Research in Action — Nicole Erickson, Crow Wing County

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into this line of work.

I grew up in Effie, Minnesota, a tiny town north of Grand Rapids. Growing up I was outside a lot and have so many great memories of being outdoors and fishing the Big Fork River. I knew that I wanted to find a way to somehow work in those environments for a living. By the time I was in high school my mom had gone back to school for an Associates Degree in Natural Resources. She would bring her schoolwork home and show me the plants she was learning--I was even more intrigued. In high school I joined the youth conservation corp and got involved in hands-on conservation work, which led me to pursue my own degree in natural resources, first at Itasca Community College, then completed my Bachelors in Water Resource Management at UW - Steven’s Point.

Between then and now I had a variety of positions---I spent a summer gill-netting invasive trout in Yellowstone, and then worked on multiple watersheds in Minnesota, helping with planning and water quality monitoring. I was hired as an Environmental Service Specialist for Crow Wing County almost two years ago.

Tell us about your work for Crow Wing County.

My work is one part water planning and one part AIS management. I’m the first full-time specialist the county has hired with an exclusive focus on water and AIS, so I do a lot of program building, planning, and networking, especially with our public and lake associations. We recently brought the watercraft inspection program in-house, away from a third party staffing agency. I think this has increased the quality of our AIS Plan for a number of reasons, but it does create a lot of extra work: hiring, recruiting, and supervising 60 to 80 inspectors every year. Thankfully, this season I’m getting some help in the day-to-day supervision with a lead inspector assistant that the County is hiring for the first time.

That sounds like a lot to manage! How are you incorporating research into this process?

We were one of the first counties to pilot the AIS Explorer models with MAISRC and it’s been a cool experience for me as a manager to use the new online dashboard on my own—I love to geek out a little bit and try all of these different scenarios. The models helped us identity the most important launches to place our watercraft inspectors with a budget that allows us to cover 42 public accesses in the county. This year I started with the model outputs, then had to filter out all the lakes without public accesses and then to further narrow that list down to 42 landings, I also factor in the County’s watercraft inspection data. The County’s boat counter data helps predict the day and time the accesses are the busiest and that helps with scheduling. I use our inspections per-hour data to see which accesses have the most inspections per-hour, based on a three-year average. Boater education is also an important aspect, as well as prevention is our main goal for our program, so I’m balancing these two aims. The AIS Explorer helps us see the data on boater movement in a way that wasn’t possible before, so I feel a lot more confident that we’re making the right call with these important decisions.

So it’s winter, the lakes are frozen, and you have nothing to do, right?

Very funny, Meg! Fall and winter are actually super busy times of year. In the fall I summarize and present our program results and highlights to all the commissioners, lake associations, and other stakeholders. Then I start on the annual revisions to our AIS Prevention Plan and incorporate the stakeholder feedback and our data, so between the public comment periods, all the meetings, and plan revisions, publication, and budgeting, that’s a big part of my “off-season.”

By February, we’re already starting to recruit for watercraft inspectors. March is interviewing and selecting our staff, and April is the month for training watercraft inspectors. The winter goes by way too fast, if you ask me! While there are some slower periods, AIS prevention at the county level really is a constant, year-round effort. And any down time is filled with my duties as a water planner for the County.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

There are a lot of great things about my job, but it’s really all about protecting lakes for me. I love being a part of that. I enjoy working with young people on AIS education, and outreach with schools and camps is always really fun. I’ve definitely missed that part of my work during the pandemic. I also really enjoy working with the watercraft inspectors and lake association members—they’re great people and so passionate about keeping Crow Wing County Minnesota’s Favorite Place!

Nicole Erickson, pictured above, is the Environmental Services Specialist focusing on AIS and water planning for Crow Wing County.