Teenage Nature Conservancy volunteer oversees 115-acre preserve

Swanson trimmed a tree that hung over the trail at the Jim Beam Nature Preserve in Jessamine County. "I hate to cut these live branches," he said after trying to lean the tree upright.
Swanson trimmed a tree that hung over the trail at the Jim Beam Nature Preserve in Jessamine County. "I hate to cut these live branches," he said after trying to lean the tree upright. Herald-Leader

Henry Clay High School junior Ben Swanson, the son of two college professors, loves research and debate, and he hopes to one day go into international development in sub-Saharan Africa.

But he also has discovered a love of chopping logs and hauling gravel — getting out into the world and working hard.

"It's a nice kind of balance to my regular schoolwork," said Ben, 16.

After discovering a love of the nitty-gritty work of conservation during a stint volunteering in Alaska, Ben has continued to work locally, and he recently was named a steward of Jessamine and Garrard counties' Jim Beam Nature Preserve by the Kentucky chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

"I wish we had 50 of him," said Laura Cook, a conservancy volunteer who oversees the stewards, who keep track and remedy trail conditions and generally look out for the land they are assigned.

Cook was reluctant at first to entrust such a young man with the task of overseeing 115 acres, she said. Most of the conservancy's stewards are retirement age. But Ben impressed her with his work ethic, his communications skills and his willingness to follow through, she said.

"He just seems to be very self-motivated, and that is just hands-down impressive right there," Cook said. Plus, she said, he asks lots of questions and keeps people informed about what he is doing.

Ben said his parents, Mark Swanson and Nancy Schoenberg, who are both professors at the University of Kentucky, have always involved him and his sister, Rachel, in hiking and enjoying the outdoors. He said his love of conservation kicked in when he volunteered last summer for the National Park Service in Denali National Park in Alaska as part of the Student Conservation Association. That work was far from glamorous. The rainy drizzle was constant, and getting up at 5:30 a.m. to haul gravel for six hours was a typical work day.

But he enjoyed working closely with five other high school students and having his brain and body do something outside the norm, he said.

"What I was doing was just hard, physical labor," he said. But, "it is very directly gratifying. A month later, I can see that I have constructed a section of trail."

When he returned to Lexington, he researched which local organizations did conservation work. He started by volunteering on work days with The Nature Conservancy, as part of a group of volunteers who go out together to clear a trail, attack invasive plants or pick up litter.

"I was the youngest one there by about 20 years," he said of the first day he volunteered.

Cook said it quickly became apparent that he was a right fit for the steward position when it became available.

As a high school junior, Ben could leave in another year or so for college.

"I'd like to go out of state, and I'd like to go north," he said of his college search status.

Cook said she's grateful for whatever volunteer time the conservancy gets from Ben.

"Whoever gets him (next) in whatever capacity, they are going to be very lucky."

To learn more

For more information about The Nature Conservancy go to and follow the "Where We Work" links to Kentucky.

For information about volunteering in Kentucky, email Laura Cook at

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