Our People

EMPLOYEES

 

Portrait of Beth SummersElizabeth Summers,

Executive Director

Since her childhood in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Beth Summers has held a deep passion for preserving biological diversity. After receiving a B.S. in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she worked as an itinerant biologist, following her love of avian ecology to Australia, Nevada, California, Northern Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Florida. She earned an M.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Science
from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she developed assessment models for bottomland hardwood forest restorations using avian and amphibian community metrics. She was employed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, where her work focused on assessment tools for headwater streams in Appalachia.

In 2016, Beth returned to Wisconsin with her family to start a small vegetable business called Birdsong Ridge Farm, where she and her family worked to build soil composition and habitat on land previously planted with conventional corn and soybeans. In her spare time, Beth enjoys playing piano and fiddle, gardening, and paddling.

 

Shelly Gradwell-Brenneman, Conservation Programs Coordinator

Raised in a small farming community in central Iowa, Shelly credits her grandparents with inspiring her life’s work in natural resources with their example of conservation leadership in their community. Shelly attended Colorado State University where she earned a B.S. in Environmental Interpretation and completed her internship in Rocky Mountain National Park. After college, she served as a volunteer environmental and ecotourism educator in the rainforests of Costa Rica. She went on to Iowa State University, where she studied sustainable agriculture and earned a M.S. degree in Agronomy and Rural Sociology, while helping launch one of the first community supported agriculture projects in Iowa. She worked with Practical Farmers of Iowa and Iowa State University Extension on several sustainable agriculture and natural resource education projects. The call of wilderness and sustainable fishing brought her to Alaska, where for she worked for the Kenai Watershed Forum and also helped harvest wild salmon at her family fishing camp for many summers. She now lives along the West Fork near Avalanche, where she enjoys sharing the wonders of the Driftless with her two boys.

 

Head shot of young woman with gray wool hat on and outerwear with hair in braids next to lake with green canoe upsidedown behind her on the shoreGenesis Gordon, Conservation Outreach Specialist

Genesis was born in California where her parents planted a love of camping, biking, and the great outdoors in her heart. She has spent the last nine years contributing to conservation efforts in public, private, and non-profit sectors that have focused on regenerative agriculture and native habitat restoration.
Her academic research at the University of California, Santa Barbara focused on developing food landscape policy and engaging diverse communities in environmental programs. Genesis’ passion for conservation was ignited during a regenerative agriculture internship where she rehabilitated compacted, overgrazed pasture and cropland. After university, Genesis worked for a non-profit in Southern California that protected a threatened coastal lagoon and its watershed. Then in 2017 Genesis moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where she restored native wetland, woodland, prairie, and oak savanna for Polk County Conservation. More recently, Genesis worked as Restoration Coordinator for Mississippi Valley Conservancy where she focused on recruiting, educating, and empowering volunteers from across the Midwest to join her in the field performing prescribed burns, planting native trees, removing invasive species, and performing timber stand improvement.
In her spare time Genesis enjoys reducing invasive understory in the woodland of her property. She is also experimenting with chemical-free methods of control on invasive forbs and grasses in her prairie and wetland with the aim of leveraging rotational grazing and strategic paddock design for livestock to assist with this invasive management. When she isn’t battling invasives, you can find her gardening, riding her bike, and canoe camping with her husband Bryan. 

Portrait of Ben Johnston shown in orange top and jeans posing outdoors and looking into distance with hand over eyes
Ben Johnston, GIS and Habitat Specialist

Ben lived in Cincinnati, OH, for 28 years. During these formative years, he studied rocks at the University of Cincinnati, and then he headed off to the University of Maine to learn more about more rocks. In 2002, Ben moved to the upper reaches of the Kickapoo Valley. He did not mean to stay this long (20 years), but now has no desire to ever leave. His first job in Wisconsin was at Gina’s Pies Are Square, a cafe formerly in Wilton. 
 
He worked at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve for 18 or so years, completing various miscellaneous tasks when assigned, but primarily he considered himself a large-scale gardener, eradicating weeds and promoting favorable plants, all with hopes and ambitions to improve habitat. Sometime along the way, Ben completed a GIS degree at St Mary’s University of Minesota
 
Ben likes to volunteer for citizen-science programs, habitat improvement efforts, and whatever conservation-related projects that come his way. When he grows up Ben, would like to be an ecologist, a proper geologist, a bartender, an organic chemist, or possibly a software engineer.  In the meantime, he is desperately searching for his undiscovered artistic talent. 

Dave Krier, Native Plantings  Coordinator

Dave grew up on a small farm in Spring Green, Wisconsin, just an hour east of Viroqua. After earning a BS in Engineering from the University of Minnesota, he went into the US Air Force. He earned an MBA from Wright State University, and after leaving the USAF lived in Sweden for a year while working at SAAB Aircraft. He stayed in the Aerospace field for over 30 years in marketing, purchasing, program management and business development, all the while enjoying outdoor activities like camping, canoeing, bicycling, bird watching, geology, fishing and gardening. He earned his Minnesota Master Naturalist certification and participated in many citizen science projects. He is also a Wisconsin Master Naturalist Instructor.  He and his wife moved to Viroqua in 2016.

Nan Marshall, Membership and Communications Coordinator

Nan has had a life-long interest in the environment.  When she was young, her family moved to Quito, Ecuador, where she was surrounded by the splendor of the Andes and visited the Amazon where she encountered a wealth of nature and animals.  After high school, she spent a year studying forestry and conservation at Sterling Institute in Craftsbury Common, VT.  She received a BA in Biology from Carleton College in MN and then spent a year studying photography in Norway.  After many years spent working as an editor for environmental consulting companies in Chicago, IL, and Milwaukee, WI, Nan spent a few years in advertising.  She then pursued a B.S. in Interior Design with a specialty in sustainable design.  Looking to become more involved in nature and the sustainability movement, she and her husband and son moved to the Driftless Region in Viroqua, Wisconsin, in 2009.  She is happy to be taking an active part in preserving her local environment and watershed.

Youn woman with shoulder-length red hair squatting down in the woods wearing a light blue baseball cap and a dark blue T-shirt and jeans holding a red-brown, wrinkly mushroom.Summer Willis, Bookkeeper/Administrative Assistant

Summer grew up on an organic goat dairy and vegetable farm in the Driftless region of Wisconsin. After a seven-year hiatus to explore other areas of the world, Summer returned to the area in 2021. Summer’s love for hiking, biking, and exploring this unique bioregion had increased tenfold since returning. Stewardship and conservation have been common threads (even if slight) present in the all of her places of work. Summer is glad to be putting her organizational skills and analytical nature to work as VSN’s bookkeeper.

BOARD MEMBERS

Brad Robson – Chair

Brad Robson was born and raised in the Viroqua area, so in his eyes the region is truly a blessing.  Growing up on a small dairy farm in Vernon County, many of Brad’s life lessons were learned working the land, something he feels very thankful for at this stage in life.

Growing up on a family farm with the fourth and fifth generations currently being cultivated, means the world to his entire family. Conservation efforts run deep, from his father farming contour strips and using conservation practices for as long as Brad can remember, to his grandfather working for the CCC program when it started in the area.

Brad enjoys being involved with many of the area conservation programs. His upbringing has inspired and guided his interest, passion, and love for agriculture, conservation, and the outdoors. Working in the local agriculture industry his entire life is something he is very proud of.  He is excited to see how his own thoughts and ideas can help lead the Valley Stewardship Network into the future.

We are all in this together.

Portrait of an older gentleman indoors with gray hair and full, short beard wearing wire glasses and a navy T-shirtDavid Van Dyke – Vice-Chair

I live on a small farm in Vernon County that has been home for 45 years.  We raise a large garden and I raise hay, work to improve my woods, and, in recent years, have added native prairie strips.  I also enjoy bow-hunting on my property.  My wife, Betty, has been my partner for 50 years and enjoys time with our children and grandchildren.  I am a mostly retired psychiatrist and was in solo private practice for 34 years after working in community mental health for 8 years.

I have appreciated the help and support I’ve received from Valley Stewardship Network and hope to further their goals as a Board member.

Portrait of a middle-aged man standing outside with a hill in the background.  He has short, dark hair with gray at his temples and a dark T-shirt on.Tom Fassbender – Treasurer

Tom Fassbender was born on the edge of the Driftless in Black River Falls. As the son of a career Department of Natural Resources (DNR) man specializing in water management, Tom spent his youth in, on, and around many of Wisconsin’s great waterways including Chetek’s chain of lakes, the Red Cedar River, the Fox River, the Flambeau Flowage, Lake Winnebago, Green Bay, and (of course) Lake Michigan.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in education with an emphasis on biology from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, he moved out of state and then traveled the world while working as a writer, editor, journalist, and publisher. He’s recently returned to his roots in the Driftless where he and his wife of 25 years have settled into a small homestead in the Kickapoo River watershed.

Tom has a great love of natural spaces. He welcomes the opportunity to help protect this region’s unique ecosystems by lending his support to the Valley Stewardship Network, working to ensure the Driftless remains vital and vibrant for generations to come.

When he’s not typing words into a computer, he can be found exploring the obscure corners of Wisconsin or wandering along the trails of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Wildcat Mountain Park with a somewhat rambunctious dog.

Black and white portrait of a middle-aged gentleman in a suit with a curtain background.  He has short, full hair and glasses with a slight smile.B. Aaron Parker – Secretary

 

 

 

 

Chuck Bolstad portraitChuck Bolstad

Chuck Bolstad considers himself one of the most fortunate people in the world.  He wakes up every morning with his wife of 51 years, Karen, on the same small farm where he grew up and where his grandfather settled in Vernon County over 100 years ago. He recognizes that his grandfather and father engaged in agriculture in ways which are now known to be sound regenerative agriculture practices.  They always maintained and grazed a variety of animals, preserved manure as fertilizer, and valued every inch of soil that barely covered the rocky ridge that is home to the farm. During careers in education and the military, Chuck and Karen needed to move around for job opportunities.  They were able to move back to the Stump Ridge farm permanently in 1993 and return to caring for the land much like Chuck’s father and grandfather by reestablishing low density grazing, installing two erosion control dams, and recently planting several erosion-controlling prairie strips.    Now retired, Chuck spends much of his time volunteering in several local endeavors.    He wholeheartedly supports the mission of Valley Stewardship Network and is pleased to offer his support to their efforts.

Elise Zelechowski - Middle-aged woman headshot. Dark hair parted on the left, round dark glasses, large smile.Elise Zelechowski

Elise lives and farms in rural Readstown where she and her family are making wine and cider. She has worked in sustainability policy-making for over 20 years and is passionate about bringing diverse stakeholders together to solve complex challenges. She has served on numerous boards, including for an organization that she founded in Chicago — Rebuilding Exchange — with a mission to address the region’s growing waste issues. She has worked in the public, for-profit, and non-profit sectors and believes that radical collaboration is needed to address environmental quality and climate change. She is excited to join the board of directors to help advance Valley Stewardship Network’s vision of healthy ecosystems, vital communities, responsible land use, and a dynamic, sustainable economy.

CONSULTANTS

Jim Munsch portraitJim Munsch, Whole Farm Stewardship Planner

Jim studied Agricultural Engineering at Purdue as background to operating the Indiana farm that had been in the family since after the civil war.   When he was in his junior year, the farm was designated as part of a flood control project and sold to the government.  He stayed on at Purdue and got an MS in Management.  After service as an officer in the US Army in Europe, he took a job in the international department of a manufacturing company in western Wisconsin.  During employment with that company and one in Maryland, the family lived in Japan twice.

Mid-life found him hankering for a return to agriculture, so the family moved to Vernon County to ridge-top farm.  He became a part time beef producer while returning for a decade to a management position in the same company where he had worked previously.  He took early retirement and, while doing management consulting for small companies, direct marketing food producers, grazing farms, and the University of Wisconsin, he continued to raise cattle – currently producing grass-fed beef.

The family lives a mile away from the birthplace of government soil conservation: Coon Valley.  It completes a circle of Jim’s life.  In the 1940-50s, his part of the family in Indiana fully embraced soil conservation.  He was cultivating corn in strips on the contour and maneuvering around terraces before he had a driver’s license.  Saving soil is a North Star for him.

Stop by and tell us your conservation story!

We work out of a friendly storefront in downtown Viroqua where we share offices with two like-minded organizations. Our office hours are from 10am-1pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.