A new pair of caretakers for the Natural Lands
The St. Olaf College Natural Lands — 350 acres of woods, prairies, wetlands, and trails adjacent to campus that provide a unique space for learning and recreation — are being tended to with new sets of hands.
Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Charles Umbanhowar Jr. is serving as the new Director of the Natural Lands, a position previously titled Curator of the Natural Lands. The Natural Lands Manager position is being filled by Wes Braker ’18, a current graduate student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
After conversion to farmland in the 19th and 20th centuries, the majority of the Natural Lands are being restored to recreate ecosystems that were once common in the area around Northfield. St. Olaf biology and environmental studies faculty first began this restoration work in the late 1980s.
Classes in biology and environmental studies make frequent use of the space, and both faculty and students conduct research on the campus lands. Braker conducted research on the lands while majoring in biology and Japanese, and he served as a student naturalist and land technician during his time on campus. Members of the St. Olaf community also use the Natural Lands to exercise and refresh.
“The desire to continue improving this special resource that is the Natural Lands is what really drew me back to St. Olaf and this job,” Braker says. “As a student, my interactions with the Natural Lands were very much job and research-oriented because I was a biology student, but one of my goals is to improve that access and understanding and make the Natural Lands feel like a more welcoming place to the greater campus community.”
Following an external review conducted by the former curator of the Natural Lands, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Kathy Shea, the focus of the Natural Lands moving forward will be to both increase St. Olaf community engagement with the space while continuing to develop biodiversity in the area.
“The vision is to improve on what we have in terms of educational resources so that when somebody comes to the Natural Lands they can learn more about restoration efforts as well as the natural history of the plant and animal communities that we are attempting to recreate or replicate,” Umbanhowar says. “The creative part of that is the adding of plants and animals and the less glamorous part, though it does require some creativity, is taking care of invasive species.”
The vision is to improve on what we have in terms of educational resources so that when somebody comes to the Natural Lands they can learn more about restoration efforts as well as the natural history of the plant and animal communities that we are attempting to recreate or replicate.Charles Umbanhowar Jr.
Umbanhowar worked as one of the first student naturalists at Carleton College while pursuing his undergraduate degree, and then went on to earn a Ph.D. in botany and entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before coming to St. Olaf, Umbanhowar worked for the North Dakota Natural Heritage Inventory doing survey work of rare plants in the area. He also manages the Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences greenhouse and green roof. Umbanhowar advises a group of student naturalists, who lead outdoor education opportunities in the Natural Lands while also continuing their own outdoor education.
Braker worked as a tree care technician at Rainbow Treecare and as an intern at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve before beginning his graduate research through the Conservation Sciences program at the University of Minnesota. Additionally, Braker worked as a private contractor for The Nature Conservancy in Wabasha County, Minnesota, running a seed collection crew for a large-scale restoration project.
As the Natural Lands Manager, Braker provides physical maintenance for the space, taking a team of student technicians that he leads to help him with different land management activities. He explains that many features of the space do not occur naturally and need to be monitored, illuminating goals to make the space more biodiverse.
“It’s really a manufactured habitat and from a land management perspective, increasing biodiversity and reducing invasive species are our main goals,” Braker says. “ From a community standpoint I would really like to improve interactions with different groups on campus with the Natural Lands.”