Profiles in Conservation

Helping Others, Restoring the Land

By Glenn Rosenholm

Brandon Van Tassel loves to go on hikes to natural places in and around the city of Duluth, MN. He is often accompanied by his sidekick, a 13-year-old black lab/golden retriever mix named “Shadow.”

When not at work, the man and dog are nearly inseparable despite their relative difference in ages. Brandon is still a youthful 28 years old while Shadow is more of a senior citizen canine at age 13.

Shadow’s advanced age hasn’t slowed her down yet, though. She was angry with him at the time of this interview because he had stopped playing fetch with her after 20 minutes, he said. Despite her occasionally overflowing enthusiasm, one of the things he likes best about her is that she really is easy going.

“I take Shadow every time I hike in the forest,” he said. “I have a leash with us. But every time we get out in the woods away from people, I let her off the leash. She does very well never leaving the trails, but loves to run ahead about 10 yards and will turn around to check if I’m still behind her and that I am keeping up.”

His favorite places to trek include Mission Creek, on the western end of the city of Duluth, as well as at Jay Cooke, a Minnesota State Park that the St. Louis River runs through on the western edge of the city.

“With Mission Creek I definitely see life,” he said. “In 2012 it overflowed and ripped out its banks. It washed out a beautiful cedar stand that used to be there. Now the river is very wide and windy. It has multiple channels that are separated by mid-channel bars. The channels regularly shift over the valley floor. Every year you go back and the valley is different. It’s unlike anything else that we have in the area. Everything else is canyons — not that there is anything wrong with canyons.”

Van Tassel grew up in Breckenridge, MN, on the prairie between North Dakota and western Minnesota, about an hour’s drive south of Fargo, ND. The area is the bottom of an ancient lake bed, very flat with no trees.

“It makes you truly appreciate something when you don’t grow up with it, in my case my love for trees and forests,” he said. “This was further built upon by the imagery of Tolkien’s Mirkwood and Fangorn Forests and Rowling’s Forbidden Forest.” Those were two of his favorite book series growing up.

He said two major influences in his life helped to instill in him the values that he holds today.

“My parents instilled a sense of responsibility in me. I grew up hunting and fishing. Doing these things, the goal is not to come back with something each time. The goal is to get outside and enjoy yourself and the opportunity you have responsibly for a time. Enjoying the beauty that is there. My parents were the first ones to instill in me that appreciation and responsibility,” he said.

“The second major influence for me was the Boy Scouts [of America],” he added. “I started in 1997 as a Cub Scout. I went into Boy Scouts after that. I was in the two organizations for a combined 18 years.”

Part of the Boy Scout oath requires individuals to keep themselves physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. Van Tassel stayed true and dedicated to the organization’s values and goals. He eventually attained the top rank of Eagle Scout in 2005 and was accepted in the Vigil Honor in 2010.

While no longer active with one particular Boy Scout troop, Brandon organizes meetings of the Duluth regional alumni association for the Northern Lights Council Camps on the first Thursday of every month. It is for those who are a past or current camp staff member or just involved in scouting within the Northern Lights Council.

After finishing public school Van Tassel went on to college, subsequently earning an undergraduate degree in ecosystem studies from Bemidji State University in Minnesota. He later worked on a master’s degree in ecology from there, as well, with a thesis under the working title of The effects of soil compaction on the growth of Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) and red pine (Pinus resinosa) in urban environments.

Van Tassel left college, drove east across the State, and began working for the local nonprofit organization Community Action Duluth (CAD) in June 2015 as a crew leader. Two months later he became CAD’s Stream Corps program manager.

Despite its name, the Duluth Stream Corps is more about people than protecting the environment, though it benefits both. The program helps economically challenged individuals improve their job skills and gain on-the-job training in environmental fields.

Duluth is a community that has areas that might be considered economically depressed, he said. “There are a few neighborhoods with the ‘haves’ and a lot with the ‘have-nots’.”

Van Tassel summed up the focal point of his work as project manager on Stream Corps: “The focus is on people; the environment is outdoors. We don’t manage the environment, not directly. We manage people. An aquatic biologist told me that once, and I still believe it.”

He elaborated, “It’s twofold, the personal element and the outcomes. For personal, my goal is to train individuals who had a hard time finding jobs elsewhere. Some of the focus is to instill soft skills in them such as showing up to work on time and notifying a supervisor of any issue that arises.”

He added, “First, we build the soft skills so that they can be employed elsewhere and then to get their Minnesota applicator license for spraying pesticides. I also have to work with my employees on how to take multiple choice tests. We’re also doing SAWW (Safety and Woods Worker) chainsaw certification training. They learn chainsaw maintenance and at least two different types of cuts on trees.”

Trainees also learn about effective planting techniques, how to identify native trees, and how to use Global Navigation Satellite System equipment, which is used in their field to keep track of tree locations.

Another part of the outcomes is what they get back from their worker clients. “We have many places that give us money,” he said of donations to CAD. “Part of it is to help people with barriers to employment and part of it is to get something tangible back. We do tree and shrub plantings in places where there was some disturbance such as a flood or a blowdown. It’s kind of a ‘win-win’. They get experience and skills, and I get work from them in return.”

His Stream Team has achieved some notable results over the past 2 years, using U.S. Forest Service watershed grant funding, an unexpected abundance of donations, and lots of elbow grease.

Both of the Forest Service grants in the past 2 years involved planting trees after invasive species had been removed.

For instance, his team helped to reduce untreated water runoff along the St. Louis River shoreline. They cleared large areas of invasive plants and planted nearly 9,000 trees across 37 acres. The planted trees will soak up excess water, which can cause erosion following severe storms. An outpouring of 112 volunteers also contributed nearly 350 hours of service to their project.

Additionally, a private citizen donated 576 individual 24- to 36-inch bare-root trees to the planting cause. National Bank of Commerce added 3,000 small, containerized stock trees for planting, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources provided another 700 12- to 18-inch trees.

Van Tassel said he has worked with 12 people during the past 2 years, and 8 of the 12 benefitted directly from the training they received during the grant periods.

“One of the people that I work with never had a full-time job. He always had a part-time customer service job. This person had a tough time with early mornings and being forgetful. We’re working with him on time management and just general awareness,” he added.

“Another person quit his job as a construction worker to spend more time with his 2-year-old son,” said Van Tassel. “His prior job in construction had him always moving around the State. He also had a prior criminal record, but he was an excellent volunteer, and he had a very good attitude. He went on to other things after 6 months in the program. He got his applicator license, got his GED, and before he even took chainsaw training he was hired somewhere else.”

They’ve also worked with one homeless person so far who lived out of his car, he said. “Our biggest problem is staying in contact with people. Our training includes financial and employment coaching. That includes setting up a budget and making smarter decisions. Our employment side includes interviewing, resume writing, and job-seeking skills.”

“There are many challenges that I’ve seen for the first time on this job, but a lot of times things worked out quite well,” he added.

Van Tassel said he believes his current position is a good fit with his personal values. I believe strongly in helping others and in being stewards of the environment. The environment does not have its own voice, so we need people to be a voice for it.”

It is also a good thing to do work that helps the environment, he added. “Because we’ve done a lot to damage it, it does not bounce back immediately and fully. I view it as righting our wrongs.”

His work also serves humanity, he added. “It aligns with many of our goals, being ecologically responsible, economically responsible, and healthy.”

Today Van Tassel lives a few miles outside of downtown Duluth. “I live in Norton Park inside a community,” he said. “Duluth is long and narrow along Lake Superior and the St. Louis River. Once you get out west of Duluth, there’s a pattern of woods and then community that repeats itself. I’m in one of those communities.”

The distance between home and work allows him plenty of time to routinely explore outdoor places with Shadow, his canine companion.

He has a lot to be proud of and to reflect on. When asked what he accomplished last year, he said he got engaged, and he and his fiancé purchased a house together. “We’re scheduled to be married September 29, 2018. My fiancé’s name is Kristin. We’ve been together over 7 years. We were apart for 3 years because I was in grad school and she was in Duluth.”

Sounds like Shadow and Brandon will be enjoying the extra company of Kristin on their trail walks together in the years ahead.

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