Prairie and Native Plant Careers

Ronda Burnett

Community Conservation Planner
Missouri Department of Conservation
Springfield, MO 

Where did you study and what was your major field of study?
Louisiana State University: Landscape Architecture; University of Kansas: Urban, Environmental, and Land Use Planning

Briefly describe your current job.
I help communities throughout Missouri understand how to benefit from enhanced management of natural resources and connect people to nature close to where they live.

How do you use your native plant and/or prairie knowledge in your career today?
When I consult on projects, knowledge of native plants is essential for me to be able to make plant species recommendations. Once I know the objectives of the project and the growing conditions of the site, I am able to recommend plants that will perform sought-after functions, exhibit desired design characteristics, and/or provide habitat for local wildlife.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your current work?
Witnessing more and more communities replace aging grey infrastructure with green infrastructure that incorporates native plants.

What native plant/prairie classes or trainings were especially important to your career?
Besides studying all the resources on the Grow Native! website, I found outdoor workshops, field days, and other tours of natural communities to be extremely helpful to me as I learned about native plants and their natural habitats. Some of these events were conducted by my employer as staff training, but others were hosted by non-profit organizations such as the Missouri Prairie Foundation, or other government agencies such as the MU Extension Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). When learning about native species available in the retail trade, I studied the catalogs and websites of the nurseries operating in the Midwest, especially Missouri. To further my understanding of how native plant and seed nurseries operate, I made appointments with business owners to tour their facilities.

What other subjects have you studied that have been important to your career?
Ecology, soil science, site grading and construction practices, stormwater management practices, geographic information systems (GIS), public speaking

Please describe volunteer or field work that was formative to your education and career.
I gained hands-on experience by participating in volunteer workdays hosted by the Ozark Land Trust to harvest seed at a prairie they own and by taking a prescribed burn workshop offered by the Missouri Department of Conservation that included participation in a real-life controlled burn at a conservation area. One lesson of the burn workshop was that knowledge of the long-term management of native plants is just as important as learning about the plants themselves. Additional sources of training are provided at professional conferences. I’ve attended conference sessions on maintenance equipment, chemical control of nuisance and invasive plants, and proper planting techniques.

What materials and technology are must-haves for your field?
Conservation and community partners, census data, GIS software, the NRCS web soil survey website and the ecological site data hosted there, native plant databases, hiking boots, digital camera

What advice would you give students or others wanting to go into your field?
Writing skills are extremely important so that you can effectively communicate in a professional manner. Internships are an excellent way to gain experience and network with professionals in your chosen field. In addition to participating in internships, summer jobs, or short-term positions, another great way to learn about a profession is to contact those in the field and request to job shadow them for a day or at the very least to interview them. Experiences and connections can also be made through volunteer activities.