When Ellen Badger ’16 talks about sustainability, her primary focus isn’t plants or pollution—it’s people.
“No matter what you do, if you can’t take care of the people in the equation, your initiative won’t be sustainable,” Badger asserts. “People won’t have any interest in caring for the environment if they can’t meet their basic needs.”
She knows this from firsthand experience. Since May of 2017, she has worked closely with landowners and contractors on two high-impact conservation projects. During the summer she serves as a research assistant for the Wyoming-based Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association, and for the remainder of the year she works in Fort Collins, Colo., as a project manager and research assistant working to improve the establishment of pollinator-friendly Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) mixes in the western United States.
Landowners in Wyoming formed the Thunder Basin association in 2003, says Badger, after becoming concerned about changes they were seeing in their land. Over the years, they have invited scientists from governmental and nongovernmental organizations, academia, and the private sector to conduct research aimed at protecting and conserving the lands they own. Badger’s project addresses precipitation variability by simulating extreme swings in precipitation to see how native vegetation is affected. “Our aim is to help landowners prepare for different scenarios. We don’t lecture; we collaborate. I never go into a situation and say, ‘I’m going to teach you something.’ Instead, my attitude is ‘We’re going to work on an adaptive plan together.’”
Her project in Colorado is similarly collaborative. “We’re working with landowners to establish a perennial plant cover on farmland that’s not currently in use,” she explains. The project aims to establish a natural plant community of pollinator-friendly seed mixes with lots of flowers. It’s challenging, Badger confesses, because many of the mixes don’t do well in the arid western climates, but the work is rewarding. “I’m currently the only full-time employee on the project, so I’m responsible for field prep, planting, and data collection, and I love it. It’s great being part of a project where I can answer questions that arise from any aspect of the process.”
Badger has embraced this hands-on approach since her time at Luther, where she worked at the college’s Center for Sustainable Communities for four years as well as on research projects in the Biology Department her junior and senior years. “I was the local foods project manager under Maren (Stumme-Diers) Beard ’08 and wrote the newsletter for local CSA [community supported agriculture] members.” She also authored a newsletter for resident advisors looking to add sustainability projects to their residence halls and collaborated with the Pepperfield Project’s David Cavagnaro to create a garden guide for K–12 students.
Badger was active in fieldwork as well, researching the effect of galls (the knots created by insect larvae on plant stems) on goldenrod reproductive output with associate professor of biology Beth Lynch and water quality in Dry Run Creek with biology professor Jodi Enos-Berlage. “My botany and ecology classes were great prep for a career in sustainability work, and I found that I loved being outside, collecting samples and working with scientists and landowners.” An immersive, three-week college trip on the ecology of Ecuador solidified her interests.
“I love doing the hands-on science, but at the end of the day, people are the most important part of the equation,” Badger concludes. “To be a good scientist, you must be compassionate as well as smart, and you have to be able to communicate your ideas clearly and respectfully. I learned that at Luther; my professors really embodied that attitude.”