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UWRF graduate receives national fellowship

April 2, 2009

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) awarded UW-River Falls graduate student Ian Johnson a fellowship in the Campus Ecology Program with a $5,000 grant for his thesis study in sustainability, Dec. 14.

The 2009 NWF’s Campus Ecology fellowsĂ‘17 total, met in Washington, D.C., for a training conference March 6-9.

The meetings and brainstorming sessions was long, but a good time, Johnson, who is in his second year in UWRF’s sustainable community development program (SCD) said, because everyone was on the same ecological page so-to-speak.

“It was really cool to see the energy coming out of these people,” Johnson said. “Our intent is all the same, our backgrounds are similar, in that what we are interested in, so there was kind of this cohesion right from the get-go.”

NWF has 4 million members and supporters and affiliated wildlife organizations in 47 states and territories, according to the NWF Web site.

Networking was a key component to the conference. Each of the fellows received a packet stocked with the 17 biographies and projects accompanied by a picture. One biography and picture was what Johnson said was “eerily similar” to his own, the two had submitted photographs of similar composition and both had a background in construction.

Within two days after the conference, Johnson said he begrudgingly signed up for a Facebook and Twitter account, seeing it as a professional network.

“I didn’t want to be a slave to another corner of technology, but in the modern world if you are going to network, especially with a fellowship like this, trying to further an agenda it’s probably a necessary thing,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s NWF fellowship gives the sustainable community development program at UWRF access to resources that might be more difficult to obtain otherwise, Johnson’s advisor Kelly Cain said.

“[Johnson’s] project will get national attention and publicity, which spills over onto the campus and helps future students competing in the same program to potentially have a higher level of recognition,” Cain said in an e-mail interview.

About 25 graduate students, part-time and full-time, are enrolled in the SCD masters program. Cain, who is also the director of the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, said most SCD masters students are a joy to work with and Johnson is no exception.

“Ian is the kind of student who makes faculty work so rewarding, enjoyable and challenging, as his level of knowledge and ability keeps me scrambling to keep up with him in areas that are not my strong suit,” Cain said.

Johnson will research other people’s unique data to create his study on the prairie management and carbon negative biofuels feedstock, raw material for biofuel, in Willow River State Park and the St. Croix River Watershed.

“It’s a literature review in a way, but it is combining all of these separate studies into one unique area and using Willow River just kind of as a footprint for that,” Johnson said.

In December 2006, the magazine “Science” published research led by David Tilman of the University of Minnesota. The Tilman group discovered, over a 10-year period, that native tall grass prairies were 238 percent more efficient for converting it into biofuel than monocultures like corn.

The perennial grasses grow on agriculturally degraded lands and store more carbon in their 30 to 40 foot deep root systems. Some carbon is released when the final product is burned as biofuel, but far less than is sequestered in the roots.

The growing carbon market is unregulated at the moment, but carbon sequestration, translated to a carbon negative output, could become an extra source of revenue for farmers on top of the actual sale of the harvested goods, Johnson said. Part of the study will provide carbon sequestration data on a per-unit basis that can be implemented to a broad scale

“We are still trying to benefit from this, but do it in a responsible manner,” Johnson said. “It’s my hope that after that study people realize it’s more profitable to use native plantings as a cash crop essentially. But if they are going to do that there needs to be something out there that shows them how to properly manage that.”

Johnson’s thesis study will define best management practices to maximize biodiversity, carbon sequestration, public and watershed benefits and species protection, according to Johnson’s grant proposal submitted to NWF.

Best management practices include annual rotational harvest schedules, seasonal harvest dates and land size in the St. Croix region in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Willow River State Park has restored about 200 acres of native prairie.

“Understanding the whole big picture is not looking at one end product,” Johnson said. It’s the whole process and everything that goes into it.”

The mosaic of grasses is much better for ecology and species, and Johnson said the restoration of native prairies will support species that have declined or found other niches.

“The more native and properly managed your land is, the more biodiversity you have,” Johnson said. “If you go in, plant this field and then come in and cut it down every year that isn’t helping out the species that are going to try and inhabit that now.”

According to Johnson’s NWF grant proposal, the study will produce a theoretical model for “use in private enterprise that will positively affect climate change, local agriculture, biodiversity and fuel production.”

Virtually existing funding is available to SCD graduate students for research purposes. Funding for holistic studies in the general field of sustainability is hard to come by, Johnson said.

Johnson received a $5000 grant from NWF that will be paid over the 15-month fellowship period.

“People keep talking about how it is important,” Johnson said. “But the money has yet to be seen.”

Johnson, who wants to get his Ph.D. and become a professor, said he admits going out and getting money has been a pain, but helpful because now he knows how to write grant proposals.

“My end goal, I want to be a professor somewhere and probably end up in a Ph.D. program after this,” Johnson said. “And going out and searching for money and writing grant proposals is a necessary thing, at that point.”

Johnson and his wife of four years, Kristen, live with their 2-year-old daughter Phoebe and terrier-Chihuahua mixed dog, Ole. Kristen works full-time as a stylist at A’la Mode Salon and Spa located in downtown Hudson, Wis.

Johnson works 20 hours a week at Casanova Liquor Store. He compiles and edits a monthly e-newsletter that reaches nearly 200 unique subscribers. Entitled What We Need is Here, the e-newsletter highlights living sustainably through local avenues. Archives of featured articles can be found on under the heading “outreach projects” at http://www.uwrf.edu/sustain.

Johnson’s road to everything sustainable wound and looped around a few times. He graduated high school in 1996 and joined the United States Marine Corps the same November. During four years in the Marines, he was stationed in Mississippi and San Diego, Calif. The massive Californian city created claustrophobia for Johnson, who likes to get away from the crowds and the cities. The self-proclaimed fan of the outdoors said he learned discipline and gained a few good friends, but he knew the military was not for him.

“Just doing something just because somebody says so doesn’t work for me,” Johnson said. “If they say so and you realize they have a good motive or reason behind it that’s fine, but that’s not how the military works. It’s just kind of ‘do as I say and that’s final.’”

Out of the military by 2000, Johnson used the next three years working towards a Bachelor of Science in Construction Management at UW-Stout, according to Johnson’s resume’.

In February 2004, Johnson became a field manager for Centex Homes in Minnetonka, Minn. It was during this time that Johnson said he found himself working at odds with his values when applied to the large corporation’s lack of concern for the environment.

“Nothing sustainable about it, we were plowing down fields with no regard to how to control the growth or how the homes were built,” Johnson said.

It was not until he read the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn that Johnson said “it all got very infectious and fell into clear view of the ‘big picture.’”

Last summer, Johnson reinsulated his 100-year-old farmhouse in Hudson and installed a new heating system.

Johnson sold his truck and bought a diesel Volkswagen Golf that gets 45 to 50 miles per gallon.

Fifty percent of his family’s food comes from a garden grown in the backyard. The produce is canned, frozen and dried for the winter. Trips to the grocery store can stretch out to about every six weeks, Johnson said.

Whole organic milk is delivered each Tuesday by Crystal Ball Farms out of Osceola, Wis. The Johnson family own 10 chickens. Johnson only hunts for deer for the meat. For another source of protein, Johnson found a place to buy 50 pounds of grass-fed, free-range bison meat.

Living locally, or with the “big picture” in mind can be expensive up front, Johnson said.

“If you go and buy a pound of coffee it’s probably a few bucks more, but then my mindset is that’s the true cost of that coffee,” Johnson, who drinks fair trade coffee said. “We are paying people a living wage for it.”

A lack of education stops the general public from opening their wallets for something they could buy cheaper elsewhere.

“They see it as an extra cost rather than paying their fair share,” Johnson said. “And especially in an economy like this, people are trying to pinch pennies anywhere they can. I would rather pay the extra cost and be responsible about it and cut back somewhere else.”

The “infection” came to a head when Johnson and his wife decided he needed to quit Centex and go back to school to pursue a more suitable career.

With a focus of ecology and climate change, keeping in mind the “big picture,” Johnson began researching different graduate programs. Colorado, Montana and the University of Minnesota were points of interests until Johnson found UWRF’s SCD masters program online.

“All of a sudden River Falls popped up on my Google search with this program,” Johnson said. “I thought: ‘what the heck is this? Well, this sounds exactly what I am looking for because it’s holistic, covers the whole spectrum.’ You focus on one area, but it looks at how everything connects to everything else.”

In October 2007, Johnson applied and received an internship with River Falls Municipal Utilities (RFMU). He became part of a volunteer leadership committee, led by RFMU and Wisconsin Public Power, Inc., that encourages awareness and sustainable energy projects for the City of River Falls. Powerful Choices is publicly funded. The main goal is to bring awareness and reduce energy use by 10 percent per capita by 2010.

He conducted a community survey to find out how much citizens knew about power use and their options. Results were mixed, Johnson said.

“As long as people are going to benefit from it financially they were receptive to it, but that benefit has to be fairly short term,” Johnson said. “Realizing a profit can be beyond people’s scope sometimes.”

Johnson went to Berkeley, Calif., to gather information their renewable energy tax finance system which unveiled a working plan last August. He said in an effort to make renewable energy affordable for everyone, low-interest long-term loans can be attached to a house’s property tax bill. The loan is transferable with the sale of the home.

“So if you’ve got a renewable solar panel system or something like that on the home, it’s an asset,” Johnson said.

The amount of free time Johnson has, he said, is rapidly dwindling in light of his research and the part-time jobs he must juggle to pay the bills. No longer an acting intern, he is still on a sub-committee of Powerful Choices.

The City of River Falls was added to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA)‘s green partners list three months ago. To make the EPA’s list, a company or city has to purchase a certain amount of renewable energy. Johnson contacted the EPA to verify the requirements before he brought the information to the board.

“River Falls is actually ninth in the nation for renewable energy purchases, percentage-wise of its residents, so we weren’t far off from that requirement,” Johnson said.
   
Johnson said the hype surrounding the interest in green living has created certain problems in the unregulated market.

Greenwashing is the term used to describe when companies tout products or policies as green without having to consider the big picture.

Johnson said an example of this is construction companies installing an efficient furnace.

“Oh, we are green because we have got a 93 percent efficient furnace now,” Johnson said. “Not realizing or not paying attention to the fact that they just built a 5,000 square foot home for two people, but it’s efficient.”

With NWF’s Campus Ecology fellowship, Johnson said the charge is to change habits on the UWRF campus and other campuses through his study.

“There is kind of a whole energy about the campus right now,” Johnson said. “If we can get it to spread into each individual department and become and underlying mantra almost or framework for what they teach and what they do, I think it’s going to go a long way.”