Deeping Roots: Building an Ecosystem

By Emily Martin on June 24, 2024 in Blog

In 1986, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) hired its first intern. At a time when our staff was small but mighty, having an intern made all the difference. As INHF’s staff has grown over the last four decades, so has the positive impact of the intern program on Iowa’s land, water and wildlife.

Today, we hire over 20 interns every year, filling roles in land stewardship, communications, design, conservation programs, policy and trails. INHF’s intern program has grown a robust ecosystem of conservation advocates with diverse skills. Over 400 interns have come through INHF’s doors in the last 38 years. Like prairie plants, each one of those past interns has grown into their careers with roots firmly planted in the natural resources community.

Some have stayed right here at INHF. Currently, seven of our 30 staff members are former interns. Some of those former interns now get to supervise their own interns – an intergenerational connection within INHF.

These connections run beyond our staff. Susan Salterberg was an intern in 1990 and boomeranged back to INHF as a board member 15 years later. As an intern, she interviewed people throughout Iowa to complete an environmental education needs assessment. Today, Salterberg works as a Program Manager at University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education.

“The internship program gave me an opportunity to make some lifetime friends," says Susan. "Most importantly, I was mentored by a dedicated and passionate professional who cared deeply about my growth, professionally and personally. My time with INHF deepened my passion for work in environmental education.”

Headshot of Adam ShirleySome former interns have stayed within the field of conservation in Iowa. Adam Shirley is the CEO of Iowa’s County Conservation System, a key role that works to unite Iowa’s 99 County Conservation Boards in vision and voice.

Before he stepped into his role as CEO, Shirley cut his teeth through internships at Sioux County Conservation and INHF. He served on the summer 2009 Land Stewardship intern crew between semesters studying Environmental Studies at Dordt University.

“That summer, I had my eyes opened to conservation in Iowa. Before I interned at INHF, I wanted to move out west to work in conservation. But getting to travel all over the state and work in a diversity of ecosystems really opened my eyes to the work that needed to be done here,” Shirley shared.

The call to move west is a frequently voiced sentiment among college students studying conservation in Iowa. The outdoors is associated with grand spaces — towering mountains, vast forests and winding canyons. Iowa has no national parks or national forests; envisioning a permanent career in conservation in one of the most altered states in the country can be difficult.

But through INHF’s intern program, generations of Iowans are deepening their connection with our native ecosystems – towering loess hills, vast prairies and winding river valleys.

“I discovered the magic of Iowa. It sparked a passion in me that continues to this day. I realized Iowa’s resources are worth fighting for and that I could have a bigger impact by staying,” Shirley said.

2009 Land Stewardship Interns including Adam Shirley to the far leftAfter his internship, Shirley went on to work for Cerro Gordo County Conservation as a Roadside Biologist before accepting a role as Deputy Director for Mitchell County Conservation, where he was eventually promoted to Executive Director. In 2023, he moved into his current role.

“I’ve stayed connected to INHF over the years. They took the time to teach me about Iowa’s ecosystems and to help me develop as a leader. I think we need to continue these connections to nature. As long as we encourage these connections, Iowa has a bright future ahead,” said Shirley.

Shirley’s experience in 2009 is the same as felt by Riggs Wilson, who served on the Land Stewardship intern crew exactly a decade later.

Riggs Wilson“My internship with INHF allowed me to travel and see amazing areas in Iowa. I saw the Loess Hills, northeast Iowa and ecosystems I hadn’t been exposed to before. It shaped my passion for conservation.”

Wilson is currently working with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Diversity Program as a Wildlife Research Specialist while finishing his Master of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology at Iowa State University. It was his time at INHF that helped build his network and guided his career to where it is now.

Riggs Wilson“Making connections is one of the most important things you can do with your career. Attend professional events, meet like-minded people in conservation and learn as much as you can. That’s how I got my start.”

Hannah HowardSome of INHF’s past interns have stayed in Iowa but found career paths that led to other fields. Hannah Howard, a 2013 Land Stewardship intern crew member, stoked her passion for conservation through a different path. As Howard describes it, her career path was like a jungle gym, where every position played into the next.

After studying Forestry and Animal Ecology at Iowa State University, Howard found work in private land restoration in the Iowa City area. Not long after, she accepted a position as a Project Coordinator for Trees Forever, where she got to use her degree, her experience with INHF and her love of connecting with people, all in her hometown of Muscatine, Iowa.

Hannah Howard“On my INHF intern crew, everyone had different strengths. Some people liked showing up and chopping brush in silence. Some of us liked getting to chat while we worked, asking questions to learn about what we were seeing. Our supervisors were instrumental in creating a unique experience and fostering a learning environment,” Howard shared.

Howard went on to accept a position as a Community Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy’s Land of the Swamp White Oak Preserve. Combining her love of community outreach and conservation helped her thrive in this role before making the leap outside of the conservation world to work with Muscatine’s Chamber of Commerce. Finally, her connections led her to accept her current role at Lead(h)er.

Like Wilson, her advice to someone beginning their career in conservation is to make as many connections as possible.

“My network is how I ended up where I am now. My mentors encouraged me to apply for positions I didn’t think I was qualified for. That’s how I moved through the jungle gym of my career,” said Howard. At Lead(h)er, Howard continues to promote the importance of connections in the Quad Cities area, fostering over 900 mentorship relationships among professional women in the last seven years.

What Iowa lacks in national parks, it makes up for in connections — to each other and to our special protected places. The world of conservation here is tight-knit and strong. Internships are a key part of how we ensure the future of Iowa’s natural resources.

No matter where interns end up in their careers, they’re still working to spread the roots of their passion for natural resources. Taking their children to a park to teach them native plants, advocating for their next work retreat to include a hike, volunteering with a local conservation organization, hanging a picture of their favorite tree in their office — every action, big or small, matters. These are the sparks for interns that remind them of what it was like to stand on top of a bluff above the Mississippi River after a long day of restoring Iowa’s natural spaces.

Sydney SamplesTake, for example, Sydney Samples, who joined INHF in 2020 as a Conservation Programs Intern, a position that combines grant writing with research. In her time at INHF, Samples assisted partners across the state with submitting grants to build trails and protect land. When not writing grants, she headed into the field to gather water quality data showing how conservation practices like wetlands and prairies work to reduce the amount of nitrate in Iowa’s streams.

Four years later, with a Master of Arts in International Environmental Policy under her belt, Samples works just outside of Washington D.C. with The Water Research Foundation as a Research Program Manager.

“Because of my internship, I learned that I wanted to take on project management roles. Beyond that, I gained an appreciation for specific plants and wildlife, no matter where I’m living. I always try to learn about the environment I’m living in and get involved with local organizations doing conservation work,” said Samples.

Like Howard, Samples loved community engagement in conservation. In her work now, she manages research projects that provide the water sector with the knowledge needed to provide high-quality, safe, accessible, and affordable water services to their communities while engaging with key stakeholders. Her time at INHF deepened the roots of her passion and skills.

Sydney SampleReflecting on her internship, Samples shared one of the most poignant memories that has stuck with her. She wrote a successful grant to fund a 40-acre addition to Falcon Springs Wildlife Management Area in Winneshiek County, just outside Decorah. The addition boasted remnant white pines, restored prairie, and a cold-water stream.

“That fall, I took a trip to Decorah with my family. I was able to show them the addition to Falcon Springs WMA. Standing there and seeing the impact my work had was incredible,” Samples shared.

Connections to the land are what tie every former intern together. Ask anyone who has come through INHF’s doors, and they’ll likely have a favorite property and a memory that brings a smile to their face. As the paths of INHF's interns diverge and lead them to different corners of the world, one truth endures: the profound connections forged with the land and each other during their internships keep them firmly rooted in INHF’s mission.