In response to Alan Campbell’s Legends of Conservation column, the Michigan Out-of-Doors editorial staff sought to highlight individuals who might someday make their way into those pages. The Rising Stars in Conservation column seeks to introduce readers to the next generation of natural resource conservation professionals, sharing their experiences, their voices, their ambitions and their outlook on the future of the field. Leaders today look different, hold different positions and have been trained differently than traditional conservationists and they are worthy of an introduction.
By Charlie Booher
Certain places around this great state seem to disproportionately produce conservationists — places so unique or so carefully protected that they beg folks to care about them. People who spend time in the Porcupine Mountains, learn to swim along the shores of Lake Superior or who experience wilderness for the first time in the Pigeon River Country, under the mentorship of those who love the outdoors, tend to care for and steward those places themselves. However, it also takes a certain kind of person to dedicate their life to this cause. Sarah Topp grew up stomping around the Pigeon River Country State Forest and cut her teeth as a conservationist and an outdoorswoman in Hemingway’s “Big Wild.” That time built a strong foundation for her career in wildlife conservation and natural resource management.
Today, Topp spends her days in the woods and waters of the Western Upper Peninsula and Northern Wisconsin. Still, her roots in Michigan run deep — and through Michigan United Conservation Clubs and the Huron Pines Americorps program.
Growing up in Gaylord, Topp gathered inspiration from the large swaths of public land that were just outside her backdoor.
“The time I spent outside hunting, fishing and paddling really made me who I am today, especially the time in the Pigeon River Country,” Topp said. “It’s such a special place and so different from other pieces of public land in Michigan because of the backcountry experience. If it weren’t for my parents and my siblings, I wouldn’t have had nearly the same experiences in the outdoors, nor the drive to protect those places.”
Hunting with her dad and siblings and angling with her grandparents only increased her passion for the outdoors and drove her to spend most of her free time in the backcountry. In her final years of high school, Sarah knew that she wanted to pursue a career that would have her outside and allow her to share her passion for the outdoors with others while also improving those places.
“I always thought that I would be a wildlife biologist or conservation officer,” Topp said. “But after spending time in classes, I realized that I wanted to help connect people with wildlife and that there is more to conservation than science or law enforcement. Learning about all of the different opportunities was pretty overwhelming for me because there were so many options and ways in which I could pursue conservation as a career.”
Biology degree (wildlife management) at NMU
Topp started going to college by running cross country and track at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL; however, the suburban sprawl of the Chicagoland area left quite a bit to be desired. So far removed from the wild places of Michigan, Sarah transferred to Northern Michigan University (NMU) and pursued the remainder of her degree program. Her classwork in Marquette offered far more exciting opportunities for research and fieldwork, including studies on wildlife crossings and elk population dynamics.
“It was incredible to be just 10 minutes away from doing any of the many outdoor activities that I love,” Topp said. “It was an awesome place to spend a few years, and I am so glad that I had that experience before starting as a professional.”
Sarah started her professional career here at Michigan United Conservation Clubs as a member of the Huron Pines AmeriCorps program. In those early years, she helped to jumpstart the award-winning On The Ground program and was eventually hired full-time to coordinate the program.
“Bringing people together under the common cause of conservation was so special to me,” Topp said. “It was incredible to experience Michigan’s public lands in this way — I got to see so many interesting places and, eventually, help improve them for the public. This time in my life clarified my passion for wildlife and wild places.”
After a few years in Lansing, Topp headed back north to coordinate the Huron Pines Americorps program in Gaylord — the same program that initially brought her to MUCC. Topp spent the next two and a half years coordinating the program and mentoring more than 60 young people through their term of service.
“Moving back ‘up north’ did include a challenging shift in work,” Topp said. “I went from working outside almost every day to being behind a desk most of the time, but I had a huge passion for the program and loved work that was being done with this huge group of young people.”
Today, Sarah works just across the border in Marinette County, Wisconsin as a county conservationist for the county’s Land Information Department, the equivalent of Michigan’s county conservation district program. However, her home is in the Western Upper Peninsula, so she makes a daily commute across the border and helps Wisconsinites with issues of private land conservation.
Like many others in the field, Sarah’s commitment to conservation extends far beyond her day job. She regularly volunteers with the Michigan Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) and serves as a leader of Artemis Sportswomen, a National Wildlife Federation program.
As the vice-chair of the Michigan Chapter of BHA, Topp works closely with the staff of that organization to coordinate members and volunteers around a variety of causes. From picking up trash at local state game areas to coordinating outdoor skill-building events, Sarah does her best to stay actively involved in this arena. Her real passion is teaching other adults how to hunt — particularly women and members of the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+) community.
“I first started working to offer events for people in these groups because I received overwhelmingly positive feedback on social media,” Topp said. “When I posted on Facebook to see if there would be interest in this, people came out in droves, frequently saying that they were interested in taking part in these activities with like-minded people. That comfort is so important when dealing with something like hunting where you’re truly dealing with life and death. Community is so important for conservation.”
As hunters and anglers decline in numbers, Topp sees the need to recruit new faces to the activities that she loves — and she continues to do so on her own and with organizations like BHA and Artemis.
According to the Artemis website, these sportswomen and conservationists “do more than hunt and fish. We have an obligation to give as well as receive and to embody an inclusive culture. The complete sportswoman can skin a deer, land a burly brown trout, navigate in the wild, and she knows her game commissioners and politicians, knows wildlife laws, defends all wildlife, advocates on their behalf, and teaches others these skills.” Sarah fits right in and has helped situate the staff of Artemis in dealing with issues specific to Michigan and the Western Great Lakes more broadly.
However, all of these efforts are not without their challenges. Topp described her difficulties in finding high-quality employees and stable employment of her own.
“This field is really challenging,” Topp said. “There are a lot of people competing for jobs that come with a really great lifestyle, but not always the best pay or benefits. It’s hard to build a career, no less a family, without this personal and financial security.”
For those looking to pursue a career in this field, Topp offers this:
“Don’t narrow yourself into one area/topic of conservation — be a generalist and work to know a little bit about a lot of things. Volunteer if you can and get to know the people who work in this arena,” she said. “Let yourself flow with the opportunities that are available and continue to apply for work as it comes up.”
In the near future, Topp hopes to start up an Americorps program of her own as she continues to serve organizations that aim to conserve the natural resources of the Great Lakes State. We are lucky to have conservationists like Topp who care deeply about our state and the wild places that we so love to explore. While the cheeseheads may get to benefit from her expertise for now, it’s obvious that her work and her passion for the land will always continue to benefit the outdoors of the Great Lakes State.