By Sophie Ruddy
Walking up to the Polk County Conservation office in Maxwell, IA, I had no idea what was going on. I had already driven past the building twice thinking it was just another building in the midst of Iowa farmland. I did not expect the office to look so industrial as I was used to thinking of Jester Park Nature Center as a “normal” conservation office. However, after spending my day talking to Amanda and Cassie, two conservation ecologists on site, I learned that conservation doesn’t have a normal. I also learned that my expectations would only limit myself from understanding the complexities of conservation in Polk County and the world.
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Sophie Ruddy and I am a rising senior at Johnston High School interested in environmental science. More importantly, this summer I am the intern for the Great Outdoors Foundation. When I originally talked to Jen Cross, Vice President of Donor Relations, in January, I expressed to her my interest in being exposed to multiple occupations in the field of environmental science. As part of this effort, I have met with four individuals from Polk County Conservation https://www.polkcountyiowa.gov/conservation/ to learn about their career paths and what they do in their current position. While doing so I have also been able to see some of Iowa’s beautiful features that we often take for granted.
Testing the Waters
The first person I met with was Ginny Malcomson at the Jester Park Nature Center. Ginny plays a large role in the water quality monitoring program in Iowa. She recruits, trains, and organizes volunteers, to collect data that she then submits to the EPA. Ginny took me out in the field to do some water quality monitoring within Jester Park. The trails we walked were beautiful and kept in great condition. There were frequent signs that showed a map of the trail system so you knew where you were. When we reached the stream we were monitoring, it had that perfect natural stream sound you search for as white noise. We then started taking the stream’s chloride, nitrate, nitrite, and pH measurements (to name a few). Ginny explained to me what each test could indicate and what we were looking for to ensure the water was safe for recreation. This stream in particular ran in from the golf course, so it was important to check if there were any strong pollutants coming from their practices. Luckily, there did not seem to be any indications of that.
While we were testing the stream, multiple groups of kids came through for camps and child care field trips. I found it incredible how these kids got the opportunity to be active outside in such a beautiful and safe way. Ginny also told me about some of the work Polk County Conservation’s Youth Corps does. She told me how they are actively involved in what I would consider the “dirty work” that is necessary for conservation. They spend most of their time weeding, watering, and seeding, but they also get the opportunity to learn about why they are doing each particular deed. Afterwards, we walked to the bison exhibit, the playscape, and then back to the nature center. When we walked through the nature center I got a peek at all the learning activities for kids to do there. It was just a glimpse of what outreach programs Polk County Conservation offers, but I could tell that the variety and level of engagement was beneficial and fun for the kids.
Overall, my time with Ginny showed me a lot about the boots on the ground work that goes on in PCC and how many people are involved in making their conservation mission possible. I also was able to see the depth of their outreach from both the informative signage on the trails and their involvement with children in the community. Jester Park is a great snapshot of what PCC does, but their office in Maxwell offers a different perspective to additional ongoing conservation efforts.
The next week I met with Amanda Brown and Cassie Cook, two conservation ecologists. They told me about their work and, come to find out, it was vastly different from Ginny’s. Amanda and Cassie’s work focused less on outreach and more on planning, grant writing, research, and execution of conservation projects. I learned about multiple efforts to benefit water quality and wildlife and the long process of making their ideas come to fruition. Amanda later invited me to follow her into the field to see some of what she does. That day we monitored invasive species in Jester Park ponds and prairie and she decided if and how they should be treated. Throughout this I learned that conservation looks different everywhere; while that might seem blatantly obvious, it’s easy to forget that one solution won’t work in every community. Another twist with conservation is that one solution can easily cause another problem, which is why impactful solutions require lots of planning and research.
That same day, I went into Iowan prairie to harvest seed with a technician onsite in Maxwell. A technician’s job is to help put a solution in place; how they go about this varies greatly depending on the project and what’s needed. This technician happened to harvest seed so a small natural prairie could be planted at a different location and create a more authentic Iowan ecosystem. While I was not necessarily expecting to spend my day harvesting spiderwort, I felt grateful to see the natural beauty provided by the prairie that I hadn’t witnessed before. I had no idea that replanting natural prairie plants was a conservation strategy. Like I said before, conservation looks different everywhere.
Overall, the work I’ve witnessed and heard about this summer from Polk County Conservation clearly benefits the world around us, usually without our knowing. I’ve been lucky to be in my position as an intern to learn so much from their passionate and kind staff.