Students walk in Aldo Leopold’s footsteps

By Daryl Ratajczak, TWS New Mexico Chapter Secretary

The 2019 SWAP crew. ©SWAP

Born from the dreams and ambitions of TWS members Robert Brewer and Daryl Ratajczak, the Student Wildlands Adventure Program (SWAP) completed its third consecutive year of inspiring young natural resource students from different reaches of North America.

This year’s summer SWAP event invited 16 TWS student chapter members from underserved communities throughout Tennessee to “walk in the footsteps of Aldo Leopold” in the untamed wilds of New Mexico. Participating student chapters included the Cleveland State Community College, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, University of Tennessee at Martin, and Tennessee Technological University, Eastern New Mexico University and New Mexico State University Student Chapters of TWS. Students from New Mexico Highlands University also participated. Besides the SWAP instructors, the Tennessee students were accompanied by six natural resource students from New Mexico and a cadre of wildlife professionals from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation.

Lessons on predator-prey relations at a recent cougar kill-site. ©Daryl Ratajczak

Over a ten-day period, the students were provided meaningful and inspiring instruction on the life and works of Aldo Leopold. Field trips included a hiking expedition in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness on the Gila National Forest as well as a stay in the historic cabin built by Leopold himself on the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. Other experiences included professional instruction on the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, fire management in the Southwest, and multiple lessons on wildlife management and habitat restoration. The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly a hike to a recent cougar kill-site on the Valles Caldera led by National Park Service biologist, Mark Peyton. The day was spent collecting data on a young elk carcass and teaching students about predator-prey relationships.

A SWAP student dining on a meal of wild-caught trout inside the Aldo Leopold cabin. ©Daryl Ratajczak

But this year’s trip was not all smooth sailing. “What made this year’s trip so successful for these students was not so much the amazing destinations and wildlife we saw but the adversity we faced. We survived airplane delays, a broken down vehicle, a quickly deteriorating road due to a monsoon, sickness and even a torn ACL,” Ratajczak said. “The students learned first-hand that life or work in the field is all about being adaptable. The testimonies they wrote on their Facebook pages after the trip showed first-hand how impactful this program truly was in their lives.”

Many of these students wouldn’t have been able to have these experiences without this program. “The best part about this program is we don’t charge the students a dime. We raise all the monies ourselves and we hope to provide these experiences to students who otherwise would never get the chance. Our hope is to continue this program for TWS students for many years to come and with many new destinations yet to be explored,” said Brewer. “Keep your eye out for us — this is growing faster than we ever expected.”

This past May, SWAP became an official stand-alone nonprofit organization after securing their 501(c)(3) status from the IRS. The 2019 SWAP event received sizable donations from both the New Mexico Chapter of TWS and the Cleveland State Community College Student Chapter of TWS. A huge thank you to all who donated or are involved with this program.


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