Nicole has been the Education Coordinator for the LaPorte County SWCD since January of 2007. She has a Bachelor of Science from Indiana University with a major in Environmental Management and minor in Geography. She lives in LaPorte with her husband and three children. She was named IWF 2012 Conservation Education of the Year. Currently, Nicole is coordinating the District’s watershed planning efforts in the Trail Creek watershed. She is also working in schools throughout the county on various conservation programs.
This interview was conducted by Carly Schmidt on August 29, 2018. Learn more about Nicole’s work at the La Porte County Soil & Water Conservation District.
Did you grow up around water? Where? What are your fondest early memories of rivers, lakes, or streams?
My parents had a boat growing up and I remember going canoeing quite a bit. My whole family are fisherman, so I spent lots of days and nights fishing on the pier. Definitely being on my parents’ boat on the river was a staple of my childhood. We were always on the water.
When did you first realize that you wanted to help save rivers or stand up for healthy rivers and/or clean water?
It is what I’ve always done. A pivotal turning point in my professional career happened when I was at Indiana University. I was studying biology, thinking I would go into medicine or public health. I walked by the Indiana School of Public and Environmental Affairs and was instantly curious. I walked into the building and asked for more information about the program and ended up changing my major that day. That was the exact moment I turned my career toward the environment.
It seems as though a common theme in the conservation world is realizing that you can make a career out of watershed protection. Is this something you experienced?
Absolutely. I knew people in wildlife biology in Indiana, but I never thought of the field in terms of advocacy or conservation. Walking into IU-SPEA and learning about the possibilities made me think “Whoa, I can really do this.”
Why is protecting rivers and water important to you now?
I have three kids and one grandkid. Being able to share with them the same memories and experiences that I had in my childhood is very important to me. I am also motivated by the attack clean water is under. We are taking a step backward in terms of water protections. It is more important than ever to do this work. My approach is protecting through environmental education and taking people to their water. People can’t protect something they don’t know, so I try to create that love for their river. We can’t do it on our own, we have to create these armies of inspired and educated people.
How has River Network helped you advance your goals in the water world?
I first encountered River Network in 2015 when I was invited to participate in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership training. Then, in 2017, my team at Trail Creek nominated me for this award through River Network. They sent me out to River Rally and that’s where I was able to engage with River Network leadership and become more connected with individuals from across the country. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re able to bounce ideas off individuals with so much knowledge in a particular field, and that is what I am most looking forward to in future engagement with River Network.
Also, the diversity of folks involved in the network is amazing. At Rally, there was this contingency of folks working on different rivers across the country, from massive Western rivers to heavily urbanized waterways. There is so much power and knowledge to gain from the network, and I am looking forward to exploring that more. I think the network will be a powerful tool for Trail Creek.
What water-related accomplishment are you most proud of?
There are many groups that I’ve been involved with in 10 years. I work with the Trail Creek Watershed Partnership, which is not its own entity. People come together every month to work on Trail Creek issues, support each other’s work, and go above and beyond their daily duties to work for the health of Trail Creek. I am incredibly proud of how this partnership has evolved and to be part of a team that cares so much about this creek in Michigan City.
I am also proud of Trail Creek Week, which is a place-based education program I created. I have schools fighting to be involved and it’s really incredible to provide these experiences to kids. Because of this program, I was able to develop a similar program expanding over more local rivers. It is my goal to create these informed citizens who are engaged in their community and can make informed decisions, as adults, about what they have learned.
What positive changes would you like to see for water in your community over the next 10 years?
Indiana is responsible for sending junk down to the Gulf of Mexico and we experience a lot of degradation being in the southern tip of Lake Michigan. I’d like to see positive agricultural changes. Indiana is doing an amazing job with conservation cropping systems; in fact, Indiana is leading the country. I would like to see us continue on that road in a more comprehensive way to protect the Gulf from agricultural waste.
I would also like to see Trail Creek become a designated recreational stream and be the focus of Michigan City. We have Lake Michigan in our community and it’s really a gem, but so are these little tributaries that feed the lake. I would love to see more people understand the connection between the creek and the lake. This is what I am currently working on.