Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Matt Faust, in western Colorado © Kevin Buffington

Matt Faust, in western Colorado where he studied red-naped sapsuckers and carrion beetles during 2008-09.
© Kevin Buffington

August 2013

Choosing to work in natural resources

It's a career born from being outdoors.

Matt Faust

Each year, countless students eagerly begin their collegiate education. Many arrive on campus unsure of their career aspirations, while others will switch majors after realizing that their original choice was not for them.

When I arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the fall of 2005, I did not fit into either of the above descriptions. I knew that I was going to major in biology, with the intent of working in natural resources as a fisheries biologist to help manage and protect the resources that shaped me into the person I am today. While a lot has changed in my life since I began college that fall, my commitment to a career in natural resources has only grown stronger.

One question that many of my peers and I have been asked pertains to our decision to pursue a career in natural resources. Family, friends and new acquaintances alike have all asked me in one way or another, "Why natural resources?"

The answer to this seemingly simple question is often difficult for those outside the field to understand. Given the modest starting salaries and difficulty finding a permanent position in natural resources, especially in the current economic climate facing many states, why didnít I pursue a more lucrative career in business or medicine?

Most of us working in the natural resources field share a common characteristic ó we were exposed to nature at a young age. I am no exception.

When I was a baby, my grandmother took an early retirement opportunity to babysit me after my parents returned to work. My father and grandfather had numerous old fishing magazines around their houses and one of my favorite activities as a baby was to sit on my grandmotherís lap and page through those magazines looking at pictures of fish.

My grandmother would exclaim, "Look at the fish!" To her surprise one day I replied with my first word: "phissh."

While my first word was certainly an indication of things to come, it was not until I was old enough to tag along with my father fishing for bluegill that I became hooked. My family was fortunate to own land on a small lake in northern Wisconsin where we frequently spent our summer weekends visiting my great-grandmother.

During these vacations I learned to fish, chase frogs along the shoreline, listen for howling wolves and watch for deer in the surrounding woods. I can vividly remember the first northern pike that I had ever seen chasing my red spinnerbait up to the side of our boat and startling me before racing back to the weed bed that it had so suddenly appeared from.

Although my time spent on our land in northern Wisconsin has shrunk considerably as I have grown and taken on commitments to school and jobs, this has made the time that I do spend up there all the more enjoyable.

My experiences growing up sparked my interest in the outdoors and sent me down the path of biology and natural resources, but it was my summers spent working in the field as a research technician that confirmed that I had made the correct career choice.

I began my career by helping with a graduate project in northern Wisconsin, where I spent a summer snorkeling with juvenile coho salmon in a coldwater tributary of Lake Superior.

My next two summers were spent in the Rocky Mountains of western Colorado walking through aspen woodland, searching for nest sites of the red-naped sapsucker and helping to set traps to detect carrion beetles.

My time as a research technician was far from glorious. Days typically consisted of spending long hours repeating the same few tasks over and over, while trying not to be carried away by mosquitoes or biting flies. Nights following a day in the field were filled with cold showers, long walks to outhouses, the joys of data entry and occasionally being awakened in the middle of the night by a porcupine making a meal out of my wooden cabin.

Although long hours and repetitive tasks may apply to any number of entry-level jobs (minus the biting insects and porcupines), natural resources had one major redeeming quality for me: I worked outside!

Conditions in the field were rarely the same from day to day, or even hour to hour. The fact that I could spend days or weeks repeating the same task, only to have one day where something totally out of the ordinary occurs, more than makes up for the periods of monotony and discomfort, and is something that people in other lines of work may never get the opportunity to experience.

I have been fortunate to have memorable days in the field where I glissaded down a snow-covered mountainside using my rain gear as an impromptu sled. I witnessed a large rockslide caused by a running marmot.

But my favorite experience took place after an utterly unremarkable day of watching coho salmon in northern Wisconsin. My partner and I were hiking downstream to a new site when we heard the loud, distinct noise of branches breaking in a stand of conifers about 20 yards from us. As we stood in the stream attempting to decipher the source of the noise, we heard more branches being broken, although appreciably closer to us. By this time, we were confident that the culprit was not a white-tailed deer or raccoon and decided that it would be best to leave our field site for the day and hastily make our way back to our vehicle. As we made our retreat, our mystery visitor continued to make its presence known by continuing to break branches and move off in the distance. Once back to the comfort and relative safety of our vehicle, we pieced together exactly what had happened: we had inadvertently gotten too close to a mother black bear and her cub. The initial noise was the cub scurrying up a tree as we approached, and everything that followed was the mother expressing her displeasure by escorting us away from her child (and our field site)!

When I graduated from Eau Claire in 2009, I accepted a graduate position at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. My graduate work took place entirely within an office setting,which may seem odd given my affinity for fieldwork until you consider the topic of my research: northern Wisconsinís muskellunge fishery. The opportunity to work with and contribute to the management of a resource that I had grown up caring about was a dream come true. Looking back, I can confidently say that my graduate research has ultimately been one of the most rewarding things that I have worked on, and is something that I look forward to continuing into the future.

As I begin my journey as a young professional I remain committed to my career goal. I hope that I have been able to provide some insight into why my peers and I have chosen to dedicate ourselves to careers in natural resources and shown that these precious resources are in capable, caring hands.

Matt Faust graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources and now works for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. He lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.