Cleveland State wildlife students experience New Mexico adventure
(Editor's Note: Daryl Ratajczak is the former Chief of Wildlife for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Ratajczak resigned a year-and-a-half ago and moved to New Mexico where he joined the U.S. Forest Service.)
Some places are simply too big, too awe-inspiring, and too beautiful to keep it to one's self.
That is exactly what I thought when I took a job as a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and explored my new home within the Santa Fe National Forest in northern New Mexico. Moving west fulfilled a life-long dream to work in the Rockies and the move didn't disappoint. Everywhere I went I was blown away with the grandeur of what lay before me. I simply couldn't keep it to myself.
I called a Tennessee friend, Robert Brewer, a wildlife professor at Cleveland State Community College (CSCC) and told him we simply had to figure out a way to get his students out here. They just had to see all the amazing sites New Mexico had to offer. The written descriptions and pictures on my blog simply did not do this place justice.
Brewer said, "Let's do it."
Over the next six months Brewer struggled to find a way to get his Wildlife Society class across the country without asking them to pay for it out of their own pocket. Many of his students were hard-pressed for money. Their big break came in early spring when Brewer received a grant through the CSCC's Cultural Resources Department. Between the grant and money the wildlife students raised through fundraisers, Brewer said they put together about $12,000 covering airfare for instructors and fourteen wildlife and forestry resource students, all of whom were members of the college's Wildlife Society chapter.
That's when I went to work putting a plan down on paper, naming it the Student Wildlands Adventure Program (SWAP) and began pounding the pavement seeking sponsors in New Mexico to cover lodging and meals. I wanted the experience to be a positive, life-changing event for the kids and having the students worrying about how to pay for it simply wasn’t going to cut it.
I couldn't believe all the people coming out of the woodwork to help. Folks found out about what we were trying to do for the kids and they wanted to help in any way they could. Family and friends were literally offering to buy the gear and food for the kids. One day I was checking out of Walmart with two shopping carts full of sleeping bags and pillows, the gentleman in front of me couldn't help but inquire why he was buying sixteen of each.
I explained what we were doing for the kids. The man gave me a business card and offered to furnish pre-packaged deli sandwiches for the kid’s lunches. A complete stranger provided two days’ worth of lunches.
We covered some lodging and we put the students up at my house for half the trip. My backyard looked like a squatter’s convention but the wildlife professionals in training were well-adapted to sleeping under the stars.
For ten days in early May, the Cleveland State students enjoyed the adventure of a lifetime. Field trips were designed to teach the students about all the western ecosystems with destinations ranging from arid Pinyon-Juniper habitats in the Chama River Canyon to the sub-alpine spruce-fir forests atop Sandia Crest.
Brewer said, "This was probably a once-in-a-lifetime for a lot of these students. They got the chance to interact with biologists and see things first-hand they've never seen before, and in some cases, didn't even know existed. They learned a lot, first-hand, about wildlife and biology."
Numerous state and federal agencies as well as other organizations chipped in expertise, donating staff time to lead field trips. Participating agencies and organizations included: the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. Their experience and field knowledge allowed many of the students to see elk, mule deer, and bighorn for the very first time. The students even got to see trail camera pictures of a mountain lion that had passed through the area a few days before their arrival.
When all was said and done, the students and instructors had a whirlwind 10-day adventure with many of them returning home with a renewed faith in protecting our country’s natural and cultural resources.
Brewer's son was one of the wildlife students who got to take part.
"It really inspired him," said Brewer. "It showed him that the dreams he's always had of working in these wild places are real and that those opportunities exist. He just has to do the work to get there. No one wants to sit in a classroom, but now these kids better understand why they need to."
Brewer and Ratajczak are working now to pull off a reverse SWAP next year... bring New Mexico students to Tennessee. Brewer says it would surely be an eye-opening experience.
"Going to New Mexico helped my students realize what a diversity of wildlife and natural resources we have here. In New Mexico we would visit a stream that would have five species of fish. Visit a similar stream here and we have 50 species of fish."