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Kristen Meistrell Of New Jersey Audubon: 5 Things We Must Do To Inspire The Next Generation About…

Kristen Meistrell Of New Jersey Audubon: 5 Things We Must Do To Inspire The Next Generation About Sustainability And The Environment

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Radically change the way we view our forests. When you close your eyes and think of a forest, the first image that comes to mind often includes massive trees towering over dark, moss-covered rocks and logs. That “fairy tale” forest is not the only kind of forest — and the other types of forests are almost always ignored. Forests that look messy, the ones with canopy gaps, the ones that are made up of shrubs and young trees, those are all forests, too. It’s dangerous to over-emphasize one type of forest, because it can cause us to forget about everything else.

As a part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen Meistrell, Vice President of Stewardship, New Jersey Audubon.

Kristen Meistrell has worked in natural resource management for the last 15 years and has been with New Jersey Audubon since 2012, working with public and private landowners to restore, create, and enhance wildlife habitat across the state. Prior to joining New Jersey Audubon’s Stewardship Team, she worked for New Jersey Fish and Wildlife’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program, where she focused on rare reptile and amphibian conservation and gained experience working with several other rare and declining species. She earned her B.S. in Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources from Rutgers University’s Cook College while gaining additional experience in monitoring, environmental education, and research.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was born and raised in New Jersey, growing up in the rural parts of Hunterdon County. I spent much of my childhood playing outside, exploring the woods and streams, looking for anything that caught my attention. I spent summers in Ocean View, NJ, playing in the sand at the Jersey Shore and looking for Fowler’s toads in the woods, visiting arboretums and gardens, camping across the United States with my family, fishing in the Musconetcong River and playing in the river at Ken Lockwood Gorge.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

While I basically have been studying nature in one way or another as long as I can remember, I will say that the moment I realized I wanted to do something with ecology was the summer before my Junior Year of High School. I was doing “pre-homework” for my biology class, which focused on ecology. Like most teenagers, I rarely wanted to do summer homework, but this topic completely captivated me. In fact, I was actually upset that we didn’t spend more time on this topic during the school year. That was probably the moment when I decided I wanted to become a scientist.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

Don’t be afraid to be the “weird kid” who is fascinated by worms and snakes and frogs. That just might be the beginning of a career in conservation! The natural world is strange and unique (and wonderful), so simply being curious can go a long way. I still find myself diving headfirst into topics I want to learn more about! That curiosity is what has helped shape my career and brought me to New Jersey Audubon.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

New Jersey Audubon’s mission is to connect all people with nature while stewarding that nature of today for all people of tomorrow. The forward-facing look to the future helps guide our initiatives to consider climate change and sustainability. Our work is focused on people, species, habitat, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and is guided by three main conceptual landscapes: Forests, Farms & Watersheds; Coasts & Tidal Wetlands; and Cities & Towns.

While this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few ways New Jersey Audubon is working to address climate change and sustainability:

  • Forests, Farms & Watersheds: here, we are focused on creating and restoring healthy and resilient forests through forest stewardship, working with farms to adopt sustainable practices that create wildlife habitat while protecting water and soil, and advocating for sustainable and long-term funding in the Delaware River Watershed.
  • Coasts & Tidal Wetlands: here, we are focused on sea level rise and its impacts to our coastal areas and marshes, as well as impacts to long-distance migratory birds and other wildlife.
  • Cities & Towns: here, we focus on climate change education in schools and creating and restoring urban ecosystems for people and wildlife through our Garden for Wildlife program.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

While this question may seem straightforward, it is actually very complicated. Climate change is a global and complex issue — and addressing it will take a massive shift in the way we live our lives, not just a few tweaks. Of course, there are things that the general public can do to become more sustainable and that can help. But I do want to point out that many of the suggestions I can give come from a place of privilege. Not every person will have the opportunity to make these changes; but if you have the ability, I hope you will consider enacting these changes in your life:

  • Buy local whenever possible. Whether is it locally grown food, wood, or fiber, getting products that come from your community will almost always be the most sustainable path. A great example is firewood. Recently, I was at the grocery store and saw bundles of firewood for sale. The wood came from Lithuania, which was troubling. Not only did that wood travel a significant distance to get here, but the sustainability and ethics of how that wood was harvested are unknown. Instead, consider purchasing firewood from a local forest owner who might have harvested that wood as part of a Forest Stewardship Plan. These plans are designed to create wildlife habitat and improve forest health. Not only was that wood sustainably harvested, but it also created habitat along the way and used fewer emissions to get to your fireplace.
  • Plant native species in your garden. A colleague of mine recently used the term “Global Change” instead of climate change. This is because we are not only experiencing a changing climate, but we are also living through a massive collapse in biodiversity. I understand that this seems even more daunting. But planting native wildflowers, trees, and shrubs in your garden can really help, as it directly benefits the local food web, hence supporting biodiversity.
  • Speak up. Climate change is a global issue (Global Change!) that requires local action. The best way to impact these issues on a global scale is to reach out to your policymakers and make your voice heard. That can include directly contacting your representatives, getting out to vote on election day, spreading the word, and more.

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth-led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion, what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

Climate change is considered to be one of the biggest existential crises of our time. And while that much is true, we are also, at this very moment, living through the next mass extinction event — which is primarily driven by human activity. Global climate change is indeed a huge factor in accelerating this mass extinction event, but the solution is far more complicated than simply blaming it on emissions and calling for more carbon storage and sequestration.

It’s critical to consider (and address) many other factors, such as:

  • habitat loss
  • historic and current unsustainable land use
  • mismanagement of our current natural resources
  • invasive species
  • pollution
  • large-scale biodiversity collapse

These are all contributing to a much larger crisis, which is why I’m favoring the term “Global Change” over “Climate Change.” Global Change seems much more appropriate.

The threat of climate change is daunting enough, so it’s no surprise that Global Change is even more challenging to wrap our minds around. There is no simple solution, but there are ways we can work to prepare for and mitigate against Global Change. For this piece, I want to look at forests, since they are often what we teach young people to focus on when finding natural solutions to climate change.

For decades, we have used cartoons and catchy slogans to protect our environment. Smokey Bear tells us to prevent wildfires and the Lorax speaks for the trees. These are important messages; however, they skip over important nuances that make our forests so amazing. There is a massive movement, particularly in the United States, that is placing a lot of pressure on our forests to save us from climate change. Forests on a global scale are important for carbon storage and sequestration (think the rainforests on the Amazon), but this is not the only benefit our forests provide — and forests are not the only natural system that can store and sequester carbon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reviewed hundreds of case studies and found that mangroves and salt marshes are 5 times more effective at storing carbon and 10 times more effective at removing carbon than forests. So why do we put so much pressure on our forests to store and sequester carbon? The reason is also complicated, but it stems from human behavior and perception.

What can parents and caretakers do to inspire the next generation of conservationists? My suggestions might surprise you:

  1. Shift the focus away from just climate change and teach about Global Change. If we are simply focused on reducing our emissions and increasing carbon storage and sequestration, we fail to recognize that species are declining at an alarming rate, invasive species and pests are threatening our ecosystems, suitable habitat is disappearing, and pollution is impacting our air and water supply. Does climate change accelerate these? Absolutely, but it will take far more action than emission reduction and carbon offsets to truly address Global Change.
  2. Stop asking our forests to do more than they are capable of doing. Having a focus on climate change is still very important, but it’s equally as important to understand the issue in its entirety. In New Jersey, specifically, 42% of our emissions come from transportation, 26% from residential and commercial sources, and 19% from electric generation. The remaining 13% of emissions come from industry, waste & agriculture, halogenated gasses, natural gas transmission & distribution, and land clearing. Based on New Jersey’s 80×50 Report, just 8% of our natural areas offset those emissions. According to the same report, if we were to shift the primary goal of those natural areas to focus solely on carbon, we’d achieve only a 30% carbon offset. At first glance that may sound appealing, but it’s still less than a third of what would be needed…and what would we be sacrificing? Creating a forest carbon sink would vastly reduce the amount of wildlife habitat for rare and declining species, all forms of recreation (both passive and active) would cease, local wood products would need to be sourced elsewhere, resiliency would decrease, and many unintended consequences could surface. So instead, recognize what our forests can do and focus on the things that could truly reduce emissions, like looking at transportation and how our energy is sourced.
  3. Radically change the way we view our forests. When you close your eyes and think of a forest, the first image that comes to mind often includes massive trees towering over dark, moss-covered rocks and logs. That “fairy tale” forest is not the only kind of forest — and the other types of forests are almost always ignored. Forests that look messy, the ones with canopy gaps, the ones that are made up of shrubs and young trees, those are all forests, too. It’s dangerous to over-emphasize one type of forest, because it can cause us to forget about everything else.
  4. See the forest for more than just the trees. This is where the tension between carbon storage and other co-benefits is born. Yes, trees store carbon — but that is not the only benefit forests provide. The Lorax spoke for the trees, teaching us that, to protect the forest, we must protect the trees. What about the plants that need a lot of sunlight to grow? What about the birds that need young forests to raise their young? What about the insects that need a dead tree to hide and forage in? When we only see the forest for the trees (and we only see the tree for its carbon storage potential), we lose sight of the bigger picture.
  5. Think about our future forests now. Climate change is accelerating and the solution to the problem is large, complex, and daunting. Instead of focusing on going backwards to a time before society began introducing all these issues, perhaps we need to think about what our realistic future looks like instead. We need to understand that our future climate will likely have more severe droughts, more intense storms, more flooding, and higher temperatures. We can continue to work towards reversing climate change, but we also need to prepare for the future. Across much of the northeast and mid-Atlantic, our forests are shifting from an oak and hickory forest to a maple and beech forest. What’s wrong with that? Well, maples and beeches and other shade-tolerant trees have very little defense against drought, high temperatures, and wildfire. If we allow our forests to shift, we are setting them up for catastrophic failure. Why is this shift happening? Ironically, it’s partially because we became too good at saving trees and preventing wildfires. (That advertising worked, Smokey Bear.) For centuries, our forests were shaped by hurricanes, wildfires, and indigenous communities using the land for shelter and food. When we, as a current society, stopped managing the forest, we created closed canopy, overstocked forests. This is not at all suitable for growing oaks and hickories. How can we fix this? With science-based forest stewardship — which sometimes can seem counterintuitive. For example, stewardship can include firing up a chainsaw as a way to both improve the current forest condition as well as our future forests. (Note: this should only be done by experts trained in stewardship.)

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Sustainability can come in many different forms, and thankfully more people are paying attention than ever before. Sourcing materials locally can be a great way to support other local businesses, like farms and forest owners, while reducing emissions and celebrating those achievements to the consumer.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My parents certainly planted the seed of conservation at an early age, but it was a family friend with a career in conservation who truly helped my interest to grow (puns intended). When I first started on this journey, I would talk with that family friend for hours about what it means to be a conservationist and what can I do to prepare myself for the career I want. She was the one that guided me and encouraged me towards this career, and I am forever grateful.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I truly believe that conservation can come in many forms, but I think beginning locally is the best way to impact the world on a global scale. I would love to see communities coming together to support sustainable agriculture, wood products, and more.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

The one and only Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Often, caring about conservation means fighting and pointing fingers, but the best way to truly move forward is to come to the table with compassion and understanding for others. Only then can we truly become leaders who can make the type of impact that is needed.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

New Jersey Audubon:

Instagram: @njaudubon

Twitter: @NJAudubon

YouTube: @NewJerseyAudubon



Instagram: @kristenmeistrell


This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Kristen Meistrell Of New Jersey Audubon: 5 Things We Must Do To Inspire The Next Generation About… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.