David Phemister (MS ’02)
Kentucky State Director, The Nature Conservancy
What did it mean to you to be named a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow? What were some of the activities and opportunities that held the greatest impact for you?
First and foremost, being named a Doris Duke Fellow was a real honor. We had an amazing cohort, and I was proud and humbled to be a part of it. What I most remember was the retreat we went to with representatives from Yale and Duke. We stayed at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. NCTC is an amazing facility, and I remember how fun it was to be away from school and get to know classmates better and also meet entirely new folks. I always knew I would have a career in conservation, but the opportunities crystallized a bit at that retreat.
Can you tell us about your SEAS experience? How did it help you advance in the conservation field?
I loved Michigan. I loved Ann Arbor, my classmates, the professors, and the program. It was challenging, but also a lot of fun. I am very much a generalist, so I’m not sure I came out with a technical skill that I could not have gotten via more on-the-job experience. But several of the courses I took, including Negotiation Skills, Rural Conservation, and Real Estate Development (at the Ross Business School) did make a lasting impression. My master’s project was an immense amount of work that taught me so much about the challenges and opportunities of working on a big project with a big team. That is very much the nature of most work outside of school, so the practical experience there was essential. And at the end of the day, I don’t think I would have gotten my job at The Nature Conservancy without Michigan. And that’s where I’ve been ever since I graduated.
What kind of changes have you observed in land conservation in the U.S. over the course of your career?
There is no doubt that conservation has gotten harder over the course of my career. The challenges we are facing, most especially, of course, climate change, are simply at a whole different level in terms of existential threat, complexity and controversy. Obviously, climate change was real and a real problem back when I graduated from Michigan in 2002, but the acceleration of the issue and the compression of the time horizon for impacts (now, not the distant future) are dramatic. So, when I started my career, I was working on relatively small land acquisitions or conservation easements. Now, I am leading a team that is trying our best to make meaningful contributions to addressing the biggest threats humanity has ever faced. It’s just a different world.
Despite all of this, I love my job. The Nature Conservancy is never satisfied and is always trying to make a bigger, more lasting impact. Being a part of that effort and working with amazing colleagues is cathartic in the face of so many reasons to mourn our natural world.
Note: Prior to 2017, the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) was known as the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). References to “SNRE” have been updated to “SEAS” to reflect the name change.