Tuesday, January 11, 2011

SRM Spotlight Synopsis: Final Report by SRM Outreach Intern, Julia Workman

Serving as Society for Range Management’s first Outreach Intern this semester has been an amazing learning experience. My first goal for the Internship was to glean personal insight from SRM members and make this information available through posts on the SRM blog. My duties taught me to present information in a manner that would appeal to a wide audience, with varied backgrounds but a common interest. Along with this, I had the opportunity to travel to Grand Junction for the Colorado Section fall meeting, and to share what I have learned in the interviewing process. My second goal was to establish relationships and gain experience interacting with the diverse group of professionals involved in SRM. This was achieved through communication with the members I interviewed and various other members with whom I interacted. My time at the Colorado Section meeting allowed me to meet with with experienced members on a personal level while carrying out my internship duties. The insights gained from these experiences will be valuable as I go forth and attempt to achieve my own career ambitions.

To gather the information from SRM members, I conducted ten interviews with members representing eleven different sections (Pacific Northwest, California-Pacific, Idaho, International Mountain, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Northern Great Plains, South Dakota, Texas, and Florida). Nine of these interviews were conducted by telephone, and the remaining interview in person at the Idaho Section fall meeting. Interviewees represented a broad range of professions in the field of rangeland management: two ranchers, three researchers (including one professor emeritus), three government agency-employed resource managers (two with the federal government and one with a state), one private contractor, and one botanist. Most came from rural backgrounds related to rangelands or agriculture, but each had followed a unique career path, and all had played very different roles in SRM. Despite the diversity of individuals I interviewed, there was an overall trend of similar answers and common themes throughout the interviews.

One of the first questions I asked each member was why he or she had joined SRM. Three joined in college, and seven during their professional careers. Their reasons for joining included the information offered, the professional development opportunities, employer or agency encouragement, or a combination of the three. They were then asked, based on their experiences, what SRM can do to attract and retain members. Their answer: Stay relevant! Be more engaged with the public, and more visible. Make apparent exactly what SRM is doing in rangeland management. Another suggestion was that the Society needs to attract students, then keep track of them as they move into the workforce by maintaining personal contact. Attracting individuals at the local level and through agencies is also going to play a big role—again, through personal contact. Another important aspect, which was emphasized again and again by member after member, is outreach. Rangeland management is broadening in its scope, and the spectrum of people the Society is trying to reach should broaden as a reflection of that.

One focus of my interviews was on the changes that are occurring in SRM and the workforce. The members with whom I spoke said that the main principles of SRM have remained the same, which is very important to them. But they also talked about some positive changes, like increased involvement from younger generations and the large student presence in the Society right now. It was great to hear these longtime members talking about how the younger generation is bringing new ideas and a new energy to the profession! From a logistical standpoint, interviewees felt that it is also really important that younger members be able to fill the gaps in the workforce left by retiring members, especially the members of the “Baby Boomer” generation.

Another important theme mentioned with respect to SRM’s recent changes was the way the Society is reaching out to other groups. One example cited was the producer forums which were held at the Annual Meeting in Denver last year. Two interviewees felt that SRM has distanced itself from livestock production groups in the last several years and are really pleased with the reverse in that trend. Another long-term member was pleased with the way the Society is embracing ecology. He pointed to the journal change to Rangeland Ecology and Management as evidence of that; another great example of the Society’s emphasis on ecology is the Ecological Site Description workshops with which SRM is currently involved. This means the Society is reaching out in a lot of different directions and satisfying people with very different interests. One of the most important groups to reach out to is the general public. Rangeland managers are increasingly seeing the need to be aware of society’s opinions and deal with them. As management for broader interests, like open space, becomes more prevalent, it is becoming increasingly important to embrace nontraditional areas like policy and human dimensions—because these aspects are now intrinsically intertwined with rangeland management.

Another big change in SRM is an increased emphasis on using technology, both old and new. The Internet, for example, can be a major tool in facilitating everything from communication to research. Information can be found with an ease never possible before, through resources ranging from online journals to programs like Google Earth that offer a big view and great resolution. As we manage on a broader scale, it is important to let land managers see their parcel in the context of the bigger landscape.

I also asked interviewees what SRM can do to better serve its members. One important service, they said, involves continuing to provide lines of communication between agencies, landowners, land managers, and environmental groups, while providing a safe venue for discussion between said groups.

It is also very important right now, as many members are retiring and many others joining the workforce for the first time, that knowledge be passed between generations. It is therefore going to be critical to retain members after they retire in order to retain that institutional knowledge for the sake of the profession. One of the most important places for mentoring to occur between generations is at local field days and tours, where the younger members can get their hands dirty and gain real field experience, in a one-on-one scenario. However, Annual Meeting mixers also play an important role in opening channels of communication and fostering relationships.

What these members value about SRM (what it is doing well) was another question posed in these interviews. A few mentioned the journals and continuing education, but every single interviewee emphasized the networking and personal connections they have gained through SRM, and how valuable and irreplaceable those have been.

As for where the Society is headed, half of the members interviewed said that down the road, they want SRM to still be alive. These members want to see the Society still active, relevant, and viable—“continuing to do what we do, respectably.” They would like to see SRM continue to be a voice for rangeland management and for rangelands themselves: it is unique among professional societies in that it speaks for the resource. They said SRM needs to be looking at broader issues as the profession broadens. It needs to continue to diversify its membership, while maintaining its founding ideals. These members want to see the dissimilar groups involved in rangeland management working together toward common goals, because in diversity there is strength.

The overall consensus through these interviews was that the Society is doing very well. All the people with whom I spoke were positive about where SRM is now and where it is headed—at least, in the words of one, “there’s always room for improvement, but it’s not necessarily a poor job.”

As for me, through this experience I gained a much better appreciation for some of the history of SRM and some of the changes the Society has seen in the past few years. It was fascinating to get to know members who have played huge roles in their respective sections and states, within and outside of SRM. The different perspectives these members have, the changes they have seen, and the directions we are taking, say a lot about where we stand as a Society. I find it reassuring that they were for the most part pleased with where we stand. However, it was educational to hear about some of the issues SRM has been facing. New members like me sometimes do not always hear a balanced report involving the negative aspects of a group or the difficulties it is facing.

I believe that I have personally grown in this experience by overcoming a great deal of shyness in talking to strangers over the telephone. By having to do so, on a weekly basis, I have become much more comfortable with introducing myself and conducting business in a professional but relaxed manner. Correspondingly, this development has also helped me in dealing with people face-to-face. It was more natural for me to strike up conversations with total strangers at the Colorado Section meeting, and to ask questions. This is a professional skill that many of the individuals interviewed told me will be important in my career, and I believe that this Internship has been very influential in helping me develop it.

Written communication has also been an important part of this experience. It was my primary means of interaction with others during the Internship, and this required a honing of my writing skills to develop the proper tone in correspondence via email, and in posting of blog updates. The blogging necessitated that I learn to transcribe what members said over the phone into informative and interesting posts that would not offend, mislead, or misrepresent. Representing a professional Society in such a fashion, I learned to pay close attention to the tone and message presented by each phrase and comment to avoid misrepresentation of the individuals and the organization. It was a valuable experience and allowed for a better understanding of the “politics” that such a position means.

Overall, I have had a wonderful semester and would like to thank SRM and its members for the opportunity to take part in this Internship. I believe that the Internship is a great opportunity and hope to see more involvement from both students and members as the program continues to grow.

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