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15 Seconds of Fame: Jen Filipiak

Interview by Darci Palmquist 11/15/2012

Jen Filipiak is director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy in Iowa. She’s a cyclocross racer, archer and expert negotiator on behalf of watersheds local and global. Move over Katniss. Meet Jen.

CORN & BEANS: People rightly think of corn when they think of Iowa — a full 90% of the land is used for agriculture — but it’s a lot more than corn and beans. My focus is on freshwater and whole systems.

Any Iowan will proudly tell you that we have the most fertile soils in the world — and that our water quality is declining. We need to improve yields while reducing environmental impacts and that’s where water comes in — the Conservancy works on water quality and water flows.

CYCLING: I got involved in racing when I moved to Iowa 5 years ago. The cycling community here is awesome. Bike racing is male dominated but here there’s a lot of support for women’s racing.

I do criterions (crits) — circuit racing. It’s basically a 1-mile course you go round and round, very fast and very tight. To onlookers it might seem scary because we ride so close together that there’s a high potential for collisions, but it doesn’t happen often. I like it because it’s exciting, fast and strategic. You have to work well with your team to win.

Fall, though, is cyclocross season — it’s a cross between mountain biking and road racing. You have knobby, mountain-bike tires but on a road bike. Like a crit, the race is a short circuit that you ride over and over, but on grass, usually in a park, and there are always barriers that force you on and off the bike — you cross streams, go through mud, etc. Cyclocross is probably the most spectator friendly bike race!

WINNING: Yeah, I ride to win. I’m competitive by nature. I usually finish in the top third of my category, but it all depends on the race, and who else shows up.

“THE HUNGER GAMES”: My dad is a bow hunter — he uses a bow and arrow to hunt deer. To do that you have to understand ecology and animal behavior, so that inspired my interest in conservation. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, vacations were always to rural areas to get out of the city. My mom is also a competitive archer and my sister and I were raised with archery. I don’t hunt, but I can shoot an arrow.

COOL CONSERVATION: What I think is most exciting, but also incredibly difficult, is striving for integrated management of big watersheds, right in line with TNC’s increasing whole-systems focus.

For instance, the Mississippi River touches 10 states, so every decision impacts somewhere else. We need to get a handle on management of whole watersheds, not just pieces. In Iowa, we’ve had major floods every year for the past few years. We’re trying to work collaboratively with competing water interests in the Cedar River Basin, a 12,000-square-mile watershed. It’s huge for us, but small from a global perspective.

Integrated river management is not just a TNC issue. Everyone who works on rivers is thinking about this. The Danube in Europe has achieved some level of integrated management. But every basin is different and depends on the politics. Competing interests for water has led to the Colorado River no longer flowing into Mexico — we simply must figure out how to manage these resources together.

LOVE MY JOB: What gives me the greatest satisfaction is getting people to collaborate, to find common ground and achieve something we couldn’t have done on our own.

It’s kind of like habitat restoration — say you’re cutting down trees to open up an overgrown savanna. It looks terrible at first, but you see the sunlight dappling through and you know it’s going to respond. Next spring, the wildflowers start showing up again. You get to watch what happens, how it changes. If you’re waiting for the end goal, you’ll never be happy. But if you view it as a process, it’s so rewarding. ​​