UIU conservation management alumna earns prestigious environmental educator award


For nearly two years, Kate (Mortensen) Zimmerman ’07 held the title of Iowa’s youngest director when she was hired as executive director of the Ringgold County Conservation Board. She may have lost that crown two months ago when a younger conservation director was hired elsewhere in the state, but she is one of only six female directors in Iowa, and the recent recipient of the very prestigious Bohumil Shimek Environmental Educator Award for outstanding efforts by an environmental educator.

Zimmerman was raised on a small Hereford cattle farm south of Guthrie Center, Iowa, where she developed a strong work ethic thanks to her parents and grandparents. “I always loved working outdoors on the farm, and my grandparents, Fred and Neva Compton, took me for nature hikes all the time. They were always supportive of my dream to work in conservation and did everything they could to encourage me,” she said.

Her desire to work in conservation one day led to many exciting opportunities for Zimmerman. She participated in 4-H and FFA, and began her career at Springbrook State Park directly out of high school for two summers. The summer of 2006, Zimmerman acquired an internship with Carl Kurtz, a man renowned for his efforts in prairie restoration, something that she too now holds close to her heart. The following summer, Zimmerman interned at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, and also worked with Fayette County Conservation at the Gilbertson Nature Center as a naturalist/zookeeper, and assisted at the UIU Maize Maze which is located across the road from the nature center.

Zimmerman graduated from Upper Iowa University’s residential campus in Fayette, Iowa, with degree in conservation management and minor in biology in just three years. “I accomplished that thanks to awesome science professors Dr. Scott Figdore, Dr. Kata McCarville, Dr. Rick Klann and math instructor Dr. Maureen Busta,” she said.

“When I graduated from Upper Iowa, everyone I talked to in this career field told me the most important thing you can do is ‘get your foot in the door,’” she continued. “That was the best advice I have ever received. After graduating, I went after the illusive fulltime job with hard determination.”

Zimmerman got her start as a naturalist with Bremer County Conservation located in Tripoli, Iowa. There she learned from another naturalist how to engage in environmental education. After a little over two years, Zimmerman wanted more of a leadership role in her career, but did not want to lose the field work aspect and environmental education that she had grown to love.

“I began applying for jobs, but knew it would be hard to find the right fit,” she said. “I received an interview for several positions and none of them were quite what I was looking for. Then came the Ringgold County Conservation Board Executive Director position. It was the best interview of my life, and two hours after the interview they called and offered the position to me before I was even halfway home! It has been a learning experience, but I always work best under pressure!”

As the executive director, Zimmerman is in charge of the clerical aspects of the position, as well as maintaining the parks, trails and wildlife areas, managing seasonal staff and environmental education programming.

“My favorite part of the job is that I get to do a little of everything. It is a lot of hard work and can get a little overwhelming at times, but we have a great community that supports us, and that makes it worthwhile. We also have a wonderful network of conservation employees across the state who are always more than willing to lend a hand,” she said.

When Zimmerman started in 2010, there wasn’t an environmental education program in Ringgold County. In her first year, she presented 71 programs with 852 participants. Since then, the program has increased. In fiscal year 2011-12, Zimmerman presented 114 programs with 2,543 participants.

Zimmerman is married UIU alumnus Mike Zimmerman ’05.

Her advice to prospective students interested in conservation: “Don’t limit yourself in high school and college. I worked in many different sectors of the field during this time and gained a well-rounded work experience background, which helped me land that first full-time job. Try fisheries, wildlife, habitat management, park enforcement and environmental education, along with so many more, to find out what it is that you like and don’t like. This will help you know what you really want when applying for jobs in the future.”

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