Youth Conservation Congress kicks off

Eau Claire, Wis. — “What a heart-warming scene!” Mary Kay Salwey said as she entered the Wisconsin Conservation Congress’ annual convention hall May 10, finding 13 young citizens getting their first taste of what the congress is all about.

As DNR program administrator for wildlife conservation education, Salwey has spent much of her career working to engage youths in outdoor activities. Salwey said she was surprised – and pleased – to see so many high school students attending the WCC convention, and even more thrilled to hear a few of them speak out so articulately about several advisory questions.

Salwey said she was particularly delighted to see the young women in attendance, one of whom sitting nearby wielded her county’s voting paddle at times throughout the session.

“The Wisconsin Conservation Congress is definitely on the right track with this project,” said WCC chairman Rob Bohmann. “It gives a vital transfusion of young blood needed by our hunting, fishing, and trapping community.

Thirteen young people from across the state were the first group of youths to become involved with the congress, each with a unique perspective about the future of resource protection in Wisconsin.

“Much of the credit for getting this project off the ground goes to Dave Tupa from Door County,” Bohmann said. “As an educator, Dave knows how to connect with young people. He was the right person for the job.”

Tupa was recognized as the Educator of the Year by the congress in 2009. Tupa is also the Door County Conservation Congress delegation chairman.

Having started an ecology club at Gibraltar High School where he teaches biology, Tupa said the connection to the Conservation Congress seemed like a natural expansion of the club’s activities.

“I think we got off to a good start this year,” Tupa said. “The kids are getting a chance to see how things are run on the congress. They also got to meet the governor (at the WCC state convention).

“I think it’s a step in the right direction to get young people involved,” he said. “Considering the average age of the delegates to the congress, we have to recruit young people. They see things from a different perspective.”

Tupa has incorporated social media into the project by establishing a Facebook page where youth delegates can interact with each other.

Indeed, one of Tupa’s students at Gibraltar is part of the first wave of young people to be a part of the WCC. As a high school sophomore this past year, honor student Mikayla Kifer already has  enrolled in advance-placement classes that offer college credits.

Kifer decided to get involved with the Conservation Congress amid concerns about the environment.

“It just seems like a good organization to preserve nature,” Kifer said. She also likes the idea of getting involved in the discussion.

“It’s great to have a voice,” she said.

Kifer is leaning toward environmental studies after high school. “Either that or some type of journalism,” she said.

Each youth delegate has a sponsor from within the WCC. Vilas County WCC delegate Dave Werner serves in that capacity for Drake Schneider, a freshman this past year at Northland Pines High School in Eagle River.

Even before being selected as a youth delegate, Drake had attended a WCC district meeting last August.

“The debate is one of my favorite parts,” Drake said. “People were listening to other people’s opinions, the positives and the negatives.”

When asked about his involvement in outdoor activities, Drake said, “A better question is what I don’t do. I’m an avid duck hunter and bowhunter.” Drake shot his first buck last year during the youth deer hunt while hunting with his father, Randy Schneider, a county deputy sheriff.

Drake Schneider was not shy about speaking up during the discussion at the WCC convention. Drake weighed in on the question of registration of non-motorized watercraft.

“My grandpa comes up once a year to take us out fishing in a row boat,” he said, adding that his grandfather shouldn’t have to pay to do that. “I saw it as just a way for the state to make more money.”

Schneider is looking forward to serving on the WCC Fur Harvest Study Committee. Werner, his mentor, currently serves on that committee.

“I’m so proud of what you’ve accomplished so far on this project,” Salwey told the members of the Youth Conservation Congress. “I look forward to seeing even more young men and women attending next year’s convention.”

The Youth Conservation Congress was the brainchild of current Natural Resources Board chairman Preston Cole, who had offered a resolution to establish such a group through the spring hearings process. The proposal wound its way through the WCC committee process, and has now come to fruition.

The young citizens, all high school students, wasted no time getting involved, asking questions during the debates and making motions to advance (or reject) various items on the agenda. In his opening remarks, Bohmann welcomed the group to the WCC annual convention, referring to them as the elected delegates of tomorrow.

“We hope to see you on the floor of the congress as adults in a few years,” Bohmann said.

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