How to Become a Professional Conservationist in Less Than a Year


By volunteering and then serving with SCA, Caleb Sanders found valuable skills, a new purpose, and a new career.

Written by Joseph Thurston

How does one go from conducting graduate research in Religious Studies at the University of Chicago to restoring endangered cuckoo species habitat as a professional Restoration Technician at a research station in Southern California, all in the span of a single year?

Caleb Sanders recently managed just such a transition, and he began it by simply signing up to volunteer in his community.

Caleb grew up on a cattle ranch in rural Missouri. He so loved the tough, active work of raising livestock that at age 14 he started his own business, a hog farm, for which he even planted and harvested his own feed. Years later, when he ended up in Chicago for graduate school, he missed the hours of sunshine and intimate connection to the land that came with working outside. To fill this deficit, he looked for opportunities to volunteer in a park or community garden.

From Volunteer to SCA Crew Leader

His search brought him to Friends of the Forest Preserves (FOTFP), a Chicago nonprofit formed in 1998 to rescue and restore a 69,000 acre forest preserve district located in and around the city. Refreshed by weekends spent volunteering in the woods, Caleb sought deeper involvement. He learned that FOTFP collaborates with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) on a program called the Chicago Conservation Leadership Corps (CCLC).

Modeled off of SCA’s community-based programs in major cities throughout the country, CCLC brings together teams of culturally and socioeconomically diverse young Chicagoans and employs them for summers and weekends as environmental stewards. The idea of helping youth from the inner city develop leadership skills and a mutually beneficial relationship with nature deeply appealed to Caleb, so he applied to be a crew leader for the program. The role turned out to be a perfect fit. I liked SCA and its approach to conservation work,” he said. “Honestly, leading crews for the Chicago Community Program, I felt extremely satisfied in a way that I haven’t been for quite some time.”

With SCA’s encouragement, he signed up to join a SCA Leader Crew—a conservation crew made up entirely of crew leaders—for an invasive plant removal project with the National Park Service at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Southern Alabama.

Caleb’s time in Alabama cemented his love of trail work and ecosystem restoration. From there he signed up for a major reroute project on the Potomac Heritage National Trail in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands. Soon after, he committed to a stint in California that would take him to wilderness areas within Sequoia and Los Padres National Forests, and to the Southern Sierra Research Station in Weldon.  

Caleb (right) with one of his SCA Leader crewmates undertaking major trail work on the Potomac Heritage National Trail in Pennsylvania's Laurel highlands. Caleb (right) with one of his SCA Leader crewmates undertaking major trail work on the Potomac Heritage National Trail in Pennsylvania’s Laurel highlands.

Learning Skills, Making Contacts

Caleb walked away from each of these projects with valuable new knowledge and skills, plus a serious sense of having done something good for humankind and the planet. In Chicago, he learned that maintaining land in its natural state requires more than just barring it from development. It requires an active effort to preserve it against corrupting, anthropogenic threats like illegal dumping, invasive foreign plant species, and stormwater runoff. “Anyone who thinks we should take a hands-off approach to land management should take a walk through Chicago’s forests,” he said, pointing out that much of the city’s woodlands became impassably thicketed with thorny, invasive brush during decades of neglect.

In Alabama and Pennsylvania, he learned the basics of trail building. In California, under the tutelage of longtime SCA Field Leader Tyler Lau, he became a trail-building master. Tyler, who has spent many seasons working as a wildland firefighter, also taught Caleb how to camp confidently in the remote wilderness, how to minimize his impact on the land, and how to avoid unwanted attention from bears and other animals. “I was truly honored to work with an individual like Tyler who’s fought wildfires, who’s through-hiked the entire PCT [Pacific Crest Trail],” Caleb said. “To have his eye and his perspective on a project… I was blown away by the difference between my understanding of what good trail looked like and what it looks like to a pro like Tyler. The level of attention to detail that he brought, it really pushed me forward.”

In addition to skills, Caleb picked up new contacts at each site, too. Everywhere he went he found that the land management officials he worked with, be they local, state, or federal, had a tremendous amount of respect for the expertise brought by SCA’s Leader Crews. Time and again, site supervisors would simply tell Caleb’s crews what work needed doing, then entrust them to plan out the details of each project. This confidence made for easy dialogues, and Caleb now counts many rangers and superintendents among his network of friends, colleagues, and professional references.

At the Southern Sierra Research Station, he was excited to learn that his crew would take on the first stage of a five year project designed to help a nationally threatened and locally endangered species—the Western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. Once common in the Kern River Valley, Western Yellow-Bills have almost completely disappeared from the area due to the degradation of their preferred habitat—riparian willow and cottonwood groves. Caleb’s team was tasked with digging flood irrigation ditches and removing dead trees from a vast swath of damaged riparian to prepare it for the planting of 11,000 willows. It was grueling labor, but more than worth it considering its purpose.

Former conservation volunteer and SCA Leader Crew member Caleb Sanders uses a crosscut saw to remove blowdowns from a wilderness section of Sequoia National Forest. Caleb uses a crosscut saw to remove fallen timber from a designated wilderness area of Sequoia National Forest.

As Caleb and his crew wrapped up their work, his only regret was that he would not get to see the project through to completion. Over the next 5 years its subsequent stages—planting and tending to the willows, maintaining the new irrigation system, and finally surveying and monitoring the Yellow-Billed Cuckoos that would hopefully return to a now thriving habitat—would be carried out by local officials and future SCA crews.  

Applying for the job

Or so he thought. Turns out, as he was preparing to leave for his final West Coast hitch, a seven day trail-building project in Los Padres National Forest’s Dick Smith Wilderness, he was approached by SSRS Restoration Ecologist Patti Wohner. A job had opened up at the station, she told him. They needed to hire a Professional Land Restoration Technician, and they wanted Caleb to apply.

Just a few days later, they offered him the gig. Less than a year after his very first experience with trail-building, he had successfully transformed himself from an aspiring academic into a land conservation professional.

One of Caleb’s favorite things about working on a SCA Leader Crew was that he did not have to earn a new supervisor’s trust every time he moved to a new site to begin a new project. With each move he would arrive to find that SCA’s reputation had preceded him, that a land manager who he had never met before already trusted him to be worthy of the difficult tasks at hand. “Honestly, I was shocked by the level of respect we received just walking in the door at these sites,” he said, ”and it was just because we were working with SCA. I think that really says something about the organization.” As long as he lived up to the high expectations brought by the letters “S,” “C,” and “A,” he did not need to waste time reestablishing his bona fides.

Considering the fact that he edged out a flood of other qualified applicants to claim his new job in the Southern Sierras, it seems clear that Caleb did more than meet those expectations. He exceeded them.