Michael Gale; Special Assistant; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Michael Gale
Special Assistant
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Michael is a Special Assistant with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working in the National Wildlife Refuge System on a range of natural resource policy issues, and he is continuing to work on his biodiversity-themed fantasy novel, entitled Keystone, which was the focus of his NWF Fellowship work and through which he hopes to inspire fantasy literature fans to take action for conservation.

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as a Fellow help shape your career path?
Michael Gale:
For me, the Emerging Leaders Fellowship program was an opportunity to explore some more entrepreneurial interests of mine. I have a real passion for conservation, communication, and the power of the creative to inspire people to care about nature and wildlife, and I had this idea about using creative writing and fantasy fiction to inspire conservation action. I used the fellowship not for my career (my application was outside of my role with my employing organization), but more as a platform for this entrepreneurial idea that I had.

DC: What was the top thing that you learned in your professional development at NWF? Or your top takeaway from the experience?
Practically, there was a module about fundraising and using Kickstarter that was probably the most helpful because that’s an area of expertise that I’m not generally exposed to. But the main takeaway - the power of the program - is the notion of being a part of a diverse and inspiring cohort. I was really inspired by and impressed with the other fellows, and the incredible caliber of work that they’re doing. I was also really impressed with the diversity of the cohort, which I think is really important when we think about the future of the conservation movement. So for me, the biggest takeaway was that sense of belonging to a community of fellow EcoLeaders and even a broader community as a member of the National Wildlife Federation and its programs.

DC: What are you up to these days? What is your role with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and why did you choose to work there?
With the Fish and Wildlife Service, which again is outside of the purview of my participation with the National Wildlife Federation Fellows program, I’m currently working in the National Wildlife Refuge System on a host of natural resource policy issues, but particularly our efforts to conserve and save the Monarch Butterfly. It’s an incredible issue to work on because it is a fascinating mix of not just science, biology, and ecology but also policy, coalition-building, and a giant human dimensions component. Engaging people is key to our success. Monarchs capture the imagination of kids, families, and adults, who come from all over the span of America and with people in Canada and Mexico as well. So this issue is important not only save an incredible creature but also to build a whole new generation of conservation stewards. Outside of the Fish and Wildlife Service, with my NWF Fellows project, it’s been a great experience to explore the intersection of creative writing and conservation. I was able to finish a draft manuscript of a biodiversity-themed fantasy novel, entitled Keystone, which again is a creative writing project that engages fans of fantasy to take conservation action. It’s just now going through editing and revision as part of the publishing process, and I have a lot of enthusiasm for the project’s potential. I’m aiming to be able to present the result of that work In the summer of 2017 with the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), which is an environmental literature organization that I became involved with through the NWF fellowship; I was able to use that program and platform to get more engaged in the broader community of nature writers and environmental literature enthusiasts.

DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
MG: I have a personal mission statement that I abide by to “create a better world for people, wildlife, and nature through inspiring conservation.” That’s really my mantra for not only how I think about sustainability, or explicitly sustainable development, but also a broader articulation of how I aim to spend my limited amount of time on this planet.
DC: What motivated you to begin this path?
My father was a park ranger in state parks in West Virginia, so I grew up on public lands surrounded by the beauty and majesty of nature and wildlife, and I’ve known ever since I was a kid - probably 10 years old - that I wanted to be a wildlife biologist. I joked that my expression of teenage rebellion was to become a herpetologist instead of a fisheries guy, like my dad – or wildlife conservation instead of forestry. But, that joke aside, growing up the son of a forest ranger in the beautiful state of West Virginia with a lot of rich natural resources set me on a pretty early path to dedicating my life to wildlife conservation.

DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
I would say probably three different types of people really influence me. The first are great writers. I think writing has a really important role to play in inspiring conservation action. The luminaries, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, for example, are influential through their beautiful script and the role their writings played in history. I also think a lot of modern writers are interesting too, Elizabeth Kolbert’s non-fiction work and especially the Sixth Extinction conversation, and Terry Tempest Williams’ command of a sense of place. In the fiction world, there are some really great voices: Ursula K. Le Guin, Barbara Kingsolver, and Margaret Atwood to name just a few. There’s a whole host of really great writers on environmental conservation who inspire me. I think the second camp is people who inspire me in the public sector. I’m really moved by a lot of the leaders that I get to work with both in the Fish and Wildlife Service and with our conservation partners – and I think we’ve got some really phenomenal influencers within the conservation movement right now. And the more that we diversify where those influencers come from, I think the stronger our movement will be. And I have a lot of people that influence me in my personal life: my mom, my dad, my brother, who is an entrepreneur himself and who inspires me to take risks and do more of the creative work that I’m interested in. And then, friends and mentors and people in my personal and professional lives are probably by greatest day-to-day influencers.

DC: How have mentors assisted you in developing your career path?
I’ve been really lucky to have access to some incredible mentors through Fish and Wildlife Service and many different kind of leadership programs, including the National Wildlife Federation Fellowship program. At work, I have two fantastic more formal mentors – they’re both randomly named Jim. I think that - in different ways - they’ve each taken me under their wings, and they’ve demonstrated phenomenal vision and leadership. The thing that I really love about both of them is that they’re both very funny; they have great senses of humor, and I think that a strong sense of humor is something that I definitely bring to my work and some of the creative stuff that I do. Their influences have been really inspiring.

DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to act as a mentor yourself or be a mentee again?
Absolutely! I actually spend a fair amount of time mentoring emerging conservation leaders and students because, for one, I know how valuable mentoring was for me, and I want to pay it forward. And also, I believe really passionately in the future of the conservation movement, not only in diversifying it but enhancing its skillsets. I think at the end of the day, the conservation challenges that we face are enormous, and they appear insurmountable, but they will only be surmountable and achievable if we heighten our game and if we create and enable diverse, smarter, more collaborative leaders and practitioners in order to face these incredible challenges. At my previous position as the Director of the Office of Youth, Partnerships, and Service with the Department of Interior, I had a special opportunity and platform to mentor dozens and dozens of young people seeking to join the Department of Interior and the conservation community. Here at the Fish and Wildlife Service, I’ve hired and supervised well over a dozen interns in my career, from which almost half have gotten permanent jobs. Also, I’m currently a coach in our Stepping Up to Leadership Program. Again, I’m always seeking opportunities to pay it forward when it comes to mentoring.

DC: For the wildlife and habitat sector, what recommendations do you have for current students? Regarding what to study, particular credentials of relevance to employers, the importance of hands-on experience, etc.?
I often recommend that students focus on three things: one is to develop some kind of applicable technical skill. For me, it ended up being communications in visual media. I see a lot of need for GIS; I see a lot of need for modeling – population modeling and spatial ecologists. Environmental science programs can be great, but if you’re coming out of undergrad with a really general degree, like environmental science or biology, and you don’t have a hard technical skill to bring along with that, it’s just not as viable in the kinds of people we’re looking for to fill jobs and internships. The second thing is absolutely to get hands-on experiences. That’s the great thing about conservation; there’s a ton of opportunities with organizations - such as the Student Conservation Association (SCA) or Conservation Corps groups - to spend a summer doing natural resource work, or a political internship in DC or a major city if you’re more interested in the public administration and policy side of conservation. So, definitely the hands-on experience is critical. Also be bold and seek paid internship and work opportunities. When I was younger, I wasn’t in a position to afford an unpaid internship. It’s more work for sure if you don’t come from a privileged background (and it shouldn’t be), but it’s certainly doable to find some kind of relevant paid work. Additionally, I notice that students are increasingly gaining research experience in undergrad, and that’s really valuable. My third point is about relationships. When you’re younger, you don’t think about the importance of relationships and simply the importance of being nice to everyone you work with, no matter how awful they may be to you. I can’t tell you how important relationships are and also what I call your narrative - what do people know you for. You want to be known as someone who is nice, competent, and who brings skills to the table. As students, we don’t think a lot about our narrative; we think about getting through the next test. But when you’re thinking about your career, it really is all about your relationships and your narrative. Getting students to think about that in advance and to build those interpersonal skills and leadership skills early on and to be nice and kind and empathetic in all of your work, I think it goes a long way.

DC: Do you have any other thoughts or recommendations that you’d like to add at this time?
MG: This is a really important time for emerging conservation leaders. While we’ve had some good gains in terms of fighting pollution, there’s been a broad recognition that baby boomers and the generations before us have largely created a giant mess - in terms of the loss of biodiversity and the scale of environmental degradation, especially climate change. And so the millennial generation, in particular, has this phenomenal challenge before them. I think that the way conservation is moving into the future will require more and more of those things I’ve talked: more diversity and empowerment and relationships and working in coalitions.
Habitat and Wildlife

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Date Added: May 15, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017