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NWP Global Registry of Apprentice Ecologists - Gainesville, Florida, USA

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Gainesville, Florida, USA
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Registered: December 2018
City/Town/Province: Gainesville
Posts: 1
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In 2018, my Apprentice Ecologist Project was Young Leaders for Wild Florida, a two week summer experience that inspired teens in my hometown of Gainesville, Florida to become the next generation of environmental leaders.

My name is Oscar Psychas and I am a sophomore Environmental Studies and Geography major at Middlebury College in Vermont, but I am originally from Gainesville, Florida. Growing up along the cypress swamps on the shores of Newnan's Lake near Gainesville, and spending my time camping, hiking, and canoeing, I discovered a wild Florida that has inspired and enrichened my life. It's a hidden Florida of crystal-clear springs and mysterious swamps. A Florida of sunlit pine forests of brilliant spring flowers. It's a place like no other, with some of the highest diversity of habitats and species in North America. In my community of Alachua County in North Florida, our wild places are why we love to call this place home.

But in Florida our wild places are being paved over, fragmented, and polluted to the breaking point. By 2060, we're projected to lose an area of land the size of the state of Vermont to unregulated urban sprawl.

I wonder, how can a kid in 2060 grow up with what I had- to roam free in the woods and discover something greater than ourselves? Or will they even feel safe if they can no longer have clean water or when sea level rise devastates their communities? Our future is at stake, but our voices aren't in the discussion.

That's why last year I walked 280 miles from my house to the state capitol in Tallahassee to urge our legislature to fully fund crucial state land conservation programs. I've also joined 7 other young Floridians to sue our state government for their pro-carbon, climate-denying policies that are threatening our right to a healthy future. Because where our elders fail, it's up to our generation to step up to the plate to make sure the Florida we love will be there for our future and our children's future. Yet more and more of our generation stays indoors, and at meetings of local environmental groups, I'm usually the only one under 50. How can our generation save wild Florida if we don't get out into it?

This question has inspired my commitment to youth-led conservation and my Apprentice Ecologist Project, Young Leaders For Wild Florida. Our program was hosted by the Alachua Conservation Trust, a local land trust that has protected 50,000 acres of wild land. Our students engaged in wilderness adventures, conservation fieldwork, and workshops around conservation and leadership with the trust's staff and community leaders. We only required a $25 participation fee so that students from all financial backgrounds could participate. I got funding by pitching the project at MiddChallenge, a student startup pitch competition hosted by the college's Innovation Hub.

Our program is built around a theory of change-- that if we want to save wild Florida, we need to get young people connected to our environment, understanding what's happening to it while working together to protect and restore it, and finally rising up and leading a movement to save it. How does this work?

1. First of all, connect means every day of the program our participants got outside. Whether they paddled the Santa Fe River or played in the marshes of the gulf coast, they connected with the places that surround us here, sparking a passion for place that I hope will enrichen their lives and inspire conservation leadership

2. Understand means that when they were out in these places or engaged in workshops in the trust's headquarters, our students were guided by local experts to understand Florida's ecology and how we depend on it, learning how these places are threatened by our actions and what we can do. Our workshops including learning about the link between photography and advocacy with nature photographer and activist John Moran, learning from the Trust's director about how they conserve their lands, and exploring Florida's potential for a renewable revolution with the founder of a solar company.

3. Contribute means that students contribute as a team to vital land conservation projects with the trust's staff and other organizations, particularly in the thousands of acres of conservation lands the trust's staff directly care for. This year, we brought our students out for 6 conservation field projects, pulling bucketloads of invasive species with a local Americorps team, restoring native grasses in a conservation easement, conducting water monitoring on the Santa Fe River, preparing pine forests for prescribed fires by removing brush, and finding 43 previously unrecorded species on a nature preserve with the help of iNaturalist. Students were excited to have a chance to understand and care for wild places firsthand, and felt empowered as stewards for the future of these places.

4. Lead starts when students work with and learn from key environmental players in our community to understand how they can make a difference in their careers and lives, while getting mentorship and support to design and implement their own conservation action projects. This year our students brainstormed and advised the trust on innovative ways they could get public support to acquire a new property for conservation and testified against a proposed phosphate mine on the Santa Fe River after workshopping their speeches with a local County Commissioner. Our participants also brainstormed a new student-led conservation project, a club called the Seventh Generation for the Santa Fe, to engage their peers to explore, care, and advocate for the Santa Fe river. Since then they have turned this idea into an active club that is collaborating with the trust on student events in the preserve and at the trust's headquarters. Our alumni recently presented their project at the land trust's 30th anniversary gathering.

Trying to put this program together from scratch on my own while being far away, there were many times where I was worried it might not work out. But ultimately it was deeply rewarding to see how we could overcome the many challenges we faced and make it all happen with so many conservationists in our community donating their time to make it possible. Most of all, spending every day of the program with the participants, whether seeing them get excited about a swamp or brainstorming ways to protect wild areas, was a deeply fulfilling and inspiring experience. The passion, camaraderie, and leadership our participants showed gave this sense of possibility, that there are young people out there in Florida and all over who are ready to get out in the woods and save our planet's future if we give them the chance. This experience has made me even more certain that activating youth conservation leadership is my life's work.

The Alachua Conservation Trust is excited to make this into a yearly program, and I am working on bringing together 2019's Young Leaders for Wild Florida, where we will continue our core mission while expanding workshops in climate action and political advocacy and co-leading the program with three alumni. At the start of the semester I co-founded and now co-lead The Wild Middlebury Project, a student club engaging Middlebury College students with conservation action in Vermont. We are partnering with a local land trust to steward their conserved areas in Vermont by monitoring easements and conducting biodiversity surveys, while mentoring students at a local Career Center to implement their own environmental projects as part of their wildlife research class. For the month of January, I will be taking an intensive course called Middlebury Entrepreneurs where I will work with other leaders of our college club to create a model for, and then promote and support, a coalition of student clubs and summer programs engaging young people to explore, steward, and become leaders for wild places in their communities.

In my life I have been so fortunate to have these experiences discovering these wild places and learning from my mentors, and I'm committed and excited to bring that opportunity to more young people and see where their passion brings them.
Date: December 31, 2018 Views: 6393 File size: 23.8kb, 187.0kb : 960 x 720
Hours Volunteered: 700 participant hours during program, 280 hours personal preparation
Volunteers: 8 participants, 12 community partners
Authors Age & Age Range of Volunteers: I am 20, participants were age 15-19
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