Prairie and Native Plant Careers

Alan Branhagen

Executive Director
Natural Land Institute
Rockford, IL

Where did you study and what was your major field of study?
Iowa State University (undergraduate), Louisiana State University (graduate school), Landscape Architecture

Briefly describe your current job.
Lead for one of the country’s first land trusts including community outreach and engagement, land preservation and stewardship, budgeting, and fundraising.

How do you use your native plant and/or prairie knowledge in your career today?
The Natural Land Institute has helped protect over 18,000 acres of natural land mainly in Illinois (the prairie state!) — knowing native plants and prairie are key attributes of natural land so understanding them as indicators of habitat and land protection needs is imperative. I wouldn’t have the strong, full range experience in land trust management without my knowledge of prairie and native plants.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your current work?
Connecting with the northern Illinois community so that they understand the importance of land conservation and stewardship and its positive impacts on us including: providing clean air and water, habitat for the web of life and providing experiences with the healing power of nature.

What native plant/prairie classes or trainings were especially important to your career?
Plant Materials classes at Iowa State University under the late professor Robert W Dyas who taught plants based on their native habitat. Mr. Dyas took us on field trips around Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin to study flora. Full range of botany classes at Iowa State including graduate level Agrostology by internationally renowned grass expert Dr. Richard W Pohl (I would have a minor in Botany were it not in another college from my major). Flora of Louisiana class at LSU under Dr. Lowell Urbach.

What other subjects have you studies that have been important to your career?
I am self taught with birds and Lepidoptera as I spend countless hours outdoors visiting natural areas. I have a strong horticulture background with classes from Iowa State University, but have decades of hands-on experience growing mainly native plants in my home landscapes.

Please describe volunteer or field work that was formative to your education and career.
I did bird surveys (Iowa wetlands) and botanical surveys (Northeast Iowa hill prairies) for The Nature Conservancy and Iowa DNR for two summers while in college. I have volunteered for 50 years+ of bird and butterfly counts (starting in 1969!) including being the compiler of the Kishwaukee Christmas Bird Count in Illinois and the Powell Gardens NABA butterfly count in Missouri.

What materials and technology are must-haves for your field?
A fine pair of 10 power binoculars that also close focus for insect identification — but also works to see flora in hard to reach places (for birding a given!). I am old school and shy away from all the phone apps — I go out in nature to get away from technology and decompress.

What advice would you give students or others wanting to go into your field?
Visit our remaining high quality natural areas to fully understand how to grow and design with native plants. You will learn their cultural requirements and companions (both floral and animal) and be inspired by compositions you may not otherwise have experienced or thought of. White flowering dogwood with red buckeye naturally underplanted with Virginia bluebells is an example from Mingo NWR that comes to mind, but I have countless experiences from around the country and beyond.

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