Wild WNY / WNY’s young conservationists
Carrying the torches
From top, clockwise: Heather Desorcie, Josh Klostermann, Mary Ronan
It is far too easy to characterize today’s youth as hedonists, uncaring about others and interested only in their next pleasures. That’s unfair. While they may play hard at times, most of the young people I know are both hardworking and concerned about the future. And many of them are devoting themselves to addressing the problems they see.
Heather Desorcie, Josh Klostermann, and Mary Ronan, are three such young people, working in the field of conservation.
Desorcie is from State College, Pennsylvania. She studied animal behavior, ecology, and conservation at Canisius College and just completed an education master’s degree at the University at Buffalo. Klostermann is from Lancaster. In May, he graduated from Erie Community College with an associate degree in environmental science. And Ronan is from Allegany County. Her BA in environmental communication, culture, and writing is from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.
Each of them has supplemented academic work with personal involvement in outdoor activities. Before she returned for her graduate work, Desorcie worked at the Missouri River Bird Observatory in Arrow Rock, Missouri; at the Buffalo Zoo; and at the Penn State Arboretum. Recently she assisted professor Michael Noonan of Canisius College and me on a nature-related film project.
Klostermann worked with children for Earth Spirit and completed an internship with Buffalo Niagara Waterkeepers. He has also been deeply involved with the Western New York Native Plant Collaborative, where, though he is by far the youngest partner, he has made significant contributions. Ronan was a camp counselor and director for the New York Department of Environmental Education, an environmental educator at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center, and a park naturalist for York County Parks in Pennsylvania.
Both women are now working locally. Ronan is an environmental educator at Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve and Desorcie serves on the Buffalo Museum of Science staff at Tifft Nature Preserve as a learning facilitator. (She defines that role as developing and implementing educational programs.) Klostermann just completed an internship with the Nature Conservancy and the Student Conservation Association collecting seeds in South Dakota as part of a climate-change-related grassland restoration program, and plans to attend the College of Environmental Science and Forestry where he will study conservation biology and entomology.
Asked about some of their environmental concerns, these young conservationists had varied responses. Ronan believes that most of our problems stem from our changing climate and she fears our “disconnect from nature: as a society and among individuals.” She recognizes that many problems require specific and swift action, but she believes that “true lasting change will only come if we are able to reconnect with the natural world and restore our relationship with the land and water around us.”
One of Desorcie’s concerns is water pollution. She points out that because “low-income urban people rely on Lake Erie for subsistence fishing, conservation becomes as much a human rights issue as an environmental issue,” and, looking beyond our region, she reviews the route of our local water down the Niagara River and into the Atlantic Ocean. “I find this information empowering,” she says. “By respecting my own community’s water, I am making the world a better place.”
Klostermann’s concerns center around overdevelopment. He sees this not only the way most of us do—citing “plots of woodland turned into supermarkets with giant parking lots”—but also in terms of how homeowners use land. He comments, “subdivisions filled with non-native plants and grasses that need chemical supplements in order to live are rapidly increasing the fragmentation of our environment leaving only islands of wild spaces like those found in our state parks.”
Klostermann also notes a “shifting baseline syndrome: each subsequent generation is exposed to a lower quality of natural world than the previous one. This further degraded world then becomes the standard for conservation when they grow up. By this process, our standards are slipping away from us through the generations as we develop more and bring children into the few remaining forests less. We are losing a true sense of what has truly been lost over the past 600 years.”
There is some optimism. Klostermann “sees Buffalo and Western New York becoming an example of what restoration and conservation can look like,” and adds, “another thing that fills my soul is witnessing individuals taking actions like reducing their waste, growing native plants in their landscape, and just taking up a general interest in things natural.”
Ronan says, “We have an incredible network of organizations and individuals locally. We’re raising and supporting environmental stewards through our many environmental education centers, dedicated schools and teachers, and invested parents.” She is high on Buffalo, which she says “is ahead of many cities in its effort to restore the land and water that suffered under years of neglect and disrespect.”
Desorcie cites some specifics: “The outer harbor serving both as a great recreational area for Buffalonians, but also as an important habitat for wildlife with secretive marsh birds breeding along Lake Erie during the summer and snowy owls hunting for small mammals in the rocky crevices during the winter.” She’s pleased with the upcoming plastic bag ban in New York State, which she believes is justified not only because of their pollution of natural areas, but also because of the oil used to produce them. “Using reusable bags is a small lifestyle change that has the ability to make a big difference,” she says.
I came away from our discussions deeply impressed with these representatives of our future. They see serious problems with clear eyes and recognize the incredible challenges that lie ahead. But each of them sees their contribution as small but important.
A stay-tuned footnote: Klostermann told me that he has discovered a way to attract dragonflies to land on his hand and he’s working now on a way to convey his method to us all.