From an early age, Laurel Wilson set her sights on giving back. Her generosity was all-inclusive: humans, wild animals and especially plants.
“I’ve always loved working with plants. I find them a little simpler than humans and animals,” she said. “Trying to restore functioning, healthy, plant communities is what we need to be doing as humans to try to mediate some of the impacts we’ve had on the landscape.”
Today, Wilson is the executive director of the Northwoods Volunteer Connection, which coordinates work designed to keep trails and campsites open so the public has access to public lands, and help regional forests thrive for future generations. The organization orchestrates project logistics and provides the equipment for each job.
With degrees in conservation biology and plant biology, Wilson said taking on the Tofte, Minn.-based nonprofit in 2016 was a sidestep from the skills she saw herself using. But her giveback spirit and passion for restoration has led to her work with a breadth of people.
Wilson, 32, lives in Grand Marais. She grew up outside of Bemidji on her father’s strawberry farm, where she and her sister would run through the fields and climb trees. Along with camping, hiking and snowshoeing, the activities of each season instilled a love of nature in her. Now, she said she’s able to share her relationship with the natural world with people who may not have had her upbringing.
“I’m definitely committed to staying here and looking for opportunities to empower other people to give back and do something to keep our forests healthy.”
What follows are excerpts from a conversation with Wilson, edited for length and clarity:
On the public on public lands
Our work is engaging the public to do something that benefits these public lands that are so important to the region and have a special place in a lot of people’s hearts. We’re helping them get out there and create a connection with that land.
We are not an advocacy group. Our mission is truly just to coordinate volunteers. Our focus is Superior National Forest and the other public lands within those boundaries, which includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Federal funding for ongoing maintenance is decreasing year after year for recreational and natural resources. So volunteers are going to be more important if we want to make sure that we still have these trails and public resources for folks to enjoy.
On the reciprocity of rewards
Our first year, I went on a Boundary Waters trip to build a boardwalk on a portage. The Forest Service was there for the first day, but after that it was just me and two gentlemen doing the work. They were brothers. We didn’t have our methods figured out quite yet, but they were such a joy to work with. There was quite a difference in their ages and they really valued the trip because they didn’t grow up together. They said, “We’ve been looking for a way to give back and to do some volunteering while we’re here. We come every year and we’re happy to do this project.”
Three high school students came up after graduation this year. I don’t think one of them had ever been camping before. It was really fun to see how they reacted to hiking through the woods and clearing brush. I talked to them about the boreal forest and lichens. They were really interested. I asked about their plans for the future and mentioned that this experience might point them to an environmental field. One of them said, “Maybe. Yeah.” Another one who was going into business said, “Maybe I could become an environmental lawyer.”
I hope we can continue reaching young people. The more we can give people opportunities to get out there, we’ll develop a new generation of Boundary Waters users and recreationalists.
I have to make sure we uphold our responsibilities to those who give us funding and maintain good relationships with our partner organizations. In particular, that’s Superior National Forest, and other nonprofits and smaller user groups in the area.
Last fall we had a trail partners roundtable event which had 16 organizations present. It focused on trail clubs and user groups in Cook County. We discussed what the groups were doing and challenges for their organizations. Most of them are small, volunteer-based and don’t have staff. From that, we formed a smaller group to work on some of those challenges. That included applying for a large grant from the Minnesota (Department of Natural Resources) for a Federal Recreational Trails Program grant that was in coordination with Cook County. We recently found we’ve been preliminary chosen to be funded.
On the value of public access
I can drive a short distance to go on a trail with my dogs where we’re unlikely to see anyone. Being able to feel that sense of solitude is really important to me. Humans are animals and we’re a part of this world in a different way that’s changed over the course of history. It’s important to connect to that and remember that we’re a part of something that’s larger than just our society.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.