"I'd really like to have a career in this," said Washington, a freshman at the University of Miami in Florida. "You're not stuck in an office all day."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center opened last September at a cost of $138 million.
The 375,000-square-foot facility has an overnight lodge, 20 classrooms and labs, a cafeteria, auditoriums, and a television production studio to produce education videos and distance-learning programs.
Most of the 7,000 people who have attended courses at the center are employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said training center Director Rick Lemon. The agency has 7,500 employees at 700 field stations across the country. They manage 100 million acres of land at 525 wildlife refuges, he said.
A lot of the courses are highly technical, such as those on procedures for recording information on Geographic Information Systems computers, said Steve Chase, special assistant to the director.
John Eaton, a fish and wildlife service cartographer from Hadley, Mass., said the training courses are needed annually to help personnel keep up with the developments.
"The technology changes so fast this is just a real good means to stay up on top of it and to find out what other regions are doing across the country," Eaton said.
Field agents armed with global positioning devices and laptop computers can go into the wilderness and record the locations of bird nests, the number of eggs in the nests, the number of eggs that were productive and other information, Chase said.
The information can then be entered into a Geographic Information Systems computer program, which the agency uses to track trends across a region, he said.
The information not only helps keep track of birds, but should a pattern of failed bird eggs emerge, it could point to environmental problems, Chase said.
The training center has brought together conservation officials from 20 countries for courses on protecting the environment and international law enforcement efforts against poaching of endangered species, Lemon said.
"A lot of people, especially in the former Soviet countries, are trying to restore their environment," Lemon said. "What happens in other parts of the world affects us here. Anything we can do to help other countries restore their environments benefits us as well."
Preserving trees and wildlife is important for several reasons, Lemon said.
"We fool ourselves if we think environmental degradation is not going to impact us," he said.
Lifesaving drugs are being found in rare tropical plants and in the slime of certain amphibians, Lemon said.
"All this is out there and it's a mystery we're just starting to tap into. We need to conserve and preserve," he said.
Nonprofit conservation organizations and corporations also attend training center courses.
"We really try to mix the students together. They find a lot of common ground here," Lemon said.
For instance, representatives from the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, International Paper and the National Association of Homebuilders attended a seminar titled "Endangered Species Partnerships on Private Lands," Lemon said.
Before the center opened, training programs usually were held at airport motels, Chase said.
"This place is designed by conservation professionals for conservation professionals," Chase said. "You never know if you're going to hit it right at an airport motel. Here you can focus on the training and then relax in the evening."