Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features David Neils, career mentor, photographer and natural resources expert.
I have had the pleasure of collaborating with David on ideas for promoting career pathways in science and GIS, connecting people with the environment, connecting with students over the years through David’s mentoring organization, and viewing hundreds of David’s wildlife and wild lands photographs and videos. As I work with students on their career goals, two of David’s statements frequently seep into my mind: (1) Set high standards for yourself; even higher than your professors or teachers; (2) It is important, even while you are still a student, to connect with someone who is working in the field(s) in which you are interested. Therefore, it is my pleasure to introduce David to Directions Magazine readers.
I asked David to describe his current position and his background to acquaint the reader with him. He said, “For the last 25 years, I've been the executive director of Mentored Pathways, an academic and career-based mentoring program that supports youth to pursue their interests successfully, matching them one on one with professionals from around the world. I continue to serve in this role. Recently I've launched Wild Nature Media that combines many of my interests and energy related to wilderness and wildlife conservation, outdoor photography and videography, and learning all I can about apex predators, beginning with mountain lions. My goal with Wild Nature Media is to support wildlife conservation, research and education.
I asked David, “What was the most important thing (class, book, person, event, or something else) that convinced you to enter the fields that you ended up pursuing?” To which he said, “Growing up in Libby, Montana, I was surrounded by incredibly wild and beautiful country. Our family spent a lot of time in the outdoors. There were trails headed into the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness area within just a few miles of our house. A few years after this area was designated an official wilderness area in 1964, we backpacked into Granite Lake, a six-mile hike crossing Granite Creek several times before arriving at the lake. Everything seemed larger than life, from the huge ferns growing along the trail to the cedar trees towering overhead. When we arrived at the lake, the rest of my family were unloading their packs in the small campground and I ran down to the shore of the lake and was speechless as I listened to the waves lapping at my feet and stared at this towering mountain, A Peak, on the south side.”
View of A Peak, Montana. (Photo: David Neils)
“Waterfalls tumbled into the lake, some not making it before the wind sent the spray back up or sideways. I knew right there that my experience was very different from everyone else in my family. I was changed. This view, this experience was unique to me. My dad saw me standing along the shore and came down and stood reverently next to me, appreciating the same view. After a few minutes he said, ‘It's beautiful, isn't it?’ I replied, ‘Dad, I'm going to be doing a lot of this.’ He smiled, both of us continuing to soak in the view, and said, ‘I know.’ He walked back up to the campground, leaving me there as I embraced a part of me I knew was unique, powerful, life changing. This is the view I had along the shore of Granite Lake. This experience resulted in a lifelong passion for truly wild places, an early career in forestry, wildlife conservation and recently launching Wild Nature Media. Throughout my childhood I climbed nearly every peak in this wilderness area, including A Peak.”
I asked David to name a person, class, or topic that most inspired him during his career. He said, “Mr. Clawson, my neighbor and childhood mentor, invested an enormous amount of time in me from age four until I left for the University of Montana at age 18. He was an inventor and invited me to be involved whenever I took the time to do so. Never talking to me like a kid who was in the way, he went overboard to take my input seriously and would make changes to his inventions based on what I shared. I felt important and that the thoughts I had counted for something. When I was six years old my mom called Mr. Clawson to thank him for all the time he was spending with me. She made the call when she knew I was within earshot. She thanked him over and over again and said, ‘Bob, there are some things you're doing with David that we can't do because we are his parents.’ After that phone call I walked into the kitchen, looked up at my mom and said, ‘I'm a lucky boy...right?’ She swept me up in her arms and said, ‘David, when you get older, you will look back on your childhood and the time you're spending with Mr. Clawson will end up being the greatest gift in your life.’ I felt very lucky and grateful. I said, ‘Mom, when I get older, I will be a Mr. Clawson and support other children.’ That came together when I was thirty-five, working as a software engineer for HP. Through Mentored Pathways we've had the honor of supporting 50,000 youth in eleven countries with mentoring support from 3,000 professionals spanning 30 countries. Looking back now, I realize, more than ever, the power of encouragement and really investing in others. I was a lucky boy.”
Given all of his accomplishments, I wondered what project or initiative David is the proudest of being a part. He said, “Starting the mentoring program is what I'm most proud of. It has changed my life and the lives of many youth, mentors and teachers since 1995. But right behind this is sharing my passion for wild places, wildlife conservation and teaching and encouraging others to lean into the natural world, moving from simply surviving to thriving in the outdoors. After being face-bumped by a large male mountain lion in the Never Summer Wilderness 14 years ago, I devoted much of my free time to learning all I could about these apex predators, their habits and habitat. I learned some things along the way that I've shared with wildlife biologists, allowing them to be more effective in their work. For example, I pondered the question, ‘What factors are related to male mountain lion scrapes that may lead to understanding these elusive predators better and result in capturing more video footage?’ A mountain lion scrape is made by moving duff (material on top of the soil, including pine needles, leaves, sticks, moss, snow and other debris) into a pile about eight inches high or higher, and then the lion urinates on it to mark a spot. It's like a fire hydrant in the woods. Over four years I found numerous scrape sites along a ridge near my home and plotted all of these scrape sites on Google Earth. There were two consistent factors that stood out. First, where there were Ponderosa Pine trees, a male lion would make a scrape where the duff layer was three inches or more. That is a lot of material on top [of] the soil and I realized the only place where the duff layer was that thick was where the trees were clumped together. Second, the lion would come back to the scrape site within 7-10 days almost 100% of the time.
One of David’s thousands of stunning wildlife images (Photo: David Neils).
“I wondered if what I learned was unique to this ridge or could be duplicated in other areas. I traveled 75 miles north and found a similar ridge where I knew there was a good chance of lion activity, simply focused on where the Ponderosa Pine was clumped together, and that is where I found all of the scrape sites. As I started to share this information with mountain lion experts, I knew I had found something unique. That experience made me realize the power of citizen science and asking questions that may take months, years or a lifetime to answer. I now teach workshops for people all over the world to share what I've learned and continue to learn about mountain lions and other apex predators.”
What is the most important thing David thinks we need to work on as the geography, education, science and geospatial community? “GIS professionals know how powerful a tool like ArcGIS can be for solving very complex problems where you have to look at several variables simultaneously,” David said. “For me, and I'm guessing for many others, the best way to learn GIS is in the application of doing something that solves a real problem, ideally something I'm interested in. Creating opportunities for students to solve real problems where a tool like ArcGIS is critical will make a big difference in how many students and adults (teachers and others) learn the power of this platform and methodology. It cannot be taught well without simultaneously providing practical application. I have visited classrooms around the world and most teachers and students have no idea what the three letters GIS refer to. Starting with a real problem to solve as the first step and then introducing the necessary tools and methodology makes a lot more sense than teaching GIS separate from application.
“In addition to my passion for mountain lions, I also spend a lot of time working on conservation projects related to birds, especially raptors, including owls, hawks, eagles and falcons. Migrating birds provide one of the best data sources for studying climate change. Presently, it is very expensive to track where birds migrate using geolocation devices attached to the birds. With Barn Owls, for example, it required a backpack unit that is connected to a harness that goes around their wings, costing over $2000 per bird. Not only is it expensive but it can also be dangerous for birds. Ideally, what we need, is a leg band device that poses no threat to the bird and costs a few hundred dollars at most. This would radically change how we study climate change and provide answers that we currently don't have.”
What is David’s advice to a new professional in these fields? “When you are starting out in a new profession, you are not considered a leader. You're simply learning the ropes. During this time, which spans years, it is critical that you are connected with the leaders and tracking the issues that keep them up at night. This is the best way to make a difference in the field while developing a powerful network. The opportunities that will come your way with this approach are far greater than anything that will happen with a 4.0 GPA. It is also the quickest path to becoming a leader yourself. Strive to make a difference for others as you journey forward. Don't focus on yourself. True joy, happiness and success comes from making a difference.”
One of my favorite quotes from David is, “We invest in what we care about, we care about what we have knowledge of, and the best knowledge comes from rolling up our sleeves and making a difference.”
To find out more about David and his projects, see: