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Conservation Awards Winners On Being "Women In The Woods"

Meg Niederhofer. Pat Harden
Meg Niederhofer. Pat Harden

This weekend, the Alachua County Conservation Trust awarded its annual Conservation Steward Awards and honored two women who have made strides in conservation work. One recipient, Meg Niederhofer, was formerly the city arborist. The other recipient, Pat Harden, is currently the coordinator for the Protect Paynes Prairie Coalition. Both have spent decades working in different conservation-focused areas, creating change in Alachua County. 

The two were recognized for their lifelong dedication to conservation. This year's awards were themed "Women in The Woods," so women who have dedicated their careers to stewardship were highlighted. The Conservation Trust wanted to celebrate the important role women play in conservation work. 

Niederhofer and Harden sat down with WUFT News to talk about their work, the future of conservation, and how to get more women involved. 

WUFT: What initially got you interested in conservation work?

Niederhofer: I think I was always, I was just wired that way. Every child in my time made a leaf collection and I was passionate about mine, it was huge and I worked on it for years. So I think I was just always interested, and then I was lucky enough to find jobs that gave me a chance to work in an area I loved.

Was it ever an option, or was it always, ‘I’m going to go into this work?’

Niederhofer: My undergraduate degree was in English literature, and when I went to get a job after college I worked as a copy editor for 6 weeks and realized I would never be happy doing that. So I took a job as a day laborer in the Botanical Garden. And this was maybe 45 years ago. And in my career, I have often been the first woman to work in a particular place. So when I was hired to be part of landscape maintenance crew at the botanical garden in Cornell University, the first day I went to work the oldest man there turned around his chair so his back to was me, so in other words he wouldn’t talk to me. So I think my career in horticulture and conservation has paralleled the movement of women into the workforce of jobs that were not traditionally held by women.

And how do you think we could get more women involved in this line of work, or get more young girls involved?

Niederhofer: I think offering after school opportunities for girls. Right now I’ve been volunteering at caring and sharing school, and for a while we had a botany club that met on Wednesday afternoon when the schools let out early. And I hadn’t thought about it for something just for girls, and we ended up having girls and boys, but I think kids need to be exposed to the joys of being outside and observing nature and interacting with plants and animals in nature. They need to be free, to rip and run in places where they can’t get hurt but can be imaginative in nature.

What do you think the biggest threat to conservation work right now is?

Niederhofer: I think the biggest threat to conservation work right now is that we don’t give kids enough of a chance to play outside in school. The whole trend in education has been toward standardized testing and less time spent outside. When I was a girl we had recess in the morning, recess in the afternoon, and we didn’t have to do anything but play. And I think playing in the presence of trees and nature, the kids aren’t getting a chance to do that, will make it harder in the future for people to really understand and feel deeply their connection with nature. And that’s what conversation is all about. Yes its clean water and clean air, but it’s also our emotional and soulful development that comes from being outside.

If you had advice you would give to people who think they want to follow this line of work, what would it be?

Niederhofer: Follow your dreams, follow your passion. If you love plants, then keep trying, or you love animals then keep trying. You’ll find a job, even if you have to volunteer for a while first. Follow your dream.

As a girl growing up did you take an immediate interest in science and conservation?

Harden: I kind of grew up in the woods you might say, and we lived where there were woods across the street, and when I grew up, the neighborhood kids, that’s where we went to play. So I guess you could say I’ve had a lifelong interest in the woods. Somehow my life’s path has always led me down those roads

What style of work do you like to do?

Harden: I’m more of a scrapper. My work and my environmental stuff involve me in politics, in planning, in working with a diverse group of pal across the board at each level, and so I guess if you ask me what I prefer to do, I’d like to just be out in the woods. You know. There’s so much that goes on to protecting a spring or a piece of land or a park, and I guess I’ve participated in all of those in one way or another across the board. But I love the woods.

What do you think the biggest threat to conservation here in Alachua is?

Harden: Well, I think the county wants to do right. I mean, for the most part, they have a pretty good track record of land acquisition and identifying critical parcels. And I think much of it depends on the state, which has become less transparent in their plans of the parks, and they’re not really having public hearings on their parks or workshops.

And we know what’s happening on the national level with the clean air and clean water act and EPA under siege, and so I think right now the biggest threat, which probably has always been, but the biggest threat now are these representatives, supposed representatives, not listening to people, when every poll has ever shown at least by 70 percent that people support clean air, clean water, public land, but its falling on deaf ears.

How can you encourage young girls to engage with science?

Harden: We need to show women that they do have a place and they do have a voice. We’re very poor at telling women’s history in these things, or anything like that. Even some of the Nobel prize winners, the earlier ones, had women behind them who didn’t get any credit at all. So I think it’s a matter of getting it across to women, to these younger people, that look, there’s a place for you.

Romy Ellenbogen is a reporter with WUFT News. She can be reached at romye@ufl.edu