PDC Grad Interview Series – Jim O’Donnell of Austin’s Wildland Conservation Division

Earth Repair Corps is publishing a series of interviews with Permaculture Design Course graduates who have used the education & resources they gained from the course to further their careers in the world of sustainability.

Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC. Learn More about the Permaculture Design Course and check out our upcoming Fall 2019 PDC.

We’re continuing this series with Jim O’Donnell of The City of Austin’s Wildland Conservation Division – read more below.


About Jim

My degree is in education from The University of Texas. I was a teacher in Dripping Springs for 28 years. During the summer, I worked monitoring endangered species for different contractors. The Vireo Preserve in the 1980’s was home to the largest breeding population of Black-capped Vireos in Travis County. I was able to get the 214 acres of the Preserve set aside in 1989. So, we manage Vireo as endangered species habitat that also includes the addition of rare and unusual plant species.

For the past 10 years, I have been working for the city’s Wildland Conservation Division which manages 13,000+ acres to protect habitat for endangered species. I continue to monitor endangered species, but now with the addition of lots of restoration work. Volunteers are the key to our work and success. I love working with people who come out to Vireo to learn how to manage their land in a more regenerative way!

1. How did you become interested in sustainable design?

I grew up in the Bull Creek watershed in northwest Austin.  As a teenager, I was able to hunt, fish, and camp in our Ashe juniper-oak woodlands.  Even though the landscape had been dramatically altered by a history of clearcutting and overgrazing, there was still incredible beauty in this recovering system. 

Observing our Hill Country landscape for over 50 years now, it is clear that some areas are so degraded that only a thoughtful and knowledgeable design can bring them back.  Most land managers use fire and herbicide with the mistaken belief that the land requires such techniques. 

Our approach on the City of Austin’s Vireo Preserve is to demonstrate that real regeneration begins with soil health, rehydrating hillsides, and adding diversity at all levels of the system. 

We have been successful enough that we are beginning to apply our designs and techniques on to other properties within the City of Austin’s Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.

2. What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a permaculture design class?

Over the years, I have witnessed numerous re-vegetation projects that usually end in failure.  I was intrigued with the permaculture design system that incorporated a holistic approach to interacting with the landscape to promote sustainability.

3. Who taught you your permaculture design course and when?

I finished my permaculture design course in 2014 at the Whole Life Learning Center.  The instructors were Kirby Fry, Caroline Riley, and Taelor Monroe.  I was very impressed with the instructors’ knowledge and commitment to earth repair and sustainability. 

4. What other courses, if any, have you participated in to help you learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?

I have taken Elaine Ingham’s classes on soil biology.

5. Have you been able to apply what you have learned to your life and business?

I have been heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham on how to build healthy soils.  I am also collaborating with colleagues Dr. Brian Pickles and Monika Gorzelak, former graduate students of Dr. Suzanne Simard (University of British Columbia), to investigate the role of fungal networks in distributing resources among plants within forest ecosystems (“world wood web”).  I am also supporting research by Dr. Moriah Sandy (University of Texas at Austin) on potential medicinal and ecological properties of endophytes on Ashe junipers.  All of this research supports further knowledge on how to build regenerative ecosystems. 

All Images © Woody Welch 2019

6. Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, or pass on information about sustainable design?

I have had the opportunity to work closely with several area Master Naturalist chapters to teach about design.  The Capital Area Master Naturalists have been extremely helpful in recruiting volunteers for our project and giving us a platform to speak at presentations.  I’ve also been a guest speaker at St. Edwards University and recently at the University of Texas.  I am very excited to be a speaker at the Global Earth Repair Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington, in May.  And finally, I want to express my deep appreciation to the local permaculture groups for all the knowledge that they impart, their good work, and dedication to community.

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One Comment on “PDC Grad Interview Series – Jim O’Donnell of Austin’s Wildland Conservation Division

  1. Awesome spring newsletter and great story! Keep ’em coming.

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