Brett Amy Thelen wasn’t always on track for a career in environmental studies, but as science director at the Harris Center for Conservation Education, she now coordinates efforts all over the Monadnock Region to preserve nature’s wonders.
The Harrisville resident, 45, said she hadn’t planned to pursue the sciences. In fact, in 1999, she got her bachelor’s degree in literary and cultural studies from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
She said her change in course occurred at the turn of the millennium and happened on a bit of a whim. Thelen had completed her undergraduate studies nearly a year earlier and had been doing odd jobs and traveling.
“At the end of that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do next,” she said. “Maybe I could do something where I could give back to the community.”
When Y2K arrived, Thelen was at a music festival in the Everglades.
“The band played all night, and the sun came up,” she said. “It was a beautiful sunrise, and it was gorgeous, but the concert field was completely trashed with bottles and garbage. There was a moment of inspiration where I knew I wanted to work for the Earth. I didn’t know what that meant, but I hated how trashed it looked, and I wanted to do something.”
After that, Thelen, who grew up in New Jersey, spent about a year on Cape Cod doing ecological research and conservation work. Following her newfound passion, she pursued a master’s in environmental studies with a focus on conservation biology from Antioch University New England in Keene, graduating in 2007.
Remaining in the Monadnock Region, she began working with the Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory, where she became heavily involved with amphibian road crossings.
“It’s a really incredible natural phenomenon that happens during the first warm, rainy nights in spring,” she explained.
Across the state, Thelen said, thousands of salamanders, frogs and toads make their way to vernal pools to breed, some of them having to cross busy and potentially treacherous roads. Thelen coordinates efforts to organize volunteers for salamander crossing brigades to help these critters navigate safely.
In 2010, the Hancock-based Harris Center absorbed AVEO and the salamander crossing project, along with Thelen, who continues to lead the efforts. This spring will mark her 17th year helping the amphibians.
And while in past years the program had only a few dozen volunteers to help out, those numbers have soared to a few hundred, she said. The Harris Center currently coordinates amphibian crossing efforts in Keene, Nelson, Peterborough, Swanzey, Westmoreland and Winchester. A well-known site in Keene, Thelen noted, is at North Lincoln Street.
“It’s a really magical, powerful experience,” Thelen said. “When the conditions are right, you have huge numbers of frogs and salamanders all moving at once. The North Lincoln Street site can have 1,000 frogs and salamanders moving across [the road] in about four hours.”
In addition to ferrying the amphibians across the roads, volunteers keep count of how many creatures they see, and record other information such as the weather. Thelen said this helps inform the Harris Center of the hotspots with the highest amphibian traffic.
“These critters have site fidelity, meaning they’re very attached to these sites,” she said. “If you find them there one year, there’s a very good chance they’ll be there again.”
Thelen said the volunteers’ efforts not only help the amphibians get to the vernal pools — seasonal, shallow wetlands that provide habitat for some plants and animals — but they’re vital to a healthy ecosystem.
“Amphibians are right in the middle of a food web,” she explained. “They’re also sensitive to habitat loss, pollutants and climate change. They’re central to the ecosystem, and if we lose amphibians, other species will follow.”
Not to mention, she said, salamander crossing is an all-around exciting experience.
“People think a lot about bird migrations that are long distance and spectacular,” she said. “But this is small scale and it’s an amazing opportunity that you otherwise wouldn’t see. Spotted salamanders spend about 95 percent of their life underground. So it’s really special to see them.”
Thelen is an integral part of the Harris Center’s environmental education initiatives, which include the salamander crossing, but also school-based learning programs and other community projects throughout the year.
The Harris Center is a nonprofit land trust, which Thelen said protects more than 25,000 acres of land, across a focus area that the organization refers to as a “Super Sanctuary.”
During the summers, Thelen said the center coordinates with N.H. Fish and Game to conduct butterfly surveys to count and log the different species in the area. In the fall, she said she’ll participate in an owl-banding program to track the flight path and speed of saw-whet owls.
Originally from Hightstown, N.J., Thelen lives with her husband, Russ Cobb, and their cats Arthur and Olive. Cobb works in Keene State College’s marketing and communications department and manages the college’s website. The two met in 2007 while Thelen was at AVEO.
“We needed to make a website for the organization and he taught me how to do it,” she said.
Thelen said her free time, much like her work, revolves around her love of nature. She enjoys hiking, traveling, canoeing with Cobb and listening to live music.
“For a lot of us at the Harris Center, what we’re doing for a living is intertwined with every facet of our lives,” she said.
“The work we do at the Harris Center is to help people look beyond the surface beauty of nature and get to know the complexities of our ecosystems and wildlife and how they function and interact with people.”
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