In the Company of Future Conservation Hall of Fame Inductees

I had a meeting “in the field” scheduled the day of Bud Jordahl’s memorial service.  I contemplated cancelling it, since I would have liked to sit among Bud’s admirers and be reminded of him. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought Bud would approve of my previous engagement and encourage me not to change my plans.

My “meeting” was with a high school environmental science class touring the Lulu Lake Preserve.  Anyone concerned about Nature Deficit Disorder among Wisconsin youth can be reassured that at least a few teenagers in Wales, WI are outside and loving it.

This is Cathy Chybowski

These are some of her students

The first portion of the Lulu Lake Preserve was purchased by the Nature Conservancy in 1986.  Thanks to the Conservancy, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund and several surrounding private landowners, the preserve today includes the lake and surrounding 1,450 acres.

Students from Kettle Moraine High School AP Environmental Science (aka APES) visit Lulu Lake every fall to sample water quality near the headwaters of the Mukwonago River, collect prairie seed and study the ecology of bogs, fens and oak savannahs. Many of them return as volunteer invasives warriors during winter months.  Then, in the spring, after the AP test is over, they come back to Lulu Lake for a sort of victory lap field day.

That’s when we (myself and Gathering Waters’ intern Val Klessig) joined them.  In four hours, here’s some of what Mrs. Chybowski and APES students taught us:

  • That during the last glaciation, a block of ice broke off a main glacier, melted and formed a kettle that is now Lulu Lake.
  • Because of the geology and hydrology, there is an unusual combination of plant communities thriving here, including nearly 70 acres of oak savanna, one of the most endangered native plant communities on the continent.
  • A fen is a wetland fed from groundwater and the surrounding watershed, while a bog receives its water from the top-down, mostly as rainwater.  Fens are alkaline, bogs acidic, so the plant communities in each are pretty different.
  • A turtle with a bright yellow throat is a Blanding’s turtle, not a painted turtle.
  • At the time of our visit, robins had already fledged one brood and were laying the next set of eggs of the spring.
  • If you pick it early enough, garlic mustard makes a reasonably tasty pesto.

And even though these kids DID all just study for the AP Environmental Science exam, they weren’t just parroting test-prep facts.  They know this stuff.  And they like it.

We stopped often as excited kids announced bird sightings (I’m a birding novice, and this group of teenagers showed me: a bluebird, rose-breasted grosbeak, an oriel and a migrating warbler).

Garret, a hunter and avid outdoorsman ,was the first to spot a deer across the bog before it bolted.  He told me,  “this class is so cool…It makes you aware of all the things going on, good and bad, …and it’s up to you if want to take action or not.”

We met Tori, who said she’s not planning on any sort of science major in college, but that she wants to continue promoting good stewardship, maybe by joining an environmental club.  She was candid about what she doesn’t like about Lulu Lake:  “ticks, I really don’t like ticks. … but everything else is amazing, … and Mrs. Chybowski is so informed about everything, it makes it ten times more incredible.”

From just a few hours watching her interact with her students (admittedly, a scientifically small sample size), we’re ready to confirm that Cathy Chybowski is an extraordinary teacher.

Lulu Lake, she pointed out, is only 30 minutes from their school and a gem—almost unique in the world.  Even so, without a little encouragement  (like a required field trip), her students might never know it was there.  “… They would never choose to go out on their own, and if they have not had experiences as a family to expose them to the outdoors and the really neat things out here, by the time they get to high school they don’t have sensitivity for those things, it’s a challenge to show them and help them appreciate what’s here. Because it’s the appreciation that leads to environmental sensitivity, and sensitivity, of course, is what we need.”

I believe her that fostering environmental interest among busy teenagers is a challenge, but it’s one Mrs. Chybowski seems to have overcome handily.  She’s exceeded it, really.  In addition to current APES students, a handful of alum come back to the Lulu trip each year, on what’s become a kind of annual pilgrimage.

Mrs. Chybowski and Evan, an APES alum

Current and former students were unanimous:  Mrs. Chybowski makes APES one of the best classes of their lives.  Jenna, now a UW-Madison freshman, laughed and told me, “Oh, Mrs. Chybowski will never admit it but she’s the most amazing woman in the entire world, and she is so modest but she inspires so many people I know.  I’ve always had an interest in the environment but taking APES has just made me want to continue with that, and Mrs. Chybowski is a huge, huge reason why.”

Jenna’s got her sights on environmental law, but she’s going to spend the summer restoring wetlands in New Orleans where damage from Katrina caused saltwater infiltration into freshwater systems.

Evan, another alum and avid birder, interned at Lulu Lake last year and this year is working on a grassland bird research project through UW.  He’s a Conservation Biology and Botany major at and is certain that he’s headed for a conservation career somehow.

Megan, also an alum, said she is still deciding between Microbiology and Zoology.  If it weren’t for this class, she said, she probably would not have chosen a science field at all.

When I commended her on her fledged alum, Mrs. Chybowski was humble.  “Our future land stewards have to come from some place, and whether these people go on in some environmental or natural resource career really doesn’t matter to me, what matters is that I know they will have some sensitivity for the environment through these experiences at Lulu.”

Students paddling up the Mukwonago

Not every one of Cathy Chybowski’s APES graduates will become conservation biologists, environmental advocates or champion green lawmakers, but it’s easy to be optimistic that they’ll all carry with them a sense of stewardship that their teacher and Lulu Lake helped define.   Maybe one of them will someday fill Bud Jordahl’s shoes, and we’ll all have people like Mrs. Chybowski, great land trusts like The Nature Conservancy, and the extraordinary places they protect, like Lulu Lake, to thank.

— posted by Pam Foster Felt