Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On 15 Years as a Wetland Technician & Biologist: Part 2

The first wetland I ever designed was a bioretention (stormwater) wetland at this interstate rest stop in Delaware. You gotta start somewhere.
About a month ago, I started a write-up that focused a little on how I got through high school, college, and my first job as a habitat ecologist. I learned a lot of "life lessons" between age 18 and 23, and many of them weren't fun to learn. What I didn't know is that the "lessons" from that point forward would be (thankfully) less frequent but with much higher consequences.
In case you're too busy to check out Part I, I came into my first "grad school required" job with the following lessons already learned:
*Land management goals are rarely forged in ideal political, fiscal, or ecological conditions, or with the necessary amount of scientific data to support one decision or another.
*The most successful land managers are those who can communicate their goals to those in power, the general public, AND those with a working technical knowledge of the land/objectives.
*The happiest biologist is the one who is allowed to make his or her own mistakes, and is allowed the opportunity to compensate for those mistakes
*Be prepared to be gracious in sharing credit for success; be prepared to be rock-solid in taking all the blame for any failures.
*We are each our own best advocate - never become lazy and expect someone to do it for you.
*Patience, patience, patience.
As I wrote the text below, keeping in mind "what other lessons have I learned?" I realized that I had already learned most of them. I think you'd be better entertained by finding them in my story below.

In 1998, I went to work as a senior technician for the Nature Conservancy & Old Dominion University on the Barrier Islands of Virginia. Now, I'm "from the beach," but I wasn't prepared for this. The Virginia barrier islands were populated from the 1670s until 1938, when they were abandoned, basically, because they are horrible places for human beings to live. Most of the islands have become property of the state of Virginia, the Nature Conservancy, or other similar conservation groups. My job was a good one - we were closely monitoring groundwater and vegetation changes across different parts of different islands. I got lost on the islands a few times, and had some amazing days out there as well. It was really hard work, and it re-enforced some of the lessons I had learned in my first year of grad school at Appalachian State U.
I returned to grad school in late August relaxed, in shape, tan, and very cynical. As the bills continued to add up, and my professors continued to be non-commital about my thesis work, it became pretty clear that "The Department" had no intention of letting me go after just 2 years, and that the cost - my debt - would get out of control (into six figures) if they had their way. I had really found my wings as announced my intention to leave Appalachian State - 1 credit and 1 incomplete thesis short of the requirements of the Masters degree. I interviewed for several jobs, ranging from the comical (Code Compliance Officer for Lincolnton, NC; $8.00/hour) to the overwhelming (Satellite Imagery Analyst for Erdas Software in Atlanta, GA for about three times that). I settled on an offer inbetween - working for Potomac Crossing Consultants and two of their associated engineering firms in the Baltimore-DC area.
I never thought I'd live in "the northeast" (which is what Baltimore was to me) and I certainly never thought I'd go to work for an engineering consortium, but there I was - living in a suburban apartment, wearing a tie to work, and going to meetings where we talked about how much money could be made from processing wetland permits, mapping wetlands, and overseeing construction to make sure that no violations occurred. About 15 months later, I changed jobs (really, just a change of supervisors and business cards) within the consortium to get directly into the field of wetland delineation and mitigation - basically - the law requires any project using Federal funds to identify where wetlands are, and if they are going to be paved over, they need to be replaced somewhere else, at some pre-determined ratio. This is an actual career field. I did those two things - identify the location of wetlands that might be filled or drained to accomodate a new road or some new condos or what-have-you, and identify the possible location of wetlands we could build to offset their destruction - for about 8 years. I worked for the military, highway departments, developers, anybody who had a need to fill in wetlands. I became very cynical, and I became very good at what I did-so good that government regulators would not even check my work or go visit the site of the proposed wetland filling. And often, I couldn't sleep at night.
By all accounts, I had really taken my career seriously, and had developed a pretty positive reputation for my skill and dedication. I had also started to become a businessman who sold wetland ecology - not a wetland ecologist. And so I left it - I left a whole lot of good money on the table - and went to work as a wetland ecologist for Ducks Unlimited. In my estimation, I had only one life to live - and didn't want to live it primarily making money for someone else and enabling the destruction of perfectly good wild places....even in the name of faster highways or safer railroads. The decision I made wasn't for everybody. But it was the right one for me.
And that's really my main lesson for this moment - to never again lose sight of my personal goals while chasing another goal, whether it be money or professional acclaim. The corporate environment is about one thing - WINNING. If "winning" and competition are very important to your sense of self (nothing wrong with that!), and you happen to love the outdoors and have a decent mind for science - corporate life will be a great fit for you. In a lot of cases, "doing the right thing" actually PAYS - and you'll get paid. But for me, just often enough, I got paid to march in the opposite direction.

More thoughts soon on my 5 years and counting in the environmental non-profit world. For all of you who contribute, as I do, to outdoors and environmental non-profits, you'll be simultaneously re-affirmed, proud, and maybe a little pissed off at what I have to say.


Anonymous said...

Good to hear from someone who feels the same way I do. I work in the corporate world for a large engineering firm (doing Environmental assessments of which, wetland delineations are an integral part) and I have come to realize; youre not saving the world, youre destroying it for the highest bidder. Even though things havent turned out the way i though they would, I have taken the well-paying office habitat, for now...

Kirk Mantay said...

Thanks for the comment! I think "destroying" is a bit strong of a word. Many of the resources impacted by human activities are already pitifully degraded to within an inch of their life - a fact that many regulatory agencies refuse to admit, or even take into account.

Everybody has to work, and we can't all be Lady Gaga. So you make a living with the skill set you have, helping people comply with environmental law (or at least, an aggressive interpretation of what the law is). Who can fault you?

It's almost 20 years since I had my first "real" technician job as a biologist. I've made choices and changes to find a positive way - I highly recommend that approach - even if it's just making changes to how you work for your current employer. Don't know if I'll ever fulfill my exact "dream" of a career I had at age 20, but I've created an alternate reality that feels pretty awesome. It's possible!!!

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