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Northview grad is a future forest mapper 

Meet the Future (update): Calder Burton

Editor’s note: It’s been nearly five years since Calder Burton inspired what quickly has become one of our most popular series, Meet The Future, where we introduce some of our area’s most exceptional and uniquely talented students. SNN, which is also celebrating its first decade, recently caught up with Calder in one of his happy places: a park in Grand Ledge.

Name: Calder Burton

School: 2021 Northview High graduate

Passion: Forestry

Northview — Calder Burton wanted to meet up at a park between the Northview Public Schools neighborhood where he grew up and Lansing, where he now attends college. 

A park, because outdoor, natural settings are his happy places. He grew up exploring and learning about forested areas, and studying them has become his life’s ambition.

Fitzgerald Park in Grand Ledge, he explained as he and this reporter made our way down a moderately steep path strewn with last fall’s leaves, is home to sedimentary rock that is between 500,000 and 300 million years old. Before he took a seat on one, he checked to make sure he wouldn’t crush any polypodium virginianum, or rock fern.

He learned about the park and its unique natural offerings by studying Michigan rock data and U.S. geological maps. “(The park) is a case study for lower Michigan, like, if you are in any college geological course this is where you go.”

Calder’s mom, Shannon Burton, told SNN reporter Morgan Jarema when they first spoke in 2019 of her eldest son that “It’s been his life since he was tiny: plants, bugs, reptiles. Anything to do with the outdoors.”

Northview High School grad Calder Burton, left, leads a turtle show-and-tell for youngsters at the Northville Park Association in summer 2022 (courtesy)

Before he graduated in 2021, there was a room in his mother’s house the family called “the zoo room.” Most of that room’s inhabitants — reptiles, amphibians and a handful of fish — have moved with him to his apartment near Michigan State University, where he is now a third-year forestry and natural resources management major.

Plants are his main passion. His focus: forest ecology and biogeography, how forests work, what makes them work and how they are changing. 

“I feel like they’re underrepresented, like a lot of people just think of them as static organisms,” he told SNN in 2019. “Their evolutionary history — how they grow and react to the environment — is actually kind of crazy. They’re keystones; without them, nothing else would be alive. There’s so much to learn about them.”

While in high school, he honed and shared that knowledge as a scholarship recipient to attend and participate in the Midwest Reptile and Amphibian Symposium, a member of one of the first groups of youngsters and a junior counselor at Calvin University’s summer nature center camp. He also participated in the Van Andel Research Institute’s summer student academy, volunteered at Calvin University’s Bunker Interpretive Center greenhouse and earned the Junior Herper Award from the Midwest Herpetological Society. His presentation at the fall 2018 symposium was on tiger salamanders and his efforts in captive breeding.

He said the 2019 SNN profile spurred a television news spotlight in his senior year and that he included the article in his application to MSU. 

“I think that definitely helped me get into college,” he said. “Through COVID, because schooling got so messed up, I think (MSU) using that as a reference definitely helped me.”

These days, Calder’s studies are focused on researching long-term changes to forests. He was scheduled to speak at the American Society of Foresters annual meeting, and as a member of MSU’s forestry club, he speaks to young students at Lansing-area schools. Calder also helps lead high-schoolers during FFA forestry competitions and talks to them about the many types of forestry careers.

He plans eventually to go to graduate school, either in Northern Michigan or Wisconsin, and hopes to travel to Tasmania and Southeastern Australia to see the large, flowering eucalyptus regnans in “some of the coolest forests on the planet.” His research focus is planned, however, to be in the U.S.

“As the climate changes, I’m really interested in mapping tree species that live on islands, or on top of mountain ranges … climate refugia. My kind of area I’d really like to get into is understanding these changes and how long we have with these trees before they are just gone. 

“Each one we lose is a distinctive loss in evolutionary history. A lot of ecosystems are held up by them. So, (his work would lead to) a kind of ecological triage. We don’t even understand what we can save yet.”

Read more from Northview: 
Plant whisperer, reptile rescuer, amphibian aficionado
Change begins with love

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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