Wyss Scholars to promote land conservation out west

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Wyss Scholars Jonathan Loevner, Mikailah McKee and Christopher Colvin.

On a cross-country bicycle tour for Habitat for Humanity several summers ago, Chris Colvin peddled hard toward the 9,600-foot summit of Togwotee Pass from Riverton, Wyoming, eyeing the open grassy meadows and Whitebark pines to distract from the burn in his legs. As he crested, the snow-capped spires of the Grand Teton mountains burst forth from the asphalt horizon, their mighty peaks piercing the opalescent blue as if laying claim to the heavens. Colvin’s breath caught. It was at that moment, he said, that he fell in love with the Rocky Mountains.

Now a master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), Colvin will continue his studies this summer as a Wyss Scholar, consulting for the National Park Service’s Denver Service Center on the development of management plans for national parks. Mikailah “Mik” McKee and Jonathan Loevner are the other 2012-2013 Wyss Scholars, bringing the total of F&ES recipients to 15 since the program began in 2006.

The Wyss Scholars Program aims to create a generation of leaders in western land conservation. It covers up to half of the tuition and expenses of getting a master’s degree and for postgraduate work. Scholars are also awarded a stipend to cover summer research or an internship in conservation.

In addition, the Wyss Foundation is expanding its program over the next three years to attract three students from the Yale Divinity School, School of Management, Law School or Graduate School of Arts & Sciences who are planning to apply their skills in conservation.

“The Wyss Foundation is pleased to support a seventh class of Wyss Scholars at Yale as part of our commitment to building leaders in western land conservation,” says Matt Hollamby, program officer at the Wyss Foundation. “Today, someone working in conservation has to understand everything from science and policy to real estate transactions and social media. F&ES is preparing its students for these new careers on campus and by connecting students to conservation projects that are happening now.”

The Wyss Scholarship will enable Colvin to pursue his interest in public lands and their relationship to rapidly growing urban centers for two years of work in the west after he graduates next year. He’d one day like to work for the Forest Service, National Park Service or Bureau of Land Management.

“I think it’s important for the future of environmental stewardship to make sure that people who live in cities feel connected to natural areas and their public lands,” he said.

Colvin grew up in San Francisco. He vacationed at Mount Rainier National Park and stayed in the Paradise Inn, which his great-great-grandfather — the architect Frederick Heath — designed and his grandfather managed. After graduating from the University of California-Berkeley in 2005, he was a backcountry ranger in Yellowstone National Park, and worked for the Forest Service and at Stanford University, where he heard about Yale from alumni.

“The strength of Yale is that you don’t just learn how to do things or how to perform tasks. You learn how to think creatively and how to approach problems with a clear, open mind and strong analytical tools,” he says.

Loevner was exposed to the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains as a child vacationing with his family in Wyoming, and at Carleton College in Minnesota where he studied history and environmental science. At Carleton he developed an interest in land management while working two summers for the Forest Service in Idaho.

Loevner wants to lead projects that improve forest health and create jobs in rural communities. “I became interested in the connection between communities in the Rocky Mountains and landscapes because almost everyone is making a living off the land in some way, whether it’s by farming, timber or recreation,” he says.

The Wyss Scholarship will help him pursue his dream of improving public land governance out west for the Forest Service or a land management agency. “Getting the Wyss Scholarship is an honor,” he says.

Loevner said the greatest challenge in a lot of places in the west is not necessarily managing natural resources, but dealing with political challenges — getting people to agree on what needs to be done. “It should be an important part of educating a land management professional, and I’m definitely getting it here at F&ES,” he says.

McKee’s parents were dairy farmers in Chelsea, Vermont, where 1,250 people live within 40 square miles. McKee spent a great deal of his childhood outdoors, where, he says, he developed an appreciation for the “intrinsic and cultural values” of a rural environment.

After graduating from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Finger Lakes, New York, he set out to “find himself” in the wide open spaces of Big Sky Country — specifically Bozeman, Montana The construction industry was booming and the jobs were plentiful, but what he really wanted to do was work for the Forest Service. He finally got a chance, landing a job on a fuels crew, for which he was usually at the vanguard of wildfire suppression efforts. When he left Bozeman, he became a member of the Chena Interagency Hotshot Crew, an elite wildfire crew in Alaska that prided itself on physical stamina and its ability to undertake dangerous assignments.

McKee will use the Wyss Scholarship to pursue his interest in fire management and in promoting conservation on working lands, like ranches and farms.

“To get the Wyss Scholarship is extremely exciting,” he says. “It’ll push my academic boundaries further.”

He said that growing up in a farming community gives him an appreciation for the challenges that small towns face in retaining young people, supporting good schools and keeping businesses.

“Farming is an intensive use of the land, but it isn’t at odds with the idea of preserving land,” he says. “The two can coexist and that’s the direction that conservation needs to head.”

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Media Contact

Dave DeFusco: david.defusco@yale.edu, 203-436-4842