January 1, 2021
Fall 2020 wasn’t a typical college semester for most students, with remote classes and cancelled plans. For Kaylie Chilek, an Environmental Engineering major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, it turned out to be an important stepping-stone on her journey into conservation and climate solutions.
Kaylie has always loved animals. While growing up in rural Texas, she learned about the threats that climate change poses to wildlife—and humans—and she wanted to make a difference.
Looking for a fall internship where she could dip her toes in the conservation field, Kaylie
reached out to Dan Morse, RPA’s Volunteer, Program, and Outreach Manager. She mentioned her interest in climate and wildlife.
“I wanted to do something related to climate change, and when I read about the rare wildlife
species on the Plateau, I wondered if there was some way to directly help them,” Kaylie says.
Dan realized that Kaylie’s interests might mesh well with Follow the Forest (FTF), a regional
partnership of conservation groups that includes RPA.
“I wanted to do something related to climate change, and when I read about the rare wildlife species on the Plateau,
I wondered if there was some way to directly help them.”
-Kaylee Chilek, RPA intern
The goals of FTF are to conserve links and corridors between the forests, fields, and wetlands across eastern New York and western New England. These corridors will allow wildlife to move, especially as the climate warms, to find the habitat they need to survive.
Hosted by Housatonic Valley Association (HVA)—a land trust focused on the Housatonic
watershed from the Berkshires to Long Island Sound—Follow the Forest’s success will rely on
active partners like RPA. Partner organizations can do the necessary “ground-truthing” field work in their service area – meaning, making visits to evaluate the possible corridors that have been identified on a map.
Brendan Boepple of HVA was thrilled to work with Kaylie. They planned her visits to places
where the Rensselaer Plateau connects with the neighboring Berkshires and Green Mountains. In this, Kaylie laid the groundwork for other partner organizations to do their own field work.
“Kaylie’s work was as much about the wildlife linkages on the Plateau as it was about creating
methods that could be used by other conservation partners—an important step for this ambitious project,” Brendan says.
RPA’s involvement in Follow the Forest is also key because of the Plateau’s value to conservation. As Brendan explains, “The Rensselaer Plateau is just the type of refuge needed for plants and animals to adapt to a warming climate. It also plays an outsized role in wildlife connectivity in the forests that cover much of our region.”
Kaylie’s project gave her some new skills for her future work in conservation, including the basics of the ArcGIS mapping program and managing a small team.
As for her interest in wildlife, Kaylie was surprised by the diversity of wildlife on the Rensselaer
Plateau. She recalls seeing her first red eft salamander on one of the first days of her internship, which was very different from any species she knew from Texas. “The color was striking against the dark ground—almost neon,” she says.
While doing her ground-truthing field work in the northwest section of the Plateau, she was amazed to see firsthand how much forestland there is and all the potential for conserved corridors.
Kaylie saw how the long-term health of the Rensselaer Plateau’s sensitive ecosystems and
species—from the red eft to the moose, goshawk, and bear—will depend on RPA’s members and volunteers as well as land trusts across the region.
“It was really cool to be part of something so big in the fight against habitat loss and climate
change, and to make it easier for other organizations to do their field work, too” Kaylie says.
Not a bad semester at all.