam McLane: So as we started thinking about that engagement, with that, that film, it got us thinking about our role here as The Nature Conservancy in Missouri, when it comes to species protection, reintroduction, habitat restoration, all the things that go into saving these last remaining populations of endangered species in our state. And there's a big group of people that are working on that tirelessly day in and day out. And we just wanted to talk a little bit about that work and we will phone in a friend a little bit later and to talk about one of those from the Missouri Department of Conservation, but for now, we're going to get started with Doug Ladd. So, Doug, it is great to see you again. Good to see you actually in person too. It feels weird for both of us. We've already established that. We're so zoom-oriented right now to actually sit in front of someone six feet away and have a conversation with them is, uh, different and feels good, but it is, it is different, isn't it?

Doug Ladd: Yeah, sure is.

Adam McLane: Well, I wanted to cover three different ones with you, Doug. Prairie, chickens, Topeka shiners, and American burying beetles. And Doug, as soon as he said, so we're going to talk about, you brought a botanist in to talk about three different species of animals, but I think you can do it.

Doug Ladd: Yeah, I think that, I think the key to think about endangered species is it's often thought as a, as a legislative issue or a, a pivot issue for controversy, but really we should look at them as a way to reconnect us with the natural world in which we all depend. And so they're more an indicator than anything else. And that's why the Conservancy has been deeply involved in them as you know.

Adam McLane: Well, how did - stepping back even further than that - how did you get into conservation? What was your pathway?

Doug Ladd: Well, I guess I've been interested in nature from an early age. I started out as a biochemist in college and just didn't hit all the bells for me. So I wanted to be in the field. And, uh, early in my graduate career, I took a backpacking trip on the, into the Ozarks on a bet from someone. I'd been raised in Vermont and Illinois, and decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life, trying to figure out what made those amazing systems tick. I mean, we don't have golden monkeys and migrating crabs, but we have critters every bit as exciting unusual.

Adam McLane: Yeah. Wow. All right. What was the bet?

Doug Ladd: I was dissing Missouri with a colleague he bet me that if we went on a backpacking trip in December into the Ozarks, that I would change my mind and he was absolutely right.

Adam McLane: And how long did you, how long ago was that?

Doug Ladd: That was in 1976.

Adam McLane: And so you've lived here ever since. Okay. Wow.

Doug Ladd: Got out of grad school and actively sought a job in Missouri. I've been here since 1980.

Adam McLane: That's great. And you started with Bennett Springs. Is that right?

Doug Ladd: Working for the state park system was a biologist and naturalist at Bennett Springs state park. And then when the Conservancy opened its first staffed field office here, I got hired as the first science and landowner outreach person. Then I just never got good enough to get beyond that. So I stayed in Missouri for my whole career.

Adam McLane: Very good. Well, um, let's start with prairie chickens. It's a good time to be talking about prairie chickens right now. They're booming on the lek and we have a prairie cam and all sorts of stuff that people can see in this virtual world. But talk to me a little bit about prairie chickens or tell the audience a little bit about them, what they require, why they, why you think they're unique and special.

Doug Ladd: Yeah, I mean, it's an amazing facet of Missouri's heritage that we're on the very brink of losing and it's especially poignant to me because when I first started with the Conservancy, I was dealing with a lot of elderly farmers in the landscapes of northern and western, Missouri who had vivid tales remembered well when there were thousands of prairie chickens in their areas and eating prairie chickens regularly to the point of not liking them. And they're just being a food of last resort sometimes. Um, and now the fact that we're down to the last hundred or so in the state is, is sobering, but it's, it's a bird kind of like the size of a chicken up to about three pounds, I guess. But it's just, it's amazing in that it's totally tied to our grassland systems. So it's a piece of our grassland heritage. And as you, as you said this time of year, they get together on these ancestral breeding and courtship grounds called leks and the males it's, it's basically a big singles bar for birds and the males strut their stuff and they put little horn, light feather appendages up in their heads and they puff up these orange throat sacs and they raise their tail feathers and they stomp and they stride and they faint and do mock battles when they chose.

Adam McLane: And then they do something like that's pretty good. I've been working on it. They do a call [Adam imitates the call sound]

Doug Ladd: It's booming, which is, it's almost indescribable as a sound it's kind of a cross between a, cooing and a moaning, or maybe like it's been compared to wind blowing across a bottle in this weird haunting reverberation that travels great distances off across the landscape. o you can sometimes hear it for more than well over a mile away this low undulating reverberation that there's nothing else like it. And it's, as I say, it's almost indescribable, but every Missourian should have the opportunity to hear that because there's nothing like it in nature. And it's just, it's emblematic. It exemplifies the prairie landscape.

Adam McLane: Wow. All right. And so how you say, you know, they were by the thousands, um, everywhere you turned in that region and now there's a hundred. How, what, what is the threat that put them in that place or loss of habitat? What's the, what put them there?

Doug Ladd: Okay. Good question. Um, first of all, I think the most compelling fact is more than a Missouri, more than a third of Missouri was once tallgrass prairie, but with European settlement and all the things we did to the landscape, um, to build the vibrant society we have today, the, the prairie was the victim of our success basically, and far less than 1% of high quality, tallgrass prairie of the original high quality tallgrass prairie remains in Missouri. So habitat loss is a major problem. And then as the prairies have been converted or lost, oftentimes brushier woody environments have replaced them or else, um, intensive agricultural practices, both of which can cause major problems for prairie chickens. So habitat loss, fragmentation, adjacent land use probably an increase in predators like skunks and raccoons and things like that. Cats, feral cats in some cases. And then some things we're not as sure about, but know for instance that in some parts of their range, um, ring, neck pheasants, which have been introduced from the old world, can parasitize prairie chicken nests, and that kind of like cowbirds where they lay their eggs in the prairie chicken nest, their eggs hatch first, and as soon as interestingly for a prairie chicken, as soon as an egg hatches, the mother follows the nestling out of the nest. And so if the pheasants hatch earlier, the prairie chicken eggs are abandoned and that we don't know in Missouri, the extent of what's, that is a problem, but it has been recorded elsewhere.

Adam McLane: Hmm. Interesting. So, um, you know, we talked about the challenges and those still exist, but there's also some partnerships to highlight and some areas of potential success. At least in the short term, we need to think more sustainably long-term, but do you want to talk about any of those partnerships with Missouri Department of Conservation or elsewhere on prairie chickens?

Doug Ladd: Exactly. Um, there's a, there's been a pretty exciting initiative that started in, I think, 2014 where The Nature Conservancy, The Missouri Department of Conservation, um, Nebraska Game and Parks, um, the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa, and a bunch of other partners got together and live-trapped prey chickens in an area where they're still abundant in Nebraska, brought them over here to Northwestern, Missouri, where The Nature Conservancy, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the Missouri Department of Conservation all have ongoing habitat management and prairie restoration projects that are run in a, in a big collaborative landscape. And they reintroduced the prairie chickens there and augmented that re-introduction over the next five years with annual reintroductions of prairie chickens. And it's, it's too early to tell if it's a success, but we're optimistic about trying to reverse the trend, at least in that little landscape and the concept being then, um, you're never going to be able to solve the prairie chicken problem on the, in the focal area of a few high-quality prairie restorations, such as the public agencies are doing, but that landscape is embedded in an agricultural landscape. Um, that's largely ranching. And many of those ranchers have long-standing multi-generational family ties to the landscape. And often they remember, or they remember their ancestors talking about prairie chickens in the landscape. So they're very interested in many cases in figuring out how they can configure their operations to maintain economically viable ranching operations, but also provide habitat for prairie chickens and other iconic wildlife. That's a part of our heritage.

Adam McLane: Yeah, that's awesome. Um, as you, you have the benefit of the rearview mirror a little bit on, um, having retired from The Nature Conservancy and looking back at Dunn Ranch, that area...what, um, what do you look back and say I'm, I feel most proud of related to that project?

Doug Ladd: Well I guess it's not what I feel most proud of. I guess I humbly feel that it was an honor to be a part of a project like that in a landscape where virtually all of the tallgrass prairie had been decimated and the Department of Cnservation, State of Iowa, The Nature Conservancy working in both Iowa and Missouri has really spearheaded this innovative, broad-scale collaborative landscape approach to restore these gems of remnant prairie that are left and seek to have them embedded in a landscape of appropriately managed, economically productive, private lands that also maintain water quality benefit. Wildlife provides all sorts of ancillary benefits that are a part of our natural heritage. So it's just been amazing to be a small part of that. And we've had a great team that was able to do it. Um, a lot of talented people across multiple disciplines and organizations that made it happen.

Adam McLane: That's cool. Well, we won't have to leave Dunn Ranch in order to talk about the, or the prairie landscapes to talk about the next, um, the next featured guests, Topeka shiners. So tell me about this minnow.

Doug Ladd: Well, yeah. Okay. So now we've moved to a little fish that looks like something you put on a pizza. It's fate, we should call it the prairie anchovy. It's a, it's a three inch long, two to three inch long fish at maturity, kind of a silvery minnow, um, with kind of a reddish orange coloration, particularly the males in the breeding season on their fins. It's frankly, it's not terribly stunning to see, but when you realize that this is the iconic fish of the prairie landscape, that's what really brings it home. And we, we tend to think of prairies as terrestrial landscapes, but like all systems, water, earth, vegetation, all combine uniquely at every spot on the earth surface to create the heritage that sustains human life and our quality of life. And these prairie headwater streams where these Topeka shiners live, have been damaged more than even the prairie itself, because they're the most vulnerable parts of the Prairie. They're subject to downstream degradation, which drains and erodes them. They're subject to land use conversion, they're subject to siltation and erosion. And when, when you get a lot of silt in our prairie headwater streams, and it destroys the nesting and, um, uh, habitats of the Topeka shiner. But you have this, this three inch long little fish that's emblematic of our prairie systems. It requires a pretty clear bottom streams, gravel or sand or small course rocks. And even in our dryer prairie streams and a healthy prairie, because the prairie is like a big sponge infiltrated store rainwater. Even if the streams appear dry, a healthy prairie stream is going to have pools every once in a while. And there's going to be subsurface flow through the stream bed. Even if it's not visible supplying water to the, recharging those pools. We've been able to work with our partners to restore the streams in the Dunn Ranch landscape, Little Creek, particularly to again, be suitable, to support, Topeka shiners, and then starting in, I think it was 2013, 2014 to stocking. We, we actually, we reintroduced them into a pond at the headwaters of the watershed, and then they have a, they have a source population that then washes out and stocks, the stream, and that so far census have shown it's been a pretty good success story. And again, it's, it's collaborative, it's the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It's the Missouri Department of Conservation, both of which raised Topeka shiners in their hatcheries, and, um, contributed a lot of their fisheries expertise combined with The Nature Conservancy's habitat management expertise to rebuild and re-install another part of our prairie heritage in the landscape.

Adam McLane: Yeah, Who, who came up with that idea of the pond overflow thing? I'm picturing like three of you sitting on a tailgate, looking out there going, Oh, I know what we should do. Let's fill up this pond with it and then it'll overflow it. Huh? That sounds pretty good. I think that might work.

Doug Ladd: I don't remember how it came about, but Jerry Wiechman, who's a fisheries biologist for the Department of Conservation was really the visionary who figured out what needed to be done to get to Topekia shiners there. I was the irritating thorn in the side of all the agencies saying, we want Topeka Shiners at DunnRanch. What are we going to do? What are we going to do? And they came up with a stream restoration plan. The Nature Conservancy was able to pull together some funding from federal and other sources to make it happen. We spent several years restoring Little Creek itself to have the right pool and, and ripple topography, or stream morphology to be able to support the fish. And then the fish got introduced, um, through, there's a big collaborative effort and they're reproducing and they're spreading downstream somewhat.

Adam McLane: Yeah. And we just, um, I can fill in a little bit here too. That, that partnership continues in the form of, um, Missouri Department of Conservation, Fish and Wildlife Service, uh, others working on fish passage through those culverts. So we have to, I think coming this fall, we're going to be doing, step up pools to get back up to those box culverts so that passage can actually happen more regularly there. Right now. There's about a six foot drop off on that perched culvert that I don't think any three inch minnows jumping its way back up where it needs to go or wants to go. So, um, it, it is exciting and, um, yeah, our best work takes place in partnerships. So thanks for all the ones that you've set up over time that continue to move forward and live on. Um, anything we, as you think about, um, listeners, either one, anything that they can do to help with either prairie chicken or Topeka shiners in their daily lives, or, um, if that's not the question that you feel like there's a lot to contribute towards you know, I always get the question or I hear the question, why do we need to save a little minnow? Why, you know, if these birds aren't evolving in a way that makes them survive longterm, then isn't that how evolution works. We should just let them go. What do you say, I mean,

Doug Ladd: Yeah, good question. It's true. That extinction is natural, but human activities in the last 150 years have ratcheted up the rate of extinction to be thousand or more times greater than the natural rate of extinction. So there's no way nature can adapt and evolve new species in that type of timeframe. So we're impoverishing the world on which we depend. So it's not so much that the Topeka Shiner itself is essential to human life. You, you, you wouldn't have, we wouldn't be able to make the case for that perhaps, but it's a part of a system that's essential for human life. And I think it, it provides a window into our natural world. And I think one of the things that Conservancy has excelled at is it's been able to be the bridge between the applied science and the reality of the everyday world, where we're, we're making the case, um, that we, as people on this planet have an obligation, I believe to pass on these amazing natural resources, these functional systems that sustain us and enrich us in many ways, um, to future generations. And I think it's both a privilege and I would say a sacred responsibility to humanity that we develop a culture of stewardship, so we interact and understand these natural resources. And so all of these endangered species are just windows into that system. If you have a healthy upland stream system supporting Topeka shiners, that's recharging the larger rivers downstream that support healthy bass and other recreational fishing opportunities, water quality for municipal and agricultural water supplies, so it's all tied together. And the Conservancy is, is doing the job of trying to make these bridges conceptually, but we have to be a lot better and get it out to a larger segment of society because every child growing up in Missouri should understand our prairie heritage and take pride in it.

Adam McLane: Yep, we should do a podcast or something. Try and reach other audiences.

Doug Ladd: That'd be interesting.

Adam McLane: Hmm.

Doug Ladd: Children's podcasts.

Adam McLane: I like it. Okay. Well, this is, this is fascinating and awesome. And I, the next one will, um, will not leave us, um, short on details and charismatic features as either a, the American burying beetle. Um, when you said Topeka shiners might not be all that catchy, um, or visually stunning to look at actually burying beetles are, but the word beatles does not instantly capture lots of attention, but tell us about the American burying beetle, Doug.

Doug Ladd: Well, you named it as the undertaker of the prairie, so you should get the credit for that. Um, it's an amazing insect because it, as you say, people to, um, dismiss insects, even though they're one of the most critical aspects of the animal world for shaping our life and our culture, um, as anyone who likes honey knows, we depend on insects for a lot of things, pollination, products, pest control, all kinds of things. But here's an insect, which A. it's pretty, it's a shiny black beetle about an inch and a half long, and it's got these bright orange spots and markings on it. So if you, if you can get over the initial aversion to insects, it's, it's a very attractive critter kind of Halloweeny looking. And, um, it's got these unusual habits that it basically, a male beetle is equipped to be a corpse detector. And from miles away, it can detect through sensitive chemical signals, um, a dead animal. And dead animals in a certain size range, kind of the, uh, maybe the prairie chicken range, um, chipmunk, small rodent range. If it finds a corpse of them, it, it, um, immediately lands and starts to bury the corpse by digging under it, excavating the ground and an amazing rapidity. And it attracts a female at the same time. And the two work cooperatively, bury the corpse - now we're going to get both dirty and a little bit icky - but, um, they then remove all the fur and/or feathers from the, the, uh, the carcass. And then they cover it with a secretions they manufacture. Um, and that just, it's a preservative that basically mummifying the corpse and prevents all the other things that want that high energy food source of the dead animal, other insects, bacteria, fungi, and so forth. It prevents them from getting it, then they lay eggs and settle nearby. But the amazing thing that we don't think of for insects, then the male and female and the mama and the papa care for their young, um, as they're growing up. So for the very short time that the eggs have hatched and they're feeding on the corpse, a week or so of the feeding on the carcass, um, the parents are defending them and providing parental care. And so it it's unusual that they have this, this history of caring for the young, um, they're almost gone. They were once in more than 35 states and some Canadian provinces as well. For reasons we don't fully understand there's very few natural populations left in just a handful of states.

Adam McLane: Um, were they always in prairies?

Doug Ladd: Well, they appear to be habitat generalists, not too finicky about that, but, and again, the historical data that are often hard to tease out, but from what we can figure out, they seem to have a predilection, or they tend to favor grasslands or very open grassy woodlands that appears to be their preferred habitat.

Adam McLane: Hmm.

Doug Ladd: So again, in a, in a collaborative partnership, um, with the St. Louis Zoo who really perfected and built on some work that others had done and how to raise American burying beetles in captivity, um, Bob Merz and his team at the St. Louis Zoo were able to develop an American burying beetle factory, which produced large numbers of beetles, which we then worked with the Department of Conservation, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nature Conservancy collaborated at a large prairie landscape in Southwest, Missouri. Um, mostly on The Nature Conservancy's Wah'kon-Tah Prairie preserve, where we actually, um, provided the corpse and provided the beatles and semi-buried the corpse to start and get them started. And we now have documented reproductions. So the jury is still out, whether we're going to be able to sustain and, and rebuild an American burying beetle population in Missouri, because we don't know a lot about, um, how much food is available and how much increased competition there is for those dead animals. Some people have speculated that passenger pigeons, which were once abundant, but now extinct were a major food source for them. So there are a lot of unknowns, but the initial data from the early reintroduction and recovery process has been very positive.

Adam McLane: Hmm, very neat. Well, should we phone a friend?

Doug Ladd: Yeah.

Adam McLane: To talk about hellbenders.

Doug Ladd: Let's talk about the neatest animal of all today.

Adam McLane: Okay. We are going to, um, we're going to patch in a guest and I'll let Doug introduce him.

Doug Ladd: I'd like to introduce, um, from the Missouri Department of Conservation, Dr. Jeff Briggler, who's a world hellbender authority and anything to do with hellbenders in North America,Jeff's been leading the charge in terms of research applied conservation restoration efforts. I would also add that, uh, I have Jeff come and speak to my class at, uh, Washington University every year and he's the hit of the, the class session, because these are just amazing animals. Um, and he'll even tell you about his hellbender scars, if you're nice to him. So I'll introduce it and turn it over to Jeff and Adam.

Adam McLane: Yeah. Well welcome, Jeff, thanks for joining via zoom. Um, we really appreciate it and your, your insight is going to be helpful. So tell us about, tell us what a hellbender is.

Jeff Briggler: Well, that is probably the number one question. I get a lot. What, what is a hellbender? And most people really don't know what this animal is, and it, it is actually a large aquatic salamander. I mean, meaning large. It can get up to like a foot and a half, almost two foot in size. They live in our spring-fed rivers and streams throughout the Missouri Ozarks. And they're, they're very interesting in a way, cause they're, they're streamlined bodies allow them to walk on the bottom. They have a very flat head, tiny eyes, so they can just, as you're thinking about a river bottom with large rocks spread out, this animal was walking behind these rocks, trying to poke that flat head underneath the rock for where it can go and hide from predators and even looking for other animals. And then more intriguing something else about this animal that, uh, when you see them for the first time, as you'll see, they have all these wrinkly skin up and down the sides of their bodies. And that's actually how they breathe under the water. They do have lungs like we do, they can surface and gulp air, but they don't have to because they're in this very cold water in the Ozarks. So that water exchange running across that folds of skin line with blood vessels, they can absorb all the oxygen they need just through that skin alone.

Adam McLane: Wow. And I heard, to paint the full picture here to people that are listening, um, and not able to see a picture in front of them. Um, Snot Otter is a, uh, as a nickname. And then I heard it once described as hellbenders look like mud come to life. Does that sound about right?

Jeff Briggler: Now, those are other nicknames. Some of the other ones are Allegheny alligators because they were first described in Allegheny rivers in the Northeast, uh, definitely snot otter's an other common name. If you ever capture one and touch it, I mean, they're very slimy. And when you touch them, uh, hellbenders, we believe originated from the Appalachians when they first saw them. And they looked at this animal and the first thought is, man, this animal is extremely ugly and it belongs in the internal regions of hell - Is what people are stuck for. Hellbender

Adam McLane: That's terrific. Well, what's the, um, how's the population doing? Is it threatened? Obviously it is. What, what are the threats to it and where, how has it gained that status as a result?

Jeff Briggler: Well, hellbenders have been studied for many generations in our, in our state of Missouri. Uh, people started researching them in late sixties, early seventies. It continues today. And what we saw in the early, late 1990s, early 2000s is we're seeing a dramatic decline in these animals in our state. Historically we estimated there were probably 27,000 hellbenders in our state, and now we estimate their fear than 2,000 left in our state. So when we start doing all this research with all the historical data, we just see such a dramatic decline in the animal, which is scary alone. But more importantly, what we saw in our capture data is you rarely catch little hellbenders anymore. So the other size classes, once these older ones die off, we don't have any animals to replace them. So with our partners, uh, state and federal agencies and researchers, we, we actually did population modeling at the populations. And it didn't matter what type of model we ran. This animal, every model showed there's a 96% plus chance of extinction for this animal. If we didn't do something about it. And back in the mid two thousands, we made a conscious decision to start attempting to breed this animal, collect eggs from the wild. So we have a big breeding facility at the St. Louis Zoo, uh, typically to buy us time to help figure out why this animal is declining.

Adam McLane: Wow. Um, and am I right? There's two different species and are they both listed?

Jeff Briggler: Well, currently the genetic show, they're actually two different subspecies. The Ozark hellbender, which occurs in Missouri and Arkansas, and then the Eastern hellbender, which occurs in Missouri and 14 other states throughout the Ohio basin, Tennessee basin up through the Appalachians. Uh, now future genetics is going to show more divisions within that, but Missouri currently only has the two subspecies, the Eastern hellbender and the Ozark hellbender. The Ozark hellbender was federally listed in 2011 for Missouri and Arkansas. And then more recently, the Eastern hellbender population segment only in Missouri has been listed, uh, federally endangered.

Adam McLane: Is there anything our listeners could do, um, to help help Hellbenders if they're, if they're captivated by this, if they jump on and they learn more information, what would you encourage them to do either at an individual level or in terms of engagement going forward?

Jeff Briggler: Well, we, because this animal has, has declined significantly in our state and, and most of it has to do with habitat destruction, degrading of the habitat, uh, our beautiful, pristine rivers and what we see more and more as the forest being cleared down and more sediments and fines come into the rivers. And as those sediments and fines come in, they actually change the structure of the river. They suffocate the hellbender habitat for the large rocks. They fill in the gravel space where all the baby hellbenders live, the food base lives. And over time, you're just basically choking off the resources for this animal. So some of the most important things you can do is really try to protect that riparrian zone of these rivers. Uh, the trees are nature's filters, uh, when it's raining real hard and we get to those trees, slow down the floods, they filter it. So the river doesn't take so much damage, but as they're removed, the floods will cause even more harm and faster water going down. And it can cause even more significant problems for this animal over time. So think about those things when you're thinking about what you can do, uh, planting trees along the river, retaining the trees along the rivers. Uh, other things on hellbenders is historically a lot of fishermen have caught hellbenders. They were afraid of them. They didn't know what they were, and in most cases they killed them. So we strongly encourage people if you catch them on a trotline our fishing line to remove the hook, if you can, if you can't cut the line and let it go, eventually that hook will rot out. Uh, if you have a chance, maybe join a local stream team to clean up trash along the river. Uh, and I know people have desires to see this animal, but I'll also say going out, looking for it and disturbing it is just as harmful to it. So sometimes we all want to help even more, but sometimes the help is please leave the animal alone because we don't want to do too much harm and tell you the truth, you can also donate. The St. Louis Zoo has ways that you can donate funds to help hellbenders. I'll say at the St. Louis zoo, hellbenders are one of the largest fundraisers for the zoo. A lot of Missouri citizens do donate for hellbenders, and it is greatly appreciated to help recover this animal.

Adam McLane: That's terrific. Thank you very much for that. And who would have thought of all animals at the zoo? It'll be the hellbender that is a, is a big fundraiser, uh, which is terrific. And, uh, I think, uh, hopefully an indication of the appreciation that Missourians have for, for natural places in their backyard and trying to protect it. Okay. Doug referenced hellbender scars. Can you give me one story, um, Jeff of one of those scars or a funny moment that's happened in the stream?

Jeff Briggler: Well, I'll go back to 2010 on us trying to locate hellbender eggs in the wild. And it's, it's been very difficult to find eggs in the wild and fertilized eggs for most people, and we're getting better at it. But back in the late oh, around 2009 to 2010, we started building artificial nest boxes. They're basically concrete containers that we're trying to get female hellbenders to go in and lay their eggs. They have a lid and we want to collect those eggs out of there and take them to the St. Louis Zoo to raise. And I'll never forget our first batch that we put in on the Eleven Point river in June of 2010, we put seven of these boxes out, not knowing if they're going to be successful or not. We tried to design based on our best knowledge. And when we went back the first week in November and should art be laid, we opened up that lid and when the sunlight came through, you could see all the little baby hellbenders inside their eggs. And we termed them our golden nuggets because they would, they have these large yellow yolk sacks, and they would turn and turn their bodies in that sunlight. And it just looked like reflections of gold coming off of you. So we had success right off and I'll have to say right then we needed to remove the eggs. Here's a male, which is intriguing. They guard the eggs and the babies for several months, which is interesting for this type of animal. And so this male is sitting in there. I'm trying to remove these animals. And I will say he grabbed a hold of my finger, pretty good. And he did not like that. It was difficult to get him off my finger. I'll say I bled quite, uh, quite a lot, but it was definitely worth it in order to get these eggs.

Adam McLane: That started at all.

Jeff Briggler: And that, and that male has actually produced other nests too, even though we removed all his babies, uh, he still does reproduce, but, but I'll never forget this because another fisheies biologist was with me. We're jet boating back to the, to the boat after we removed these eggs, get back. And we both look at each other and we say, we're going to have to look in that bucket again to make sure those eggs are in there because where we dreaming or not, this was a big deal, a very big deal. And I'll never forget on my way to the St. Louis Zoo. I stopped twice and pulled over to make sure I still wasn't dreaming. And, uh, because at this time we were not able to find very many eggs. So, so this was really a big start for our captive propagation efforts, uh, led into more breeding at the St. Louis zoo and, and to date, we've released over 9,000 hellbenders back into the wild in Missouri.

Adam McLane: It was quite a success story. Well, all of these animals are, um, and creatures are just intriguing to think about. And I think sometimes, uh, we don't think about them very much unless we're right in the space of working on them day in, day out and caring for them. Um, but our listeners now get a little chance to learn some more nuggets and hopefully they get their own golden nuggets, Jeff. Um, and it, it starts its own, um, spread throughout our population of awareness of these and how they can help. But I'll let you both, as we kind of come to wrap up, you know, the overall big question or topic that we've had is, is about, um, caring for animals that there aren't many have left. Um, the habitat that's required for them, whole variety of things, but I'll let you both just final thoughts, words, advice, uh, pleadings to the audience, um, for how they can participate in, in protecting these places and creatures going forward.

Doug Ladd: Well, I would say, just recognize building on what Jeff was talking about. And I was talking about earlier that we are a part of this incredibly amazing natural world. And as we move forward, the more we understand it and the more we appreciate it, the better it will be for people in nature.

Adam McLane: Thank you. Jeff?

Jeff Briggler: And, and I would say as the state herpetologist, the same thing, I mean, we have 43 species of amphibians in this state when I took my job 20 years ago. And after you, it that all 43 should still be here when I retire and hellbenders and it's any animals, they're all interesting. They all have something unique about them. And for like hellbenders, it's a unique and interesting salamander. It's been in our Ozarks for over 161 million years. And I'd like for this animal to still be there, I know other people do too. We want to see it in our Missouri Ozarks. We want our future generations to be able to see it and learn about it and be inspired by this amazing animal.

Adam McLane: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, Doug. Thank you both for coming and sharing all this, um, incredible stories and a lot of great information for us to follow up on. Um, thank you also to listeners for tuning in for more information about The Nature Conservancy and what we do visit, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast, so you can catch future episodes. I'll also say, um, we listed a lot of partners today, um, and you, you had good encouragement to reach out to stream teams and the whole suite of things. So please do so. The Nature Conservancy brings forward this kind of information, trying to showcase the big broad efforts. Um, and so please reach out to those partners as well and support them in the future. Thanks. See you next time.

Episode 2: The hellbender, American burying beetle, greater prairie-chicken and Topeka shiner—these species are on the brink of extinction in Missouri. But, what's being done to save them? 

In this episode, you'll hear from Doug Ladd, The Nature Conservancy's former director of conservation in Missouri who provides insight on these species, how they got where they are, and the collaborations from dedicated partners who are working to restore their populations. We also phone a friend—Jeff Briggler with the Missouri Department of Conservation who provides his insight and expertise on the hellbender.

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It's in Our Nature Missouri's podcast that celebrates the connections between people and nature. © Route 3 Films

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Episode 1: Guests Pastor Andy Krumsieg, Donna Washington and Rebecca Weaver talk about Project Oasis and its impact on the community.

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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 hosts, Adam McLane, The Nature Conservancy's Missouri state director for more information, visit

Adam McLane: Hello everyone. I'm Adam McLane, Missouri state director for The Nature Conservancy. We're excited to have you listening today. This is our first ever podcast episode, and I would say you are in luck because we have a great show planned and really our goal with this podcast and the future ones is going to be sharing amazingly inspiring stories of what can happen when people in nature work together. Because that's our vision at The Nature Conservancy, which is a world where people in nature thrive together and it can and does happen before we get started. I have one request. That is, if you like this podcast, even just a little bit, please share it with others. We hope the stories we share inspire a deeper connection with the nature around you. So let's get into it. Today we're talking with some incredible people about an incredible Oasis in North St. Louis and I'm joined by the people that made it happen. Rebecca Weaver is our city's program manager. Donna Washington is the urban farm manager at project Oasis and Pastor Andy Krumsieg, did I get it?

Adam McLane: You got that.

Adam McLane: We've in practice beforehand. My goodness, Krumsieg. Right. Okay. Well, um, thank you both so much for, for joining, or all three of you. Um, and I say it's hard in my mind to think about how to paint the picture of this place over the airwaves like this when we don't have videos, but could you to try to do that for me, just take me to Project Oasis and what it looks like and what it feels like.

Pastor Andy: Wow, that's pretty cool. Um, Project Oasis, Donna's been a few years in development, isn't it?

Donna Washington: Yes it has.

Pastor Andy: And we have, um, started with a vacant lot. It's an acre and a half vacant lot, uh, used to have a warehouse on it years ago, and then it was just kind of no man's land. And then Jubilee Community Church, we got it from the city and then we just kind of cut the weeds. And then we did a project with, uh, MSD Project Clear, and we were able to dig a hole, 10 foot deep and a hundred foot square and put a water retention system in the ground. And it was a big project. We learned a lot of lessons on that. And, uh, so we we've been, we started working on this several years ago and then, uh, we were able to, uh, Dr. Moore who's our senior pastor, he was the one along with me and several others that were able to do this project. And then we, the purpose was to create it so that we could irrigate this acre and a half of property. And, um, we didn't know how we were going to get all this done, but we knew were supposed to move, move forward and doing it. And, uh, we had had a very small, um, plot of, you know, six, what did we have done with about six beds before that? Do you remember?

Donna Washington: Um, I wasn't a part of the church then, but I heard that, you know, people inside the church came out and they had sweet potatoes and cabbage and, you know, mostly the vegetables that are easily to grow in those areas. Yeah.

Pastor Andy: And we had Carol Campbell and Carol Aucamp and several other volunteers, Joanne, and uh, some other guys as well. And we did these little plots and then we thought about doing something bigger and it just became something that we thought, yes, we should do this. And we did. Um, and it's amazing how the resources have come together over the past few years. And Nature Conservancy was a big part of that in, after we were getting going, then you guys heard about it. Somebody introduced us and it was just a wonderful partnership that began to happen. And, and you guys have been so gracious to us as we're in our learning curve. And, uh, I don't know, we've learned a lot of good things...

Donna Washington: And some bad things, too.

Adam McLane: Okay. I want to hear the bad things, Donna. Spill it.

Donna Washington: Well about it. What about a year ago? We, we use black tarp over the wintertime. You know, the black plastic where we were told that we, you know, we should use clear. Well, we found out this year, that that's not a good idea. That's more for keeping the plant warm and nice and toasty in the wintertime. So we had part of our garden was covered in black and the other part was covered in clear, well, the black is nice and dark and beautiful and ready for planting the clear...weeds, all vegetables and everything. So that was a good lesson to learn.

Adam McLane: Yes, we can all take that lesson and I'm calling you next time I need to tarp something just to make sure I get it right. Well, Donna, I'm really interested in how you said you weren't there at the beginning of the project, how you became involved in the project and, um, what that looks like.

Donna Washington: Well, in the beginning I went, I left the church that I was at because it just stopped happening and I was looking for a church. So I saw Jubilee, it wasn't too far from where I lived and I went in. And then that's when I met Andy and I met Dr. Moore. They were in the garden, it wasn't a garden at the time. And they were always digging. They were always muddy. They were all, you know, and then I heard about the stories that were happening back there. How, uh, Dr. Moore would call Andy and Andy didn't hear him or vice versa because of the noise from the machines. And then we asked the congregation, you know, would they like to come in and help? And so when they asked that I wanted to help, I just wanted to get in there and help. Cause I like working outside versus inside. And in that process, more people started coming and more people started coming. So then we got people and then Mission St. Louis brought volunteers. And then Andy was told about other volunteers from out of the state. And then they were coming in helping us dig and make the berms and cover it and bring in chip wood chips. And it just took off. And we grew plants that we didn't know how it was gonna, you know, happen or what it was going to do, but it flourished. We would go out there and we would be pulling weeds. And then me, myself, I would pick up, wipe it off, pop it in my mouth. And it was the most, ahh words, I can't even say the words. It was different than the stuff that we bought in the grocery store. It was more tastier. It was more fruitier. So from there, the people that came to help us, they were always coming from all over and then the COVID happened. And then that kind of put a stunt on us. We still grew, but we didn't have as many people as we had before pulling the weeds. So the weeds were trying to overtake the plants. Yes.

Adam McLane: Wow. You took me there. I was tasting cherry tomatoes. They're still warm right off the line as I was popping into my mouth. So thank you very much for that. Um, Becca, I'm going to invite you to chime in too, about from The Nature Conservancy side, um, what this partnership has looked or felt like for you.

Rebecca Weaver: Um, yeah. Thanks for the opportunity, to join y'all this morning, um, to be a part of this project has been a dream come true for me. I think what, from my perspective,, the best part of this project are the strength of the relationships that we have with each other. And so it's been an honor to be in relationship with Pastor Andy and Pastor Gill and Dr. Moore now and Donna and Carol. And so from my background, you know, in community-based conservation work, these are the dream projects that we get to be a part of and collaborate alongside. And what's happened at Jubilee Community Church really speaks to the leadership, um, in a vision that lies within that neighborhood and within that church. And so to be a supporting partner in this effort has really been such an incredible opportunity for a demonstration of what happens when we collaborate across different sectors, across different areas of expertise. We all have something that we bring to the table, and it's been such a wonderful opportunity to see kind of how all the different pieces have been able to weave together in a way that is supportive of, you know, overall the vision that's kind of emerging through everybody participating in this project. Um, and I feel like it really is representative of what happens when we're not going to prescribe, you know, should go in what area or, you know, even from a nature perspective, it's like, yes, we know that tree canopy is beneficial. We know that it's important to have equitable access to healthy green spaces, but really what's most important, especially in a place like St. Louis is having the opportunity to support people in their own visions for what sustainable redevelopment looks like in St. Louis. And I feel like we've been able to be a part of something like that with Jubilee. Um, and it's been such a, an opportunity to, to work in this way. And I think it's important for TNC, um, to be in supportive projects like this, where we don't know necessarily what the outcomes are going to be. However, we know it's important to really listen and support community vision.

Adam McLane: Thank you, Becca. Okay. Pastor Andy. I'm going to go back to something that you said that you said, um, during the process you had done a little bit, and then you said you knew we were called to do more. I don't know that you use that word, but that's the sense that I got. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was or what that feels like? What, what was that thing that had had it become very clear that this vision needs to take place and we're going to start.

Pastor Andy: That's a good question, Adam. And I think what I've seen over the years, I'm starting to get to be an older man. I got a grey beard and, uh, life moves on. And I think we need to, when, when we look at things in life, I think we need to kind of understand the times. Whether it's on a bigger picture or certainly on a smaller picture in our own little worlds. And there had been ideas that came our way from other people prior to when we did this, that just, they were great ideas, but it just wasn't the right time. And then, uh, one of the guys that helped introduce us to this in the very beginning was a guy named Jim Holtzman. Jim's become a very good friend and he did a great job of vision casting and all that. But at the beginning, when I first met him, it just didn't seem like it was time. And later on, we got reconnected that, uh, so that he could come and get the ideas back together and it fit. And then Jim actually connected, I think, to N nature Conservancy. And it just, things started to line up in the right way. And we were able to do the, um, MSD Project Clear project. And then we created, we we've named this Jubilee Oasis Farm, right? So we're in the middle of North St. Louis in the heart of North St. Louis. And we have a challenging community and as a challenging history for a long, long time. And there are so many good things in North St. Louis, but we don't hear about the good thing. And so that's part of who we are at Jubilee. Jubilee means a new beginning. It means a new start, a fresh start. It means leaving the past behind, learning from the past, but not getting stuck in the past.

Donna Washington: Right.

Pastor Andy: And then Oasis is the concept of, ahh...something refreshing for a change, those kinds of things. Oh, I was waiting for this.

Donna Washington: New birth.

Pastor Andy: New birth, that's right. And so that's what Jubilee Oasis Farm is. And so, you know, the blackberries and the bush cherries and the tree cherries and the pawpaws and the jujubes in our little orchard space and the serviceberries and the figs, and then in the garden, we can grow anything we want every year, you know, and the partnerships, sometimes they're repeating partnerships. And sometimes there are new partnerships that develop. So you have to remain fluid, but you keep going through with a, with a persevering spirit that doesn't give up and looks for hope all the time.

Adam McLane: Wow. Thank you, Donna. Do you think you're growing more than vegetables in this project?

Donna Washington: I think I am. Uh, when we started, you know, I knew very little about nothing, you know, uh, growing up my mom and Mr. Eddie, that was my mother's friend. They always had a garden on the side of the house. So I knew about it, but I never really worked in it. I never really tilled it. I never really harvested. Only thing I did was eat it. And it was good. But working in the garden at the church, we had lots of people that came out to help us. And one of them was Matt. Matt came and helped us with the orchard part of the garden, the fig trees and the, and I've never eaten a raw fig before. And when he told us to pick it and eat it, I looked at it. I said, I don't know if I want to eat this. But when I ate it, Oh my mouth was like, wow, what was that? I want more. So you learn a lot of things. Cause I never knew that's what a fig looked like, because I've always had the fig newtons.

Adam McLane: Right.

Donna Washington: You know, the stuff in the middle. But if I had a choice between the fig newton and the raw fig, I'd take the raw.

Adam McLane: That's saying something fig newtons are pretty darn good. Huh?

Donna Washington: You wait till you taste it.

Adam McLane: Okay. So I, um, you know, I can picture, and I know about the project obviously. So you have all this water, that's not going into the combined sewer overflow system because it's going in from your roof right into this giant cistern and that you can use for irrigation and watering. Um, you've done a lot of the work up top already of getting things installed. That'll be ongoing, working with community with volunteers and I'll, I'll make sure that I, well, let's just do that now. How would people come to connect with you if they want to come out and help? And will you give them a fig Donna? If they come out and help?

Donna Washington: Yes. Yes. If there's any left.

Pastor Andy: Contact us. Uh, my email address is S T L Andy. So stlandy at, would you believe it,

Adam McLane: Wow.

Pastor Andy: And, uh, then my phone number is 314-518-0419, 518-0419 with that 314 area code. And Donna, what's your number?

Donna Washington: Okay. My, um, email is And my phone number is (314) 652-7116. And if not there, you can always leave a message.

Adam McLane: So what what's next for, ah what do you see coming this year, next year? Where do you hope this grows? Um, what's that vision look like?

Donna Washington: Well, we hope that because we didn't get enough volunteers last year, we did get volunteers, but not like we did the year before, but we're hoping that more will come out. And we did have our first group of volunteers that came out this past Saturday and it was nice cause we were able to do what about six berms or more? And um, they look good. I wish we had, it took some pictures to show you, but they look good. We have not started planning. Hopefully this Saturday on the 27th, we may be able to plant. Depending on the weather. Yeah. Yeah.

Pastor Andy: Well, we had an, uh, uh, was it last fall? We had a group from Spire that came out. That was really neat. And I had, uh, a great workday over there and Nature Conservancy has come. We've had other groups that come, so we welcome any groups to come. There's plenty of things to do, pulling weeds, spreading wood chips, and organizing things. And then there's other projects that we need to do. We want to develop the composting area and some of the other kinds of things and the more volunteers, the merrier and we can organize people, can't we Donna?

Donna Washington: Yes we can.

Pastor Andy: I call her Sarge. She's good.

Donna Washington: Twenty-six years military.

Adam McLane: I shoveled some mulch right next to Sarge and so I remember her glancing over every once in a while to make sure I was still not just like leaning on the rake or the shovel. So I can attest to that.

Pastor Andy: We have, um, uh, this year we're going to, this will be the first time that we've done a hundred percent of the garden. And, uh, we have some partnerships with a couple of restaurants that have, are, we may be gonna to use some of our things. And then what is the, uh, local, local, uh, Local Harvest? Is that the one on the south side? Yes. Forgive me for forgetting the name right off hand, but there's a nice little grocery store on Morganford. Right? And they, they liked to buy our things and we're getting, we just did a little bit with them last year. This year, we're going to be doing a lot more, uh, the Food Hub, uh, right over on Sarah is going to, they they've showed, they asked us what to, uh, or we asked them, what can we grow for you that you would want to buy from us? And they said, the gives a whole list of peppers and all kinds of other herbs and other things. And then they buy, they've got some funding that they're working with. And then they prepare meals. And we actually pick up meals from them to distribute in St. Louis, we feed over 300 people a week, uh, through this whole COVID situation. So lots of cool things happen. And then the orchard is getting more mature. And we probably won't see any pawpaws for another year or two, but I can't wait until we get those. And then, uh, the next things again, this is one of those things where we know we're going to get there, but the time's not right yet, honey. We're going to eventually do honey, but we've got to develop the berms a little bit more surrounding the property. And the native flowers have been, uh, the native plants have been planted by seeds this spring. Tell them about the, uh, little, uh, thing we did last year, the demonstration.

Donna Washington: Okay. We have, um, we have a tool shed and we have, uh, two little small plots of lands. And we use that for our demonstration garden. That's where the plants that are native to Missouri. And, um, we planted them in and we didn't think they were going to flourish, but we were surprised. They came out and they were beautiful. We're going to have to show you those pictures too. But, uh, but now we have the berm that's on the Obear, that's up near the orchard and it's bare right now. And, um, me and a couple of, and Carol and a couple of other volunteers came and we planted with seeds, not with plants this time. So we're hoping that some of that, uh, starts sprouting up soon.

Pastor Andy: So what's the picture of this around is if you can picture an acre and a half piece of land and surrounding the land is a berm. That's about 18 inches tall, and it's about 20 feet from one side of the berm to the other side of the berm. And that is so it's 18 inches. And we didn't want to put a fence around this property. We didn't want to say, we don't want you here. We want it to say, let's create boundaries. Okay. Boundaries are good. And an 18 inch boundaries, not enough to keep anybody out and neither as a fence, anybody anyways. So let's create an inviting place that says, come in here. And so we planted these plants will be somewhere between 18 inches and three feet high. So we will have a natural fence of, um, about five feet tall. That will be beautiful. The bees will like it. The birds will like it, the butterfly, but yeah, it's just going to be beautiful. So it's going to take a few years to get there, but we are so much looking forward to it.

Adam McLane: Wow. That sounds amazing. And I can picture it. Um, you know, in the work that we, we do with native plants, I, you took me to a prairie, um, and I can picture what a period looks like. And, um, and I love them dearly. So I'm, I'm, I'm excited to see that get incorporated in and the bees and the whole system. Um, it sounding like each year, it grows on itself and, uh, in a way that is sustainable and thoughtful and, um, serving the community and really neat ways. So.

Pastor Andy: You know, Adam, the other part of this, the bigger picture of this, okay, this is Jubilee Oasis Farm. We have a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and volunteers, and it's all really good, but it's part of a bigger picture because our neighborhood has been so challenged over there. There's been 70 years of disinvestment in North St. Louis. And there's been all kinds of systemic things in individual things. You just name it, all. It's all happened in our neighborhood. And as North St. Louis is poised to rebirth, the geospatial agency is happening. Herbert Hoover Boy and Girls Club is doing something with the PGA and Urban Klife. There's a lot of things that are happening. We have to make sure that the people in our community can stay in our community and that they have ownership and Jubilee Oasis Farm's, right there on Obear and Carter and Penrose and Grand Avenue. Right across the street are some abandoned buildings. We're going to rehab those abandoned buildings. There's some abandoned lots. We're going to put new construction on these things and make things viable for our neighbors. So that there's health and beauty and refreshment and renewal that happens in our community and the, the garden, Jubilee Oasis Farm is the seed part of that that will grow to flourishing as time takes its course. And we do the things that we're supposed to do in the now to plant seeds for the future.

Adam McLane: Hmmm, very neat. Becca, anything you'd like to join, you've been instrumental in, um, from The Nature Conservancy side of, of, um, working in this space. Is there anything else that you would like to add about the project or the discussion today?

Rebecca Weaver: Just an immense amount of gratitude, um, to everyone involved in the project. Um, it's been, um, a few years now since I've had the privilege of knowing Andy and Donna. Um, and I think from the TNC point of things with our focus on supporting community-driven green infrastructure work, I mean, what an example to come out of the gate with, um, and, and being able to support what's happening at Jubilee Community Church. So a lot of appreciation for everyone that's helped to make this happen. And, uh, we're honored to be a part of this.

Adam McLane: I agree. I feel that gratitude as well. Well, Donna, I'm going to ask you to, to bring us home here a little bit. So, um, this podcast is about stories of people in nature, thriving together, trying to come up with solutions and projects where people can thrive and they can be taken care of their needs are met, but nature is not, is also thriving, alongside and supporting. Does that feel like what this project is in your mind and what any advice to anybody else thinking about similar projects out there?

Donna Washington: Yes. Um, very much so. Um, I've been in North St. Louis all my life. I'm 63 years old. I did come and go being in the military, but, uh, came back and I came back on the north side cause I could have went anywhere. I wanted to go once upon a time on North City, used to thrive with everything from grocery stores to laundry mats, to, um, what, anything that you can basically think of furniture, stores, uh, they had gardens and everything. And then, you know, as I grew up and got older, everything started moving out and when things started moving out, crime started coming in. So I feel that if we put this garden there and that garden is to help the community because we are in a desert, vegetable desert. And if people are able to get decent vegetables, decent food, that would help them on that end. And then from there, we can give them jobs, where they can make money, where they can take care of their families. Um, I feel that because we've been disenfranchised, if you will, that a lot of the stuff that's happening there is the reason behind that, all of that. So I know that it's not going to help a hundred percent of everybody, but if you could just help one, that one can help another and then that can help another. And then as far as the volunteer side, you might hear some real negative stuff about the north side, but if you just come in and you just meet us and you just work alongside of us and you just be with us, you know, you will see a difference. We're not asking you to live here, we're just asking you to come be a part, and then as you go away, spread it to someone else. So others can come.

Adam McLane: Thank you so much. And I, um, I echo that encouragement for anyone that's listening to this podcast. Um, I think that was a great call to action for you to reach out and just go see and volunteer and participate in this incredible project. It's inspiring and, um, nothing beats a good day at work, getting in the mud a little bit and pulling out some weeds and plants and moving some things around. So thank you for that offer. And I just want to say, thank you so much from The Nature Conservancy to both of you and to everybody that's been involved in this project. And I know that as a large, large group of people and we're inspired by it, um, to Becca's point it has, um, been a great starting place for us to start working in, in the city, um, in ways that we never had in the past. And I think you all have, have done an incredible job of teaching us how to do that equitably and the right ways and how to be supportive. So thank you deepest gratitude from The Nature Conservancy to both of you. So in closing, thank you to our guests for sharing the story with us, and thank you for tuning in for more information about the nature Conservancy and what we do visit, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you can catch future episodes.


Episode 1: What was once a vacant lot in the heart of North St. Louis is now a flourishing urban farm, providing so much more than just fresh produce to the community. 

In this episode, you'll hear from Pastor Andy Krumsieg and Donna Washington from Jubilee Community Church, and Rebecca Weaver, TNC Missouri's cities program manager.  They will talk about how Project Oasis Farm came to life and how they turned the church's vision into a space that's providing solutions for nature and people. 

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