Natural Lands Faculty and Manager

Director of Natural Lands

Charles Umbanhowar

Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies


The director of natural lands directs habitat restoration and maintenance of St. Olaf’s Natural Lands, encourages sustainable use of agricultural lands, and develops educational and recreational opportunities for the St. Olaf and broader Northfield communities. The director also continuously monitors and maintains the restored areas, manages invasive species, and prioritizes projects on the Natural Lands in order to maintain biodiversity.

After attending Carleton College for his undergraduate degree, where he was one of Carleton’s first student naturalists, Umbanhowar received his PhD in Botany and entomology from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1989. He spent a year doing rare plant survey work for the North Dakota Natural Heritage inventory and came to St. Olaf in 1991. At St. Olaf Umbanhowar has served as chair of the Departments of Biology and Environmental Studies and manages the Regents Hall of Science Greenhouse. His research interests range from the impact of animal disturbances (e.g., bison wallows) on plant diversity at the Ordway Prairie in South Dakota, to paleoecology, specifically the analysis of charcoal, preserved in lake sediments, as a proxy for fire. Charcoal research sites have included the Dakotas, the Big Woods region of Minnesota, tundra-forest border of Manitoba, Isle Royale, Eastern Labrador, and western Mongolia. His research has recently expanded to include using satellite and drone-based remote sensing of peatlands to understand responses of Arctic ecosystems to climate change. He has worked with many students on research related to fire and prairie ecology and GIS mapping. He recent teaching includes Introductory Biology, Remote Sensing and GIS, the and Science Conversations courses.

The director of natural lands position was established because of a generous gift of Don Nelson in establishing the Henry and Agnes Nelson Family Endowment for Natural Lands and Environmental Science.

Former Curator of Natural Lands
Professor of Biology and Curator of Natural Lands Kathleen Shea

Kathleen Shea

Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies

In 2009 Professor Kathleen Shea became the college’s second curator after Professor of Biology Gene Bakko retired. Professor Shea has taught in the Biology Department since 1985 and was on the Advisory Committee that developed the environmental studies concentration and subsequent major. She has worked on projects to develop the natural lands since shortly after her arrival, starting with tree plantings and then helping to plan the restored forests, prairies, and wetlands that make up the St. Olaf Natural Lands. Her research focuses on plant evolutionary ecology, restoration and community ecology, sustainable agriculture, and conservation through independent projects with students.

The curator of natural lands position was established because of a generous gift of Don Nelson in establishing the Henry and Agnes Nelson Family Endowment for Natural Lands and Environmental Science.

Natural Lands Manager


Wes Braker

Natural Lands Manager


Wes Braker ‘18 is the Natural Lands Manager. He oversees the ground management of the Natural Lands. An important part of the job is managing invasive species and introducing new species in restored areas as needed in order to maintain, enhance biodiversity in our forest, prairie and wetland habitats. He also oversees student workers, and works with faculty and staff to develop projects and enhance use of the Natural Lands.

Before graduating from St. Olaf Wes was a student naturalist and researcher on various projects in the Natural Lands, surveying organisms from trees to frogs and leading walks to help others learn about local natural history. After St. Olaf Wes worked as a plant community intern at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve (University of Minnesota) and as a plant healthcare technician at Rainbow Treecare, before beginning graduate work at the University of Minnesota in the Conservation Sciences program. He plans to continue his graduate work, studying local adaptation in the native grass little bluestem and restoration ecology, while working as the Natural Lands Manager. At St. Olaf, Wes looks forward to improving biodiversity in the Natural Lands, expanding on-campus outreach opportunities, and working closely with students to improve ecological and native ecosystem understandings.