Prairie and Native Plant Careers

Julie Sibbing

Associate Vice President for Land Stewardship
National Wildlife Federation
Washington, DC

Where did you study and what was your major field of study?
University of Illinois: B.S. Ecology/Ethology/Evolution, M.S. Forest Ecology

Briefly describe your current job.
I manage NWF’s work to improve sustainability, wildlife habitat and carbon storage on working agricultural and forest lands. I manage a team that focusses on improving the sustainability and carbon accounting of biofuels and bioenergy; advocating for stronger conservation provisions in the Farm Bill; promoting conservation of America’s declining grasslands; and working to improve outreach to agricultural producers to promote adoption of sustainable practices.

How do you use your native plant and/or prairie knowledge in your career today?
I use my knowledge of prairie systems to promote federal laws and policies that help to protect them. From fighting efforts to incentivize tree planting on grassland areas in a misguided attempt to store more carbon, to working for better agriculture policies that keep grassland from being converted to cropland, to lobbying for more funding for programs to protect remaining prairies, to founding the America’s Grasslands conference my team puts on every other year, what I have learned about prairies has been an important part of my education.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your current work?
Getting policies enacted into law that will help conserve wildlife and biodiversity.

What native plant/prairie classes or trainings were especially important to your career?
My foundational ecology classes gave me the background I needed to understand ecosystems and how they function. I also did an individual study in graduate school where I developed educational materials for visitors to a university-owned prairie remnant that gave me a special appreciation for grasslands.

What other subjects have you studies that have been important to your career?
General ecology, systems ecology, soils, wildlife management, forest management, animal behavior.

Please describe volunteer or field work that was formative to your education and career.
I worked with the Youth Conservation Corp and Student Conservation Association summers in high school and as a park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers summers during college. All of this work gave me an even greater appreciation for wild places and conservation. I served for 2 1/2 years in the Peace Corps in Honduras after graduate school. I worked on setting up a new national park and learned about natural areas management and environmental education. This gave me the best chance any young person could have to be creative and independent and to make a difference. But it wasn’t until several years later that I had an opportunity to lobby Congress and discovered my love for policy and what an important tool it is in conserving prairies and other ecosystems.

What materials and technology are must-haves for your field?
Just a computer.

What advice would you give students or others wanting to go into your field?
Get a good, solid education in ecology, agriculture, economics, or some other field. Studying policy is good, but it is helpful to have a solid foundation in some field. Internships are a great way to get your foot in the door. The Peace Corps will give you chances you never dreamed of having so early in your career.