2023 YSE Alumni Association Award Winners

Meet the accomplished alumni who were recognized at YSE Reunion 2023 for their outstanding environmental work — including restoring the largest estuary in the U.S., helping Indigenous communities gain a larger role in firefighting and land management, and protecting many thousands of acres of ecologically significant lands in South Carolina.

Championing the Chesapeake Bay

Ann Pesiri Swanson
Ann Pesiri Swanson ’83 MES

For four decades, Ann Pesiri Swanson ’83 MES has used her science and communication skills to restore and protect the largest estuary in the U.S. — the Chesapeake Bay.

Swanson, who received the Distinguished Alumni Award, began her work at a time when the Chesapeake Bay watershed — which spans six states, holds more than 15 trillion gallons of water, and supports more than 3,600 species of plant and animal life — was seeing significant declines in water quality and fisheries diversity, as well as the loss of forests and wetlands.

As grassroots director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and then executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, Swanson brought together scientists, federal and state legislators, and environmental advocates to forge agreements protecting the health of the 200-mile-long estuary. During her 35-year tenure, the commission helped establish a phosphate detergent ban in every state in the watershed; flush fees and dedicated funding to pay for upgrades to sewage treatment plants and septic systems; aggressive agricultural conservation programs to mitigate nitrogen runoff; nutrient limits on lawn fertilizers; and blue crab harvest limits. Now more than 20% of the watershed land has been preserved, and there has been a 40% reduction in nitrogen pollution of the bay. 

“The work that I did — which was a joy to do — is but one chapter among many in the book of bay restoration. We have a long way to reach the epilogue. We must never, ever give up.” Swanson says.

Increasing the Indigenous Role in Firefighting 

Kawahara in US Forest Service uniform
Monte Kawahara ’13 MF

Forester and federal wildland firefighter Monte Kawahara ’13 MF has been on the frontlines of fighting some of the most deadly and destructive wildfires to date in the West while serving on firefighting crews for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Kawahara received the Prospect Street Award, which recognizes a recent YSE graduate who has made significant contributions in the environmental field and exemplifies the spirit of the School. 

Kawahara believes helping Indigenous communities gain a larger role in firefighting and land management and improving working conditions for all federal firefighters are essential steps in preventing and combating the destructive fires.

“If you want to get at the source, there are two basic steps,” says Kawahara, who is now a fire management specialist at the BIA’s Pacific Region. “First, listen to Indigenous fire practitioners. They need to have a seat at the table, and they need to have land returned ... Second, you will need to retain federal wildland firefighters to do the work instead of losing them due to working conditions and wages. This is now a life and safety emergency.”

Identifying Conservation Priorities

Tom Kohlsaat
Tom Kohlsaat ’73 MFS

From populating an early conservation database using IBM key punch cards to protecting many thousands of acres of ecologically significant lands in South Carolina, Tom Kohlsaat ’73 MFS, who received the Distinguished Alumni Award, has always been guided by the conservation needs of the day. 

While working at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) after graduating from YSE, Kohlsaat created software to help identify top conservation priorities for a database, which is still in use today. Now run by NatureServe, a nonprofit conservation organization, it identifies conservation priorities by collecting and organizing data on rare, threatened, and endangered species and ecosystems from each of the 50 state heritage programs, along with several Canadian provinces and territories, so that action can be taken. 

While at TNC, Kohlsaat also successfully lobbied to transform its South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources department into a Heritage Trust Program under South Carolina’s natural resources department, giving it additional environmental protections as a Heritage Preserve and Sites area. The heritage preserve program was the first of its kind in the U.S. and prompted a movement to create similar programs across the country. 

Kohlsaat is still active in conservation, working with the Gills Creek Watershed Association to guide restoration and protection of a degraded urban watercourse. He is also working on efforts to conserve endangered freshwater bivalve mollusks.