Find Your Passion in EE: Courtney Masterson, Ecologist, Educator, Entrepreneur
This narrative is part of a collection from professionals in the field of environmental education (EE). The collection seeks to highlight some of the ways in which Kansans have grown their love for nature into environmental literacy - leading them to the knowledge, understanding, and skills to become responsible, informed, and passionate environmental stewards. They share their stories hoping to inspire more Kansans to find their passion working in or supporting EE.
Courtney Masterson of Native Lands, LLC reflects on her path to creating a life-affirming career in her local community of Lawrence, Kansas (and beyond), inspired by her love for the prairie and people, uniting the two for a healthier world and brighter future.
I wish I could say that I have always known the importance, the wonder of the prairie. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to recognize the value of a native species or how our choices affect ecosystems every day.
In 2006, I was 23 and worked in an office full time, doing work that felt meaningless but looked good on paper. Everything that mattered to me happened after I clocked out. I was disappointed in how I spent my time each day and I knew something needed to change. A lot happened that year. Bombings and assassinations, ecological disasters and heat waves, and even the loss of a planet (we love you, Pluto!), turned my attention to the news more often than in previous years. I changed so much as our world changed: I started dating my future husband in 2006, I started going to college, I took classes that enriched my life and furthered my skill as an artist. I recognized in my art the changes that were happening in my life – as the focus shifted from fashion, architecture, and abstracts to a more journalistic style, chronicling the communities around me that felt broken. I started attending meetings of environmental groups at school, taking science and sociology courses, and thinking beyond my restricted experience.
We were living in Kansas City, Missouri at the time, one of the most diverse and loving cities in the country. It was growing rapidly (it still is) and development changed the face of the city every day. I learned that Kansas Citians struggle to connect with nature for many reasons – loss of natural areas, economic instability, and accessibility, to name a few. I needed to reconnect with nature and to bring my community with me on that adventure. I sought out opportunities to spend time outside, making a difference. With luck, one of my professors referred me to Kansas City WildLands (KCWL), where Linda Lehrbaum, their Program Manager, taught me how to recognize native landscapes. She taught me how to heal them and how to share this connection and skillset with the community. She showed me that an open heart and hard work can build bridges between people and places. Often, those bridges had already been built, they just needed strengthening. Most tangibly, Linda showed me that I could devote my life to making change. Not after work or on weekends, but all day, every day. That spark of passion ignited a fire! And every conservationist I have worked with beyond that has stoked the flames.
I began doing volunteer restoration work as often as I could, hundreds of hours each year. When I wasn’t in the field protecting prairies and old growth forests, I was in class studying botany, ecology, limnology, all of the ‘ologies! I started student teaching around this time, as well. Science became the subject of my work, my art, and my recreation time. I passed from school to school, degree to degree, soaking up as much information about the native plants and animals of Kansas as possible. Each mentor shared great depth of knowledge in a new field, tugging me into everything from trapping rodents in tick-infested old fields, surveying deer from moving truck beds, to studying plants in eight foot tall prairie jungles. I learned of restoration work from countless perspectives and observed where we struggle to protect landscapes, as scientists, as restoration practitioners, as landowners, and as policy makers.
She taught me how to heal (native landscapes) and how to share this connection and skillset with the community. She showed me that an open heart and hard work can build bridges between people and places. Often, those bridges had already been built, they just needed strengthening. Most tangibly, Linda showed me that I could devote my life to making change. Not after work or on weekends, but all day, every day. That spark of passion ignited a fire! And every conservationist I have worked with beyond that has stoked the flames.
After earning my Master’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at KU, I realized that I had found my calling in teaching, field work, and community outreach. I worked with various government agencies, non-profits, and schools after graduation but found that there wasn’t an existing position through which I could devote myself fully to community education and restoration work - I needed to create one myself. I wanted to work directly with the public and non-profits, guiding them through their own restoration projects and connecting them to wild Kansas. There is a growing interest and demand for information on native plants and pollinators in our community and across the country. We crave insider knowledge on how ecosystems work, where they fit, and how we can protect them. We talk about saving remnant prairies and building new grasslands as outdoor classrooms, monarch habitat, and buffers for water quality. These aren’t new concepts but the message is finally being received, the bridges are being built, and the demand for native plants and seeds is so great that nurseries are struggling (happily) to keep up!
I worked with various government agencies, non-profits, and schools after graduation but found that there wasn’t an existing position through which I could devote myself fully to community education and restoration work - I needed to create one myself.
I started working for myself full time in 2018. The little seed production business I started in grad school grew into an ecological restoration firm overnight! In May 2018, I was told that a grant I had written with the Kansas Riverkeeper, Dawn Buehler, and Friends of the Kaw had been fully funded. For two years, I would be able to focus a significant portion of my time on the restoration of a public natural area, with the help of community partners, volunteers, and local students. Every passion nurtured in one project.
I had been providing free education on native plants and ecosystems in the region for several years, developing a network of conservation focused citizens and professionals. Hosted by local libraries, schools, and businesses, I was reaching a broad audience with a message of conservation. I was often told that my teaching style made it easy to connect to our wild spaces, stirring passion in my students and collaborators. I hoped to use that skill to demonstrate how a community could reconnect with their natural areas, through the plants and animals that depend on those spaces. Our Riverkeeper also brought a strong network to this restoration project, having passionately served communities along the Kansas River for many years. Observing Dawn’s interactions with everyone from students to policymakers strengthened my ability to connect people from different backgrounds, with differing goals and beliefs, to tackle a shared goal.
We reached out to the public through newspaper articles, radio shows, educational talks and workshops. Together, we engaged over 500 volunteers and students in the restoration of the forest surrounding the Lawrence River Trail in North Lawrence. For two years, we helped them to understand how native plants relate to water quality, how healthy ecosystems support wildlife, and how we are strengthened by the natural areas in our communities. Our volunteers and students came from communities throughout the region, from Topeka to Kansas City. They returned to those places with a new passion for wildlife and a deeper understanding of how to be a good steward for wild Kansas. Each of them is a ripple in their own neighborhoods, creating and inspiring change.
In 2020, I see change happening in our world every day. Some good, some scary. I think back on 2006, when my journey into science and conservation work began. I see the world so differently now. But I’m grateful for every struggle and shifted dream. The hurdles have helped me create and support the change we need to see in the world, to protect the wild places that remain and to protect each other. I hope our children’s children know the prairie and relate to it with the depth we once held for these special spaces.
In just the last 200 years, we’ve lost over 95% of the tallgrass prairie that once dominated the Midwestern landscape - an ecosystem that is many thousands of years old. We can’t bring that expansive prairie back but we can protect what is left.
Through the network I’ve built and the experiences I’ve gained, I am able to work directly with landowners. I teach them the value of the land they have claimed and the responsibilities of stewarding that land, for wildlife and for future generations. I devote every day to bringing science out into the community, making it accessible and applicable. Every day is an opportunity to reach a new audience, share an adventure in nature, or plant a seed. My art doesn’t take center stage like it did 15 years ago, but it helps me communicate difficult concepts to diverse audiences. I rarely stopped to think how I would get through all of the coursework, the field work, and the talks, despite the anxiety felt at every turn. I wouldn’t have made it here without mentors who believe in me and a drive inside me that I struggle to define. I think every day of how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to learn from amazing people in amazing places. I’m grateful that I have found a way to do work worth doing, using my passion as an instrument to drive positive change, conservation, and community building.
Ecologist, Educator, Artist, Nature Nerd
Owner/Operator, Native Lands, LLC | Lecturer, University of Kansas