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Women's role in conservation growing
Olmstead select copy
Cynthia Olmstead

Are you a woman passionate about nature? Enjoy learning? Want to travel?

Conservation may be a field largely populated by men, but there is plenty of room to succeed and lead, according to conservationists Cynthia Olmstead and Abbie Church.

Olmstead is the Director of the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative, which focuses on promoting economic and environmental incentives for farmers and landowners to adopt managed grazing of grass-fed beef in the Kickapoo Valley. Olmstead was also the first Executive Director of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy.

Church is the Conservation Director with the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, working with landowners to protect, and in some cases restore, rural land through the creation of easements that guarantee protection of habitat for future generations. MVC also owns and manages a number of preserves in Crawford, Vernon, LaCrosse, Grant, Buffalo, and Trempealeau counties.

Olmstead and Church’s view of the field is good news for women. Nationally, there continues to be economic disparity in the workplace, with women being paid 78 percent of what men were paid. Part of the issue is gender segregation, with men tending to dominate fields with higher pay. Men also still dominate the upper tiers of the power hierarchy. However, both Olmstead and Church have found that conservation work has offered them opportunities to pursue work they are passionate about.

Both women grew up in the rural Midwest – Illinois for Olmstead and Iowa for Church – and had an interest in the natural world from an early age.

“I didn’t really have a lot of role-models to help me figure out what was available,” Olmstead said of her path to conservation work, which began in the early 1980s. “I went to college and there was forestry and biology and that was about it.”

It was in graduate school that she was introduced to organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, where she went to work later on as a science coordinator.

The work was varied and led her to a path she has continued on since - working directly with landowners

Olmstead left conservation employment in 2004 when she moved to rural Crawford County, where she lives near Star Valley. She began working in grant and gift development at a private school in order to work closer to home and pursued her passion for conservation through volunteer efforts. But with the creation of the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative, Olmstead has returned to her field doing what she likes best – bringing together organizations and individuals to work cooperatively.

“I like this link to agriculture,” Olmstead said. “You have to think of agriculture when you think about conservation. We live in an agricultural basin.

“Where we live is very beautiful and productive, but it is under a lot of pressure,” Olmstead continued. “We can continue to produce while having healthy soil, clean water, clean air, while not taking it for granted.”

Working with landowners and farmers to connect them to the resources available to help them protect their land and to make informed land use decisions is what she loves to do.

“They don’t need someone speaking down to them or telling them what to do from a distance,” Olmstead said. “Collaboration and respect are what leads to a successful conservation effort.”

During the years since she first entered the field, Olmstead has seen more women joining the profession.

“I used to go to meetings and it would be just me and 12 men,” Olmstead said. “Now I get to interact with more women. There is some real leadership in our area and region from women. They are inspiring the next generation.”

Like Olmstead, Church also realized early in her career that working with landowners was the direction she wanted to pursue.

“The field is very, very competitive,” Church said. “But there are a lot of temporary or limited term jobs and when you first start out, if you are willing to travel, you can learn so much. You gain so many opportunities.”

The field suits her well, according to Church.

“I’m a little bit idealistic,” Church said. “By the time I retire, I would like to know a significant number of properties are protected because of the work I do with landowners.”

Her job allows her to oversee land protection efforts and land management at MVC in a region she feels is particularly special due to the existence of so many intact natural areas.

“We just finished an easement project with a landowner in Trempealeau,” Church described. “We created an easement that will protect 400 acres of land with a frac sand mine next door, ensuring that land, that habitat, will continue to exist. Fragmentation is increasing, which creates greater pressure on the natural environment, on the native species of plants and animals. That easement means the natural resources of those 400 acres of farmland and natural habitat will continue to be protected even when the land changes hands.”

Landowners are often managing of their land, investing equity both in terms of time, money, and sweat, Church noted. Working with a conservationist allows them to access specialized knowledge so their efforts are more effective and long lasting.

Coming into the field a generation after Olmstead, Church has had the benefit of more women in the field, though it still remains male-dominated.

“Making sure young girls know that there is nothing out there they cannot do is key,” Church said.

If they pursue their interests, they will find mentors, both men and women, whose interest is in seeing them succeed, according to Church. And while sexism still exists, it isn’t the norm in either woman’s experience.

“I think I had more issue because of my size,” said the petite Olmstead with a laugh.

If it is experienced, you can use it to motivate yourself in a positive way, according to Church. She experienced it in one work setting from a small segment of fellow workers.

“It made me ensure my work ethic was as high as it could be so that it could not be perceived that I was hired for my gender,” Church said. “I am still benefiting from the standards I developed for myself.”