Arboretum director Nancy Braker ’81 on natural resource management, experiential learning, and the Arb’s mission

Braker discusses how she makes management decisions, anticipates climate change, and encourages use of the Arb at Carleton.

Josey MacDonald ’25 8 March 2024 Posted In:
Nancy Braker gestures behind her to the Cannon River as she talks to a group of students.
Nancy Braker works with a studio art class in the Arb.Photo:

Anyone who regularly visits the Cowling Arboretum will know that it’s always changing — sometimes noticeably, sometimes more subtly. The same can be said of the job of Nancy Braker ’81. As Puzak Family Director of the Cowling Arboretum, Braker takes on a diverse set of challenges as she balances the three components of the Arb’s mission: academic use, recreational use, and conservation of natural resources.  

As a Carleton biology major, Braker’s first relationship with the Arb was as a student. She knew she liked nature but was initially unsure of where this could take her as a career.

“How I got into natural resources was really because of the inspiration of a faculty member here,” Braker explained.

Spending time in the lab and the field with Professor Gary Wagenbach, an invertebrate zoologist with an interest in conservation, Braker began to get a clearer sense of possibilities in the natural resources field.  

After Carleton, Braker attended graduate school for entomology at the University of Minnesota and then worked for The Nature Conservancy, surveying rare insects and working with private landowners to develop conservation plans. While Braker was coming up on her 20th year working for The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, Carleton realized they needed somebody to work full time to manage and facilitate use of its Arboretum. Braker was perfect to fill that role.

Since taking the position in 2007, both the Arb and Braker’s management considerations have changed considerably, as the focus has shifted from restoring natural habitat to anticipating the impacts of climate change. 

“As of just this fall, we planted our last restoration planting of any size; that was a seven-acre planting,” Braker said. “What we’re really going to be focusing on now is augmenting our restorations and adding biodiversity so that they’re more robust.”

“I think people who work in conservation have seen [climate change] coming for a long time, but not really understood the steps we need to take,” Braker added. “Figuring out how to maintain natural habitats in the face of climate change has really changed in the past 15 years since I’ve been here, so we’re really thinking about that.” 

Climate change has brought the need for more novel solutions.

“We’re starting to look at species that are found not too far south that we might think about adding to our restoration,” said Braker.  

Choosing which species to transplant, when to do so, and how to introduce them in a way that doesn’t harm the existing native plants and animals in the Arb is a difficult task — and it’s not the only difficult management decision Braker has to make. Whether it’s figuring out how to manage the growing population of beavers on college land or deciding which trees to cut down, decisions can sometimes cause conflict. Braker says she approaches hard decisions by learning as much as possible about a particular issue. 

Nancy Braker talks to a group of new students in the Arb.
Braker with a group of first years during the annual Into the Arb event during New Student Week

“What is the biology? What are the things we can do to mitigate the situation? I’ve learned a lot of things about beavers that I didn’t know before,” she said.

However, even informed decisions can be challenging to make.

“There’s always conflict,” Braker said. “Especially in a place like the Arboretum, which people are very passionate about and have a lot of emotion tied up in the time they spend there.” 

Braker pointed to tree removal as an example. “There’s all sorts of reasons why we take down any individual tree, but every single one I will assure you is somebody’s favorite tree, because we hear about it,” she said with a laugh.  

Knowledge and transparency drive Braker’s management choices.

“We try and look at all sides, both from an emotional perspective and the biology, and make decisions as best we can,” she said, “with the knowledge that not everybody’s going to be happy with the end result, but everyone should be informed and everyone should understand why we’re making this decision.” 

The emotional connections to the Arb that can cause complaints are also ultimately a good thing, as they reflect the type of connection Braker wants students to develop with the Arb. 

“My goal is that every student on campus gets out in the Arb at least once with a class to do whatever the faculty is finding inspiring,” she said. “Most of us don’t have the luxury of living immediately adjacent to a nature preserve after we leave college, so taking advantage of it now is something we should really promote.”

To facilitate academic use of the Arb, Braker helps a wide range of faculty bring their classes into nature. She’s worked with Lecturer in Art Eleanor Jensen’s field drawing class to provide context about the Arb’s history and ecology, with Professor of Biology Dan Hernández’s grassland ecology seminar to teach about native prairie restoration work, and with Professor of Art Kelly Connole’s ceramics class to harvest clay from the Arb. 

“I really believe in experiential learning,” Braker said. “I think it’s very hard to get people to be inspired by or supporters of our environment if they aren’t out there in it, experiencing it directly.”

Braker is also co-teaching a class with Physical Education, Athletics, and Recreation (PEAR) next term titled Outdoor Skills, which will teach students skills like reading a map, identifying plants, and planning outdoor adventures. The intention is to help students who might have little experience in a place like the Arb feel more comfortable and confident in being out there. 

Whether or not it’s through a class, Braker hopes all Carls will make use of the Arb. 

“There are so many good things that come from being in nature, it’s just good for us as humans to be out there,” said Braker. “So helping everyone understand that, encouraging them to be in the Arboretum, and figuring out how to eliminate what is holding them back from that — that’s a big goal of mine.”