From a young age, Alexandra Huerta was enamored with the natural world. “I grew up in Southern California and was just in love with outdoor spaces and camping,” says Huerta, one of Trust for Public Land’s newly minted project associates. “I was in a father-daughter camping group and was lucky to be surrounded by nature.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that she carved out a career that seeks to protect natural spaces, joining Trust for Public Land in 2022 as part of the organization’s so-called Generation Now cohort. The idea behind TPL’s Gen Now initiative was to cultivate a new generation of conservationists—young people who not only bring youthful energy to the table, but who better reflect the communities where we work.

Ali enjoys backpacking—as she is here, at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand—in her spare time, which makes her work improving access to the outdoors all the more meaningful. Photo: courtesy of Ali Huerta

Rodger Krussman, associate vice president and director of field programs at TPL, recalls that a few years ago he was talking with other leaders in the organization about the future and realized there was a lack of what he calls “bench strength”: “There was no way we were going to get our goals met under the strategic plan with the number of project managers we had at the time,” he recalls.

Because much of TPL’s land protection work is so specialized, the Gen Now program hires people with a deep interest in conservation and the environment, but not necessarily experience in real estate or finance. The positions, sprinkled around the country, are permanent (unlike fellowships). And Gen Now staffers are mentored by senior project managers, learning how to navigate complex deals and negotiations.

“TPL is so clearly invested in listening to what we have to say.”

– Ali Huerta, TPL California project associate

They also benefit from monthly calls featuring guest speakers. And while the program was initially called Next Generation, the new staffers themselves decided to rename it Gen Now—a reflection of both the urgency and immediacy of their contributions.

Huerta, who goes by Ali and lives in Berkeley, California, says she and her Gen Now colleagues were able to have an impact from the start. “TPL is so clearly invested in listening to what we have to say and learning from us,” Huerta shares. “They want us to be speakers in the room. They respect our opinions and experiences.”

A graduate of Penn State University, where she studied environmental resource management, Huerta took a job with an environmental testing lab after graduating. That gave her invaluable insight into water quality issues, but she longed to work in land conservation.

The Sierra Buttes are one of the landscapes in California TPL has helped protect; here, morning light reflects the mountains in Upper Sardine Lake. Photo: Rich Reid

Since starting at TPL, she has focused primarily on the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Mountains, where she researches potential conservation projects based on development risk, habitat value, and potential for recreation. “We need to be sure we are making informed decisions about what we protect,” she explains.

On the other side of the country, Hayden Smith is a northern New England project associate and Gen Now staff member in Vermont. Since joining TPL in the fall of 2021, he has helped lay the groundwork for the future Wolcott Community Forest, about an hour east of Burlington. There is now a purchase agreement on two adjacent parcels of land in private hands—one 399 acres, the other 336 acres.

Hayden and his dog, Mason, enjoying the Maine coast. Now a father, Hayden has a deep appreciation for the importance of exposing children to nature. Photo: courtesy of Hayden Smith

The larger of the two parcels gains in elevation as it rises from the Lamoille River and town center through a largely intact hardwood forest crisscrossed by two brooks. The plan is to retain the wilderness feel of this tract, with a management focus on water quality, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration and exploration.

The neighboring property, on the other hand, which lies next to an elementary school, will have a new five-mile trail network for hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. TPL recently secured a $197,000 grant from the state of Vermont to build the new trail network, along with a small gravel parking lot and kiosks.

In the past year, Smith has engaged the community on multiple fronts, attending meetings of the town of Wolcott’s new stewardship committee, which TPL helped form. He has also joined community events about the forest and guided walks there.

Before TPL, Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, with a minor in wildlife biology, from the University of Vermont. From there, he joined the staff of a small regional land trust in the state. Going from the land trust to Trust for Public Land was like “moving from AA baseball to the majors,” says the 28-year-old Vermont native, only half in jest. “TPL specializes in the most complex, difficult, challenging projects that other groups turn away from,” he observes. “It’s a super rewarding experience.”

“TPL specializes in the most complex, difficult, challenging projects that other groups turn away from,” he observes. “It’s a super rewarding experience.”

– Hayden Smith, TPL New England project associate

Smith recalls that he received a phone message from TPL with news of the job offer during his wedding ceremony. In another milestone, he and his wife now have a baby boy, Charlie, and they bought a house in the town of Rockingham, in southern Vermont, where they live. Becoming a father has made Smith even more committed to TPL’s mission. He cites the organization’s Nature Near Schools program in northern New England, in particular.

“I definitely think [parenthood] provides a whole new perspective on the type of work we do,” he says. “Even though Charlie is not yet in school, I realize now more than ever the importance of providing children safe and equitable access to nature and giving them opportunities to get out of the classroom.”

Wolcott Community Forest is adjacent to Wolcott Elementary School; children and classes frequent the area for outdoor learning. Photo: Chris Bennett

Despite how spread out the Gen Now cohort is, Smith says they check in via Zoom once a month. “It’s a great way for us to stay connected and share experiences and ideas,” he explains. “It feels like we are forming bonds that will last even if folks move on.”

Huerta agrees, saying there’s a palpable sense among her Gen Now colleagues that they are in the right place at the right time. “I keep telling myself how lucky I am to be here at TPL,” says Huerta, who enjoys backpacking in the Sierra Nevada and trail running during her free time. “Not only are we doing large-scale land protection, but we are bringing nature to people who don’t necessarily have easy access to it. That is so important.”

Lisa W. Foderaro is a senior writer and researcher for Trust for Public Land. Previously, she was a reporter for the New York Times, where she covered parks and the environment.


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