Academy ensures future of conservation lives on in youth

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”

In Pennsylvania, high school students are being given an opportunity to help ensure and sustain wildlife, fisheries and natural resources in their own legacy for future generations by enrolling and completing the Wildlife Leadership Academy.

Michelle Kittell, executive director, explains its goals: “The primary goal of the Wildlife Leadership Academy is to develop a corps of well-informed youth who are committed to serving as spokespersons for conservation in Pennsylvania.”

The non-profit academy achieves this by holding field schools, where students are educated by experts in a variety of areas. During school students are out in the field learning about wildlife or fisheries biology, ecology, management, monitoring, and research and natural history.

Kittell said they are encouraged to explore and reflect in the outdoors, and are guided to develop leadership and interpersonal skills.

“It is our hope that when they leave the field schools they feel educated and empowered to follow through with their challenge to become Conservation Ambassadors and take part in outreach in their communities in the areas of education, service work, media engagement, creative arts and outdoor mentorship,” Kittell said.

The academy has 469 high-achieving youth from 62 counties across the state as well as students from Ohio, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and West Virginia, all since 2007.

After the students graduate the academy, they are mentored through a monthly e-newsletter, video conferences and more to keep them motivated and engaged with their communities.

According to the academy, students have engaged in 3,093 projects in conservation education, communication, service, creative arts and outdoor mentorship in 12,000 contact hours with the public, and reached an audience of over 45,000 people across the state.

These momentous achivements have been driven by working for variety of orgazations across the state: Audubon PA, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Clear Water Conservancy, Conservation Officers of Pennsylvania Association, National Wild Turkey Federation, Ruffed Grouse Society, Trout Unlimited, Quality Deer Management Association and The Wildlife Society’s PA Chapter.

Their engagement include state run agencies, including local and state parks, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The academy organizes and administers the field school with these agencies and organizations as part of its core and making it a cooperative initiative.

“Staff support the students through mentorship, instruction and advising curriculum development,” Kittell said.

The academy seeks a long term vision for these students, and part of that vision is to support the Academy Alumni from high school to college to career.

“One way we hope to do this is through our academy alumni network, which we launched last year with a 10-year anniversary reunion. At that reunion, we had 2009 alumna Kala Davis travel from West Virginia for the event,” Kittell said. “Kala graduated with a bachelor in science in Wildlife and Fisheries from California University of Pa. and went on to serve as wildlife biologist working with endangered bat species as a private consultant. This fall is he is headed to Memorial University of Newfoundland for her master’s of environmental science.”

Kala shared a recent newsletter explaining what her academy experience meant to her: “It is thanks to WLA that I have a big picture view of conservation. In my studies and my professional career I have strived to look at an ecosystem as a whole and not how I can change it to better fit one species. Many biologists have a narrowed view on how to help their species of interest; WLA taught me the importance of all species within an ecosystem and gave me the resources and the courage to fight for that ecosystem as a whole. WLA also shown me how its important it is to educate others about conservation issues. Misinformation or old stigmas are everywhere when it comes to wildlife, and I didn’t realize at the time, but having the passion and ability to talk and educate others is invaluable.”

She is coming back to the academy this summer to serve as an instructor, which graduates often will do. Kala will be at both the PA Bass and PA Gobblers field school giving back to the new classes of Academy Conservation Ambassadors.

“As an organization, this enthusiasm is so valuable not only for our student to have a young professional to look up to but to help us be a sustainable organization and intern serving youth and their communities in conservation outreach for years to come,” Kittell said.

There are five field schools at the Wildlife Leadership Academy: PA Bucktails, Bass, Brookies, Drummers and Gobblers.

Northumberland County student Katie Mace, who particpated in the Gobbler school last year, was made aware of the Wildlife Leadership Academy by her eight grade science teacher Jascon Weller, who also nominated her.

“Originally, I wanted to attend the Bucktails camp, but I was accepted into the Gobblers field school. I think going to a different camp than I would have originally chosen made my experience better because I didn’t know anything about turkeys and so I had so much more to learn,” Mace said.

She loved the expierence; she said it gave a great combination of fun and education, and she created bonds with her team and other academy students.

“Everyone was so friendly and easy to talk to. The program helped to guide my outreach after the field school ended. Since the conclusion of the camp, I have led several friends and family into the outdoors. I also have done several educational presentations informing others on WLA and wild turkeys,” she said.

Mace said she learned valuable leadership and communication skills.

“The leadership skills really stuck out to me as the most valuable thing I learned. I know that I can use these skills in anything I need in the future,” she said. ” I’m not sure what career path I want to choose. I am not considering being a turkey biologist, but I can apply the leadership and communication skills that I learned to whatever career I choose for myself.”

Kittell said the academy looks for highly motivated students between the ages of 14 and 17 that have a demonstrated interest in the outdoors and in wildlife and/or fisheries conservation.

Students receive many things of achievement and advancement for their future when they complete the program.

They become Conservation Ambassadors and receive letters of recommendation from the executive director for college applications toward certification of community service work and certificates designating them as Conservation Ambassadors. Conservation Ambassadors are also eligible to receive three college Credits from Cedar Crest College; apply to become a youth mentor and return to the program tuition free the following year; compete for college scholarships; attend college visit days at colleges and universities that have wildlife and conservation programs; and join an Academy Alumni Network of 100 plus wildlife, fisheries, and conservation professionals.

Students who are interested in attending the Wildlife Leadership Academy are encouraged ask a teacher or other mentor to nominate them to apply to the program. Once nominated, the student will receive an invitation to apply to the Academy. Nominations can be made at http://wildlifeleadershipacademy.org/nominate/

Adults who are interested to serve as mentors can apply at: http://wildlifeleadershipacademy.org/adult-mentor-application/. Adults also have the opportunity earn three college credits from Cedar Crest College as well as 40 ACT 48 credits.

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