Interning at CNPS: Lessons learned from a summer in Sacramento
By Fiona O’Keeffe
This summer, I had the opportunity to serve as an intern under CNPS Conservation Program Director Greg Suba. I’m currently working towards my degree in Earth Systems at Stanford University and was thrilled to have a chance to gain first-hand insight and experience in conservation work. I also developed a strong appreciation for the depth and breadth of the conservation work at CNPS; the positive effects of the work extend far beyond native plants.
During my months at CNPS, I spent most of my time focused on forestry and fire-related policy and management plans. Given the complexity of the topic, I read a good deal of scientific papers and general information to bring myself up to speed about forests and fire ecology. I also learned about the legislative process, both at the state and federal level. With this background information, I was better able to digest legislation and management actions and assess these plans in terms of how they relate to native plants and ecosystem health at large. With Greg’s help, I learned how to read through and extract important components of legislation and play a role in public comment periods.
I also spent some time building an Esri StoryMap for CNPS about forest health and the role of fire in California to help communicate the ecological importance of fire for native plants. When I wasn’t working on forestry issues, I helped the Conservation team with event planning and public outreach and was fortunate to attend a few meetings with partners about various conservation issues, including off-highway vehicle use (OHV), the CNPS Important Plant Areas (IPAs) initiative, and revisions to National Forest management plans.
Prior to starting this internship, I was vaguely aware that the so-called mega-fires we are currently experiencing are partially the result of fire suppression practices. However, I had not realized how critical fire is for preserving ecosystem health and function, and just how detrimental fire exclusion has been. I found it especially valuable to learn the intricacies of where more fire is valuable (forests) and where it is not (chaparral). Responsible policies that recognize the role of fire in ecosystems are a critical path forward for California.
It seems that the responsibility for holding government accountable to their purported mission of environmental protection oftentimes falls on small organizations like CNPS. If conservation groups weren’t constantly pushing for species and ecosystem preservation, I fear for what would happen to California’s remaining wild lands.
In the course of my internship, I learned the importance of fully diving into and understanding the nuances of legislation and other policies. CNPS and its partners delve into conservation work with impressive depth and rigor. I was struck by the level of involvement in the policy process from beginning to end. To have people with a highly scientific background, like Greg, tracking and reading legislation made me appreciate conservation work as truly occurring at the intersection of science and policy. Additionally, it seems that the responsibility for holding government accountable to their purported mission of environmental protection oftentimes falls on small organizations like CNPS. If conservation groups weren’t constantly pushing for species and ecosystem preservation, I fear for what would happen to California’s remaining wild lands. Especially in our current political environment, state-level action is key for conservation and other environmental challenges.
I also learned that conservation work requires a real commitment to collaboration. Seeing the way that CNPS worked in the coalition with Sierra Forest Legacy and others was eye-opening. Each group brought its own specific expertise, and although groups had slightly different priorities, the coalition was made much more effective by working together. The scientific and botanical knowledge that CNPS brings to the table was and is unmatched. In conversations with partners, CNPS serves a unique role as the leading authority on native plants. Since plants form the foundation of ecosystems, the input of this organization is key to protecting California’s forests and other important areas.
The positive effects of the work extend far beyond native plants.
The sheer volume of work in California conservation is impressive, and a little intimidating. In the few months I worked with the team, Greg and the rest of the conservation team at CNPS were simultaneously involved in multiple legislative efforts, developing a new program to map California’s Important Plant Areas, and efforts to defeat the proposed Centennial Development in Los Angeles County. Although there are no guaranteed “wins” in conservation, this work is critical for preserving biodiversity and ecosystem health throughout the state. I’ll close with a quote from The Lorax that I feel encapsulates much of the conservation spirit and the work CNPS does: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”
Fiona O’Keeffe is a California native herself, who grew up in the Sacramento and Davis areas. When she’s not studying, you’ll find her running for the Cardinal cross country and track teams.
Are you a student interested in native plants or conservation? Check out our online student resources or contact our education outreach coordinator Elizabeth Kubey at firstname.lastname@example.org.