5QS: Meet Amy Witt, Nature Reserve Steward

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With this post, we kick off a new blog series called 5QS. It gives us the chance to ask our fellow Forest Park Forever staff and volunteers five questions about themselves and their work ... and it gives you the chance to get to know them — and the Park — better.

Kicking off the series: Amy Witt, Nature Reserve Steward, who joined Forest Park Forever in October of 2012. Amy moved from Olympia, WA, where she was working with riparian habitat restoration, endangered salmon and waterbirds. Originally from Ohio, She has been working with land management and wildlife across the U.S. since she graduated with a B.S. in Biology at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. Amy's organizing this Thursday's Birding Basics gathering, so you can meet her there in person. Now, onto the interview...

1. How do you describe your role here to new people you meet? 
Honestly, a lot of people don’t know that the “natural areas” in Forest Park are under a special division, the Nature Reserve, or that the woods next to the Saint Louis Zoo — where I spend much of my time — have a name or a trail system. When I try to describe my role at Forest Park and FPF to a new person I meet in St. Louis, I usually ask them if they know the woods close to the Zoo or Skinker Blvd. That’s Kennedy Forest!  

I manage Kennedy Forest, Kennedy Savanna (along Skinker), Wildlife Island in Post-Dispatch Lake and the buffer along the waterway on the west half of the Park. My co-workers in the Nature Reserve and I really work closely together to help restore, maintain and sustain a healthy, diverse, awe-inspiring, educational, wildlife-filled natural area in the park.

If you look at an aerial map of St. Louis, Forest Park is really the green in the middle of gray. And we strive to keep it that way for both people and, very importantly, wildlife. This includes the sometimes repetitive and mundane invasive species control, always inspiring native plantings, sometimes frustrating but so revealing vegetation surveys and exciting educational programs and tours to help people really see this resource they live next to. 

2. Do you have a favorite spot in Forest Park? 
I have two. One is the Kennedy Forest Boardwalk, which is a paved trail just west of the Zoo that goes through part of Kennedy Forest. Other than having the best spring flowers in Kennedy Woods — with trout lilies, green dragons, jack-in-the-pulpits and trillium easily visible along the looped trail — it also is an area where you start up higher in elevation and work your way down into the bottomland. When you start, you can find higher canopy birds that are normally difficult to see, and when you travel down you are able to see wood ducks perched in large sycamores! There’s also a resident mink that lives in this area, so you might get lucky and catch a glimpse. 

My second favorite spot is a point deep in Kennedy Forest, where if you face east you can imagine that the forest goes on for miles — like the two miles it used to be in 1896 — and that ... for just a second ... until you hear a truck go by on Skinker ... you can feel like you’ve transcended being in the middle of a busy city. This is also one of the healthiest spots of all the forests in Forest Park, which is why I actually don’t get to spend that much time there. Occasionally I get a chance to just stop there for a second and look at the tree diversity. During the summer I can listen to Wood-pewees, Empidonax flycatchers and Kinglets. It revives my ambition for my work in Forest Park, knowing that this is what all of Kennedy Forest could be like one day.

A previous co-worker would tell me, ‘Act like this is everyone’s first time in the Park. Make it special.’ I’m proud to be an employee of FPF because we strive to do just that.
— Amy Witt, Nature Reserve Steward

3. Can you share any interesting projects you’re in the midst of? 
As part of Forest Park Forever’s goal to provide more educational opportunities for the public, we’ve created a new program called Birding Basics, a quarterly, indoor educational session that we offer in conjunction with our regular monthly Beginner Bird Walks.

Experts and professionals will break down birds at a basic-intermediate level on topics relevant to the season. The first one — this Thursday from 5 – 6:30 p.m. — will feature Denise Kirkpatrick. Using her knowledge and expertise from the Wild Bird Center of South St. Louis County, Denise will touch on Birding 101 topics such as optics, guides and tips for getting started. Winter is the perfect time to start assessing what gear is right for you and to develop a richer understanding about the subject before the birds start flocking. 

4. What’s something about Forest Park Forever you find many people don’t know? 
That we have Land Management Tours and Workshops free for the public! Most people know about the Then & Know Tours that start at the Visitor and Education Center. Forest Park Forever volunteers do a great job providing information about the history of the Park and where it’s come in recent decades. 

However, we also have something called the Heart of the Park Walking Tours. Each spring and fall, FPF Horticulturists and Nature Reserve crew members put together tours for the zones that they manage. Each tour is specific to the area, its history and how it's managed. These are a great resource for people to get the inside scoop about big-name places (World’s Fair Pavilion, Emerson Grand Basin, Art Hill) and to learn about the hidden gems like Deer Lake, Murphy Lake and Kennedy Woods.   

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5. What is it about Forest Park Forever that makes you proud to be on staff? 
A previous co-worker would tell me, “Act like this is everyone’s first time in the Park. Make it special.” I’m proud to be an employee of FPF because we strive to do just that — make the Park special for every person that uses it.

I’m proud of the strong teamwork and support that is evident far and wide across departments here at FPF, the pride and effort that my co-workers show in their work, the effort that I’ve seen co-workers go to make sure that this is someone’s special day and the number of amazing volunteers who come back week after week, month after month or year after year, because they see the difference we're all making together.

When I meet the many people who moved away from St. Louis but have now returned to be back in their hometown, I'm happy to be able to say I'm part of an organization that helped Forest Park come back from its 1980s state to something that the citizens of St. Louis can be proud of.