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Future conservation leaders: Wyss Fellow Training Recap

By Andrea Iniguez

Last week, I had the fantastic opportunity to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico as part of the Wyss Fellows Program for training. The Wyss Fellows Program connects motivated individuals to sponsoring organizations, like CalWild, on a variety of land conservation projects. Each year, its Fellows are invited to participate in a week-long training that provides an opportunity to connect with other Wyss Fellow Program recipients and learn about their work in conservation advocacy. This was the program’s first in-person training after the Covid-19 pandemic, and it was my first time attending an event hosted by The Wyss Foundation

Our group was composed of approximately ten Fellows representing various organizations like Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, and Oregon Desert Land Trust. I had the tremendous pleasure of meeting each Fellow and learning about the incredible work they do for their respective organization. I also had the opportunity to share information about the current campaign I am engaged in on behalf of CalWild, the Protect California Deserts campaign. I quickly discovered that many of the Fellows were familiar with Joshua Tree National Park, but they had never visited the other lands within our proposal like the Mecca Hills Wilderness. Nevertheless, we were able to find common ground by bonding over our mutual love of the desert and the outdoors. 

Most of the workshops were held indoors in a conference room. However, on our third day in Santa Fe, we were joined by members from New Mexico Wild on a field trip to the Caja del Rio Plateau. These revered landscapes have profound cultural and historical significance to the Pueblos of the middle Rio Grande and other neighboring communities. Sadly, they are threatened by harmful human activity, like vandalism, and development from utility companies. 

That day, we saw firsthand a number of these threats. For instance, we saw a popular recreation site covered in trash from illegal dumping and shooting. My immediate impulse was to grab a trash bag and start cleaning, but we were quickly advised against it by our guide. Apparently, several clean-ups had been organized by numerous organizations and volunteers in the past, yet the piles of trash would always return. Instead, at that moment, he challenged us to think critically about our individual and collective legacy as land stewards. In other words, he urged us to consider the enormous impact we have on the planet and on future generations. Overall, his message for us was unforgettable and heartening.

On our drive back, we spotted a tarantula crossing the dirt road, so we immediately stopped our vehicles to observe it. Our guide picked it up and offered it to others. Truthfully, I have always been afraid of tarantulas, so I never thought I’d jump at the opportunity to hold one. To my surprise, I impulsively extended my hand and asked if I could be the first to hold it. The tarantula’s feet felt soft against my palm, and I lifted its body close to my face to admire it. As it traveled across my arm, I felt keenly aware of my responsibility to keep it safe from falling. My interaction with this tiny desert dweller was brief but meaningful. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the more meaningful interactions I have with nature, the less it frightens me. 

I left New Mexico and traveled back to California feeling confident in my role at CalWild and hopeful for the future. Our community of conservation advocates can at times feel small compared to the issues it is tackling, but it is undeniably filled with mighty and caring individuals.