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Watershed Specialist, Tioga County Conservation District

A Penn State graduate with a degree in Forest Science, Terra Dillman became a Watershed Specialist for the Tioga County Conservation District. Discover why Terra majored in Forest Science and learn about her job and career path.

Degree Earned

B.S., Forest Science, 2001 (now Forest Ecosystem Management), Watershed Management Option

My Job

The Watershed Specialist position is a grant funded job at the local level. Most county Conservation Districts have one. My job is very diverse and includes education, facilitation, watershed group development, and stream assessments. It’s a writing intensive position. I write grant proposals, newsletters, and articles for both the District and local watershed associations. In addition, there’s a technical side to my job. I work with GIS to develop maps as educational tools and to display data collected during assessments. Most of the assessments I’ve participated in look at the chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of stream systems. I know most of my colleagues across the state enjoy the freedom to somewhat tailor their job. Many specialists focus or pursue their strengths, whether it is education, assessments, group development and facilitation, or GIS. However, the main duties associated with being a Watershed Specialist are to help local people facilitate the formation of watershed groups and to assist them with writing grant proposals to acquire funding to accomplish their goals of watershed restoration.

Q: Why are you interested in watershed issues?

A: I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, especially north central Pennsylvania and knew I wanted a career that allowed me to get out in the field. In addition, I’ve always had a deep interest in the weather and originally was a Meteorology major. However, once I realized that a meteorology job most likely meant working indoors, I began looking for a field that incorporated weather and outdoor work—hence how I fell into the Watershed Management option. Influential factors also included involvement in active watershed groups in Tioga County and exposure to my dad’s position as a dam operator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Being the nature of his job is to regulate the reservoir levels in two connecting lakes, I’ve always had a keen awareness of the relationships between streams, watersheds, and weather. Also, as mentioned above, watershed groups like the Pine Creek Headwaters Protection Group and the Babb Creek Watershed Association have been active for fifteen years or more, exposing me early on to watershed issues.

Q: What was your educational path?

A: My education is definitely ongoing. I read about the environment, ecosystem processes, health, society, history (especially local history), and our culture when I have the opportunity. Currently I’m interested in learning more about Holistic Management and Fluvial Geomorphology (FGM). As mentioned above, my college-level educational path began in Meteorology and let to Forest Science and Watershed Management.

Q: What's your average day on the job?

A: My job varies by season and I look forward to the beginning of each new season. During the fall and winter I’m usually in the office, although not all of the time. Streams are frozen and volunteers don’t particularly care for getting out in the field when it’s cold. So I spend time doing education-oriented tasks like writing newsletters and articles and making maps. In addition, I continue to attend monthly watershed group meetings and work on developing and composing watershed restoration reports based on assessment data collected during the spring and summer. Much of the winter months are also spent preparing for upcoming grant rounds by writing grant proposals and developing budgets to support projects.

During the spring and summer much more emphasis is placed on field work and education. Arbor Day, Earth Day, Watershed Snapshots, school Environmental Days, the Conservation District Tree Sale, and the Stream School all take place during April and May. Usually I present or help to organize many of these events. In addition, stream and watershed assessments begin around June and usually take the duration of the summer to complete. In the midst of field work and educational activities, I continue to attend watershed group meetings to help organizations keep on track and up-to-date on activities.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: The most important aspect about my job is the opportunity to work at the local level. I grew up in Tioga County and plan on staying, so being able to help county watershed groups improve the quality of their watersheds and streams is priceless.

Q: What skills are necessary to do your job well?

A: A good work ethic and discipline are necessary in this line of work. Since many watershed groups are comprised of volunteers, evening monthly meetings are common. In addition, with multiple watershed groups in one county there’s always something to do. At times it takes a lot of discipline to go the extra distance to get something accomplished. Since everyone lives in a watershed, everyone’s actions have the potential to degrade or improve our land and water.

 Another critical aspect to being an effective Watershed Specialist is you have to care about what you’re doing and know why you’re doing it. Understanding what your personal mission and long-term goals are, as well as those of the Conservation District and the watershed groups you work with is so important. As with any job, if you don’t like what you do and if it holds no meaning for you, then your job performance will show that.

 The third characteristic(s) of importance (which is really a conglomeration of several things) is open-mindedness, empathy, a non-judgmental attitude, and good social skills. These traits are important because much of watershed management is dealing with people. Since watersheds mainly are affected by non-point source pollution (i.e. pollution that doesn’t come out of a pipe, rather from all of us and our daily activities), the best way to deal with pollution and keep it from worsening is coordinated effort, ongoing education, and awareness on all of our parts. Since the watershed movement is largely comprised of volunteer citizens who want to make a difference, being able to employ good people skills is necessary. This means being non-judgmental, not playing politics, being empathetic to concerns, etc.

Q: What advice do you have for students?

A: Take a deep look at yourself. Understand what your strengths are and have an idea why you’re considering watershed management. Is it because you have an interest in the environment? In many cases, if you want to go into watershed management to make lots of money, you’re in the wrong field. However, you’ve chosen the right option if you want the opportunity to make a difference in the environment. Try to determine who you’d like to work for. There are a variety of options for employment, some of which include; government agencies (DEP, US Army Corps of Engineers, Conservation Districts, and the EPA); private organizations (Western PA Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy, the North Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, a watershed association, or a private environmental foundation); and consulting firms (there are many consulting firms that do a number of environmental projects). Each of these potential employers is very different and is driven by different agendas, motives, and goals. This determines the work pace, what you’re allowed to do/have the opportunity to be involved in, the pay scale, and ability for advancement and it also determines how you develop your curriculum in college. Because watershed management is so diverse, you can easily have varying strengths and weaknesses and still do a great job. Examples of important skills in watershed management include math and science, writing, public relations, stream dynamics, chemistry, biology, soils, education, and computer programs like GIS.

Q: What did you enjoy most about the Urban Forestry major?

What I enjoyed most about the Watershed Management option was that I had the opportunity to learn about so much. For me it was an exciting option because I was so interested in learning how interdependent everything is. It’s really mind blowing to take what knowledge you’ve acquired growing up or through school on a topic and begin to piece together how it all fits into the puzzle of the environment. Within watershed management there are so many directions that can be taken that you can choose what interests you most and pursue it. Soils, wetlands, computer systems, stream dynamics, hydrogeology, aquifers, human relations, sociology?

The best thing about the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management and Forest Science in particular is that this group is a family. I enjoyed the laid back and slower, more practical outlook and pace of many of the professors and fellow students. I never felt as though I had lost touch of what was actually going on out in the world while studying it in the classroom. I think in other majors it can be hard to understand the practical applications of what you’re studying and learning.

Visit the Tioga County Conservation District Website