Careers in Plant Science and Conservation | Part III

Michael Kauffmann in the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness on the first thru-hike of the Bigfoot Trail.

A conversation with Michael Kauffmann, an ecologist, educator, and author from Humboldt County

By CNPS Student Advisor Brittany Long

Michael Kauffmann is an ecologist, educator, and author originally from Virginia and now living and working amongst the forests of Northern California. He has a particular love for native conifers that blossomed when he moved to California to work as an outdoor educator. He is the author of several books, including Conifer Country: A natural history to 35 conifers of the Klamath Mountain region. It is a testament to his love of special trees and wild places. Besides working as an author, Kauffmann works with students across Humboldt County, as a researcher with Humboldt State University, and a curriculum developer with Save the Redwoods League. He has also worked with the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team on mapping and monitoring projects for various conifers across California. He founded the Bigfoot Trail Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to creating and maintaining the 360 mile trail through the Klamath Mountains. The Bigfoot Trail celebrates one of the most biodiverse temperate coniferous forests on Earth. His next book project is The Klamath Mountains: A Natural History that will be published by Backcountry Press in 2021.

It typifies the beauty of California in that these little sky islands have relictual species such as foxtail pine. You start to see these gateways into what spatially restricted habitats can do to species, but then you’re on this mountaintop with 800 year old windswept trees. How absolutely amazing is it, a species that can live that long?

B: Let’s start from the beginning: How did you first become interested in native plants?

M: My high school biology teacher. His class was basically a dendrology class. We put on hip waders and ran around in the swamps in Virginia. We were swimming with the beavers amongst the water tupelo trees. It was just an amazing experience, to have that field-based learning. Throughout the seasons there, we started to learn the trees when they had leaves in the fall, and then we had to learn them again in the winter when they didn’t have leaves. As a student in his class, you really used different modalities to learn and identify the species. That was the big turning point for me and my interest in plants. It allowed me to learn what I wanted to major in immediately.  As a freshman, I entered Virginia Tech and went directly into Biology. I took a lot of courses like mammalogy, dendrology, and ornithology. I had to take microbiology and genetics, too, and suffered through all that stuff (laughs). My passion is in larger-scale interactions of plants and animals, and because of that high school class I took, I knew to focus on ecology in college. 

B: What higher education did you pursue in order to get the career that you wanted?

M: I got my undergrad in biology by the time I was 21, and then I realized I wanted to teach. I found a job in California teaching at an environmental education center. I taught at a variety of schools throughout my 20s. I realized I needed a teaching credential to do what I wanted to do. I got a teaching credential at Humboldt State University (HSU). After teaching for about six years, when I was about 35, John Sawyer had become my mentor and I went back to HSU and got my master’s degree in Biology. Conifer Country was my thesis. It was the first project-based master’s at Humboldt State University. I didn’t have to do any statistics! It was all natural history. I had to jump through some hoops and some professors weren’t necessarily in favor. At that time, John Rice was the department chair and he said to me, “What an amazing thesis, it’s the first one I’ve ever bought!” It all worked out in the end. I think people realized the amount of work I put in, eight years of work, and the classes I took at HSU, improved the product.

B: Was there ever a position you applied for and got, but you weren’t 100% qualified?

M: My first job out of college. I had a biology degree but I took a teaching job even though I had never really taught before. I didn’t have a teaching credential yet. They had training for the job, and I learned that way. Situations like that can be great learning experiences.

B: What are some current projects you are working on in your career?

M: I have a combination of jobs. I work half-time as an instructional coach, working with teachers in Humboldt County to improve student outcomes. I’ve been with Fortuna Elementary School District for 15 years. The other half of my time I’ve done various things, such as working with the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team, editing Fremontia, and now I’m with Save the Redwoods League. I also have passion projects that I work on. I’m currently working with a bunch of different authors and editing a book about the natural history of the Klamath Mountains. Each author is writing a different chapter of the book. It’s about a year away. That’s super exciting and fun for me. I also do conifer research in the Klamath Mountains of Northern California. Some of those projects include White Bark Pine, Yellow Cedar, and Pacific Silver Fir, often in conjunction with the US Forest Service. I also run a non-profit called Bigfoot Trail Alliance. I’m trying to connect more kids to backpacking trips on the Bigfoot Trail. It’s great to get kids outside and to be able to support that.

B: Your book, Conifer Country, is a great resource for students who want to learn more about the native conifers in Northern California. What are some other resources that you recommend for students that are interested in native plants?

M: If you can get yourself to a Northern California Botanists Symposium or any other native plant conference, just to see the sort of careers that are available, that’s a good start. There’s professionals that do presentations about the work they’re engaged with. I think that can be inspiring, seeing what other people are doing and the ways you might actually find a career with native plants. You can also get an idea of what agencies you might pursue working with. CalFlora and iNaturalist, how fun are those to nerd out on? If there’s a plant that you love you can look it up and go find it!

Julie Evens and Michael Kauffmann researching yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) in the Siskiyou Wilderness.

B: Many students find it difficult to get started as young scientists. How can a student with nearly no experience start building a resume in biology?

M: That’s a good question, and unfortunately, a scary part about our reality right now. A lot of positions in science are underfunded, especially in macrobiology fields, such as ecology. I was never interested in fields like microbiology. I was always interested in things I could see on a larger scale. I recommend that students get involved in their local chapter of California Native Plant Society and go on field trips. Get to know people there. I had to do my fair share of volunteering, and I recommend that too. Natural history museums, such as the Humboldt State Natural History Museum, are a great place to volunteer to get experience. Volunteering at the herbarium at HSU would be a fabulous way to start to understand how that whole process works. Social media makes a lot of things easier too. You can connect with like-minded folks and go out on hikes with them. Making alliances like that could lead to summer botany jobs. There’s a lot of part-time opportunities that have the potential to turn into full-time careers. It’s similar to everything else: networking and getting involved in a local, place-based community is important.

Michael collecting a data point near the southern range extension of yellow-cedar

B: If you could give advice to students that want successful careers in botany and ecology, what advice would you give them?

M: You have to have a passion! Do a lot of reading, a lot of asking questions, trying to find answers, and making connections with professionals. That was what happened with me. Right when I got to HSU, I sent John Sawyer an email. I reached out to him and said, “hey, I see you’re into conifers, maybe we can be friends.” You know, just reaching out to people and befriending experts in the field, getting out and volunteering to do field work with them, networking, and showing a passion will get you noticed. It can get people interested in potentially bringing you on for a short-term project, or if a job opens, they remember you and send you the job announcement.

B: I saved the hardest question for last. Do you have a favorite conifer, or conifers? Explain why you chose the species that you did

M: That’s the easiest question! My favorite conifer is definitely foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana). It’s a relative of the bristlecone pine, and when I got my first job in California, it was in Tulare County in the foothills of Sequoia National Park. That fall, when I showed up in California, the sequoias blew my mind, but I remember climbing a mountain and finding the foxtails at the top. I thought to myself, “Man, these things must be all over the place, on every mountain top.” Come to find out, they’re a California endemic restricted to the Southern Sierra and the Klamath. It typifies the beauty of California in that these little sky islands have relictual species such as foxtail pine. You start to see these gateways into what spatially restricted habitats can do to species, but then you’re on this mountaintop with 800 year old windswept trees. How absolutely amazing is it, a species that can live that long? It’s such a harsh
environment. But anyway, foxtail pine is my favorite, and Brewer spruce is a close second.

Thank you, Michael! Keep an eye out for Michael’s new book, The Klamath Mountains: A Natural History, coming in 2021.

CNPS student advisor Brittany Long is a transfer student at Humboldt State University majoring in biology and minoring in anthropology. Her research interests often combine these two studies, and she is particularly interested in enthobiology, paleobotany, Indigenous ecology, and archaeology.

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