January 2, 2017

Landscape forensics

It's the end of the holiday break for the University, which means our family has just completed our round trips to southern Iowa for Christmas spent with family. These road trips are a good opportunity for some landscape analysis--to see what's been happening on farms across southeast Nebraska, southern Iowa, and far-northern Missouri.

Christmas Eve found us driving through some unique fog, and my son and I decided it would be nice to get some photos as the day waned and the fog thickened. We found an old homestead--pretty common in the Midwest as farm size has increased and number of farms has decreased since the 1930s, and we stopped for some photos. 

A unique farm building in southern Iowa.  Photo by Larkin Powell.
Only later did I realize we'd taken a photo of a building that was fairly unique--I didn't know what it's purpose had been. Too many windows to hold grain, and the second story seemed almost useless (no hay storage capacity with so many windows). So, the photo of this building became part of our Christmas dinner table conversations. All discussion ended with uncertainty. My father-in-law called some of his friends. No new ideas, but fun discussion. Later, my parents figured out that they might know someone who had grown up near this farm. I emailed this person, and got a most interesting response that I've posted here. I've removed names, as I didn't ask for permission to post the response--but I really enjoyed the reflections of this farmer from southern Iowa:

That building is just a mile from my folk’s farm and we went by it just about every time we left the farm. It was not particularly new when we moved to the farm in 1950. It is on what was then the [name removed] farm and I remember being told it was originally built as a chicken house.  I remember it being used as a hog house and in later years for small bale storage. It has obviously not been used for quite a while.  Its function can best be thought of as a predecessor to the modern chicken or hog factory buildings with the pens on the sides, the central driveway for delivery of bulk feeds and overhead storage for supplements.  Most of the farms allowed the chickens and hogs free range and the structure would have been a new concept. 

The windows were necessary because REA didn’t bring in electricity to our area until the middle of the 1940’s and the building would have preceded that time and chickens would have needed the light.  Directly across the road was the very large traditional farm barn with a modern (for the times – there was still and outhouse) home building to the west of the barn.  So the smelly chicken/hog building was to the NE, i.e., generally down wind.  Like some many of the Iowa family farms, when the children were gone (four daughters- two older and two younger than myself) and the parents retired/passed, the farm passed into other hands who did not live there and you saw what is left.
If you enjoy reading the history of landscapes, this is a great example of finding clues to dynamics that caused landscape change. This building represents a really important transition in farming--it would be similar (I'll not build this up too much, but you get the idea) of a biologist finding evidence of feathers on a dinosaur (which was announced last month). Here, the building represents a first step toward more production and specialization in commodities produced on a single farm.

Happy New Years all--history continues on our landscapes.

November 14, 2016


There is surprise I suppose,
As one sits, satisfied, in the woods
And feels Fall surround you
With color and warm moments in a 
Sun-soaked morning.

Surprise for the deer hunter 
Or the startled bird watcher 
Who thought they had achieved 
A moment of high tranquility,

Satisfaction, and 
Wholeness with the Earth.

But then a tree lets go of its leaves, 
And the stillness is shattered.
If you were quiet,
And if the wind was low,
You heard the sound behind you.
A single snap, and then another,
Until a shower of golden 
Fineness comes fluttering down
To rest on the forest floor 
To leave the tree standing naked
And alone for Winter,

Until Spring. 

L. Powell, for Laura, 11/13/2016

November 11, 2016

How to get a wildlife job in the Trump years

Post-election turmoil has gripped the minds of many, and I've noticed that my students--both undergraduates and graduate students--are more than a little anxious about what a Trump presidency means for their futures.  This is not a poor question to be asking.  Political climates affect budgets.  Budgets affect jobs.  Jobs affect you. 

So, let me weigh in with some ideas--in an attempt to provide a way forward.  Let's look at some trends.

First, I made this graphic for
Created by L. Powell, 2016
my senior fisheries and wildlife students.  It's an attempt to provide a big-picture, long-term view of some agencies and NGOs that provide jobs for our students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Point: they've been around for a long time, and will continue to be around for a long time.  Even the oft-maligned EPA was created by a Republican (Nixon) and has survived previous attacks on funding levels.  The majority (even a larger majority than those who voted for Clinton in '16) of the citizens in the US is concerned about the environment, depends upon the environment, and likes to spend time outdoors on vacations.  These agencies and NGO's will remain well past a Trump presidency.

Will jobs be fewer in these agencies?  A Republican administration has always created that fear in the
Ironic source: Downsizinggovernment.org
environmental community--it happened when both Bush gentlemen were elected.  That fear was present when Reagan was elected. Not all of the representative environmental agencies are in the Department of the Interior, but the ones most susceptible to budget cuts are in that agency (Forest Service is in the USDA, for example).  If we look at the budget trends, adjusted for inflation, we see that in the past, there are certainly more dollars for Interior during the Obama administration (in some cases almost 40% more than in the previous administration), but Interior's budget was also prone to lean-year cuts (e.g., 2012). Take-home point: yes, good chance budgets will be smaller and federal jobs may be harder to get. 

The work-around for current students: take advantage of any chance to get into federal employment.  Pathways Program.  Take a non-biologist job to get into the federal system.  I know many current federal employees who tell stories of taking jobs as office assistants or maintenance workers just to get federal status.  They bided their time until a position was open and their federal status gave them a leg up. Do what is needed.  Be geographically flexible--yes, you may have to spend time away from your boyfriend or girlfriend or fiancĂ©.  You may have to move away from family for a few years.  How badly do you want to work in the field (and this has been true even when jobs were a little more plentiful at the federal level)?

How about research careers?  You want to get into graduate school
Source: New York Times
for that MS or PhD?  What's going to happen to research funding?  One type of funding that won't change too dramatically is the funding for wildlife research based on Pittman-Robertson funds--the funds that are derived from gun sales and ammunition.  These funds have been at high levels, as the figure here shows, during the Obama administration because people thought gun regulations were going to limit the types of firearms and ammunition they could own.  So, ironically, every time Obama was elected and every time there was a school shooting, gun and ammunition sales would dramatically increase--and the 11% tax would come back to states for research on game species. 

That point is important--game species.  If you are a student with dreams of doing conservation on bobolinks, consider getting a summer job working with pheasant research (funded by the PR funds).  If you want to have a research career with focus on reptiles, consider a summer job on a white-tailed deer research project.  Learn how to conduct research.  Use the game species funds to your advantage.  Come back to non-game species when opportunity provides--don't sit around waiting for a bobolink project to magically appear.  You'll waste some of the most critical years of your career.

And finally--what about those students who are looking at jobs funded by state government?  Academic positions or jobs in state wildlife agencies?  Both types of jobs are supported by state-level budgets. Although a Trump presidency has potential to affect the economy, there are also longer-term economic trends that are coinciding with the new Trump administration.  Students should be looking at those as they plan where they might work and target their job applications. 

Take a look at this figure of 2015 budgets by region,
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis
and you'll see that the agricultural states in the Midwest are slumping as ag commodities struggle. Yup--there is a connection to how many of these states voted in the election as well.  But, to the point of students looking for jobs--my suggestion is to not hang all of your hopes on states that are struggling.  Look at states where budgets seem to be doing better and don't leave those off your job searches.  Sure, there will continue to be jobs in states like Nebraska, but if I were looking for state-supported jobs, I'd be looking at the Blue States in this figure...states with increasing GDP.  The point--pay attention to budgets.  People aren't just waiting to hire you because you are an excellent prospect.  They have to have funds to hire you.

Academic work-around: look at smaller state schools and private colleges.  This was my career track during the late 90's when academic positions were also in short supply.  I worked for three years at a private college--it gave me teaching experience and the start to a research career, and I worked what was left of my nights to get manuscripts published from my postdoc and PhD.  After three years, I was more competitive for a large-University position.  Do what it takes.  Students will always go to smaller schools, and there will always be positions there.  Smaller salary.  Yup--my family was $2500 away from food stamp level the first year of my first academic job.  I did what I could to start my career, and we made it.

Another work-around: look to NGOs. Non-governmental sources of employment.  Audubon, TNC, zoos, Pheasants Forever, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory--and other similar folks.  Especially in states where economy is going well, these groups may have funding for positions in conservation and research that are not dependent (as least as much) on federal dollars.  Their members or supporters provide funds--these donations are dependent on the economy (people donate when they have extra money to donate), so keep your eye on the economy as you look at these organizations.

Last work-around: look to environmental or ecological consulting firms.  These jobs are sky-rocketing, to be honest.  In times of state and federal budget shortages, agencies may have money to do a project but no money to hire the workers to do it.  The solution is to contract the wetland restoration or forest management planning process to an environmental consulting firm.  Start looking at job ads with those firms and see what they require of their employees.  Plan your courses and training appropriately, or spend a summer working for them rather than working on a graduate student research project (as much as that pains me to write it...). 

It's your future--society needs you more than ever.  Our environment needs you more than ever!

Don't panic at the change occurring, politically.  I'm not addressing any human rights concerns of a Trump presidency here--my goal is to specifically work with students on their career options.  I hope these thoughts are helpful. If you have other ideas, feel free to post a comment! 

June 27, 2016

Lessons from Japanese samurai generals--in haiku

Our family recently visited the Samurai Museum in Tokyo (it's worth the visit iif you are in town!).  I was inspired by one of their exhibits that features three aspiring samurai generals who competed to take power in Japan.  It is said that they each had a different personality and those have been set into verse in a famous set of haiku:

The haiku starts the same but has three different last lines, one corresponding to each general.  Note that in translation to English  the 5-7-5 pattern of the haiku is lost.

If you don't sing
Little cuckoo

...I'll kill you.
...I'll make you sing.
...I'll wait for you to sing.

So one general was an angry man and quick to violence.  The second was strong and quick to impose his way on the world, and the third was patient.

The haiku is used as a metaphorical lesson by the Japanese, as you can probably guess which general's troops won the long lasting war?  The patient one, of course, and under the family of the general Japan had over 200 years of peace during the Edo period.  

This all made me think about my approach to environmental stewardship and frustrations about the forces aligned against a sustainable landscape for the future in our production areas of the world.  Certainly, a little patience might be useful as we work to find solutions to our society's needs and our ecosystem's challenges.

August 2, 2015

Sticker shock? Get used to it!

Another example of what can happen if you let repairs go
unattended for too long (photo by L. Powell).
I'd put myself in the group of people who tend to wait on car repairs until their car is almost not drivable before taking it in to have everything fixed at once.  It saves time, right?!

But, the bill is always a big one.  If I had done small repairs on my vehicle along the way, the sticker shock would be much less and it would fit into our budget much better.

Turns out, that same idea applies to conservation and ecosystem restoration.  The Lincoln Journal Star published my Local View submission today, regarding the supposed high cost to restore our saline wetland watershed (immediately north of Lincoln).  Last week, the LJS editorial team wrote a commentary in which they suggested the $30 million price tag provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service was way too high.  Yup--they had a bad case of sticker shock.

My argument is that we need to realize that little changes we make through time have cumulative effects.  If we'd make better decisions along the way--while still producing food and energy on our farms, and making a living with the business in north Lincoln that have paved over wetlands--we'd be in a better place today.  And, we wouldn't have sticker shock about that $30 million dollar price tag for Salt Creek tiger beetles--we would be able to stomach that bill for repair of our ecosystem.

I enjoy reading Alan Guebert's columns in the Sunday paper as well (here's a link to his column on Iowa's water quality from last week that my piece references), and had a chance to meet Alan this week in Lincoln.  I asked Alan what his goal was when he wrote a column.  The part of his answer that I remember was: "I always try to provide 2-3 facts that the readers are not going to have found anywhere else, and I always make sure I believe what I write."  Mostly paraphrased, but worthy of quotes.  Good points.  I hope my column fits that description as well.