Rebecca Wilson

Conservation Specialist | Petersburg, Virginia | Style 1698

Rebecca Wilson

Conservation Specialist

LOCATION: Petersburg, Virginia

These boots are made for so much more than walking. Not to say I haven't walked thousands of miles in them over the past 24 years - through semi-arid deserts, overgrown pine forests, and ice-slick snow fields. They've bushwhacked through brambles, slogged through bogs and scrambled over logging slag, in temperatures over 100 degrees and well below freezing.

Listen to Rebecca Wilson

I have worn these boots as a wildland firefighter at Crater Lake, Glacier and Saguaro National Parks. I climbed Mt. Shasta in them and hiked them along the beach as a Natural Heritage Steward in Virginia.

Over my career, I've switched many times between being a botanist savvy in firefighting and a firefighter savvy in botany. Currently, as Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Longleaf Pine Restoration Specialist, I'm basically both as I lead the prescribed fires of several hundred acres of private and public properties. My team is also working with state and federal agencies and The Nature Conservancy to bring back the unique and once widespread longleaf pine ecosystem from the brink of extinction. What was once over a million acres had dwindled to 25. In 2000, we found only 200 longleaf pines remaining.

Our department bought 3500 acres of formally ideal habitat to bring up the numbers. Starting in 2006, we extracted seeds from the remaining 25 acres, hand-seeded them to get the saplings started, and planted them back in the landscape among the 3500 acres we acquired. This year we have first evidence of the trees making it through the grass stage and the controlled low-intensity fires we start to replicate what once happened naturally. The trees now cover 3000 acres, are 30 feet tall and are beginning to produce cones. We have a long way to go to be sure, but this is good and steady progress.

Sometimes when I'm having bad day, I walk among these longleaf pines and the cones, quails, nesting birds and dragonflies among them. I see all of this as affirmation that the work I'm doing is making a difference.

Today, I wear my Red Wings when I teach 18- to 24-year-old AmeriCorps volunteers how to become wildland firefighters (my boots are often older than they are). I've been blessed to have incredible mentors throughout my career, so this is my way of paying it forward. Being a mentor for younger people, especially those from nontraditional backgrounds, has been very enriching. I feel like my career has come full circle, just like the ecosystems I love so much.