Published April 29, 2014
“I wanted to live in the middle of nowhere and plant trees,” Jajean Rose-Burney recalls of his hopes for a stint in the Peace Corps. Instead, he wound up behind a desk in a big bureaucracy in Mexico’s fourth-largest city, Puebla.
“This,” he thought, “was exactly what I was trying to get away from.”
You don’t get to choose your own assignment in the Peace Corps, but Rose-Burney wasn’t ready to spend two years in an office at La Secretaria del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales — or SEMARNAT — Mexico’s equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Then again, the search for “what I really want to do with my life” has never been cut and dried for Rose-Burney. It has been a thoroughly recursive process, one of trial and error, rinse and repeat. And even in places he thought he was trying to get away from, there were opportunities.
Rose-Burney, a 2007 graduate of the UB master of urban planning program, stuck it out in the big city.
“I’ve got two years,” he told himself. “How am I going to make the most of this?”
Not long into his tenure there — an assignment he shared with his wife, Ana Hernandez-Balzac, also an MUP grad — Rose-Burney came upon the Valsequillo Reservoir, a water body and wetland of more than 58,000 acres on the edge of the City of Puebla. His Mexican colleagues had told him the reservoir was dead, polluted, beyond repair.
But Rose-Burney saw something else: there were people fishing in the reservoir, farmers tending to fields on the banks of the reservoir, drawing water from it for their crops. And there were birds, lots of them, some that exist only in the region, some on their long migratory journeys north and south.
“It ain’t dead,” Rose-Burney told his supervisors. “You gotta think differently. This wetland, screwed up as it is, has all these values.”
He proposed to them that Valsequillo be nominated for The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, known as the Ramsar Convention and named in honor of the Iranian city on the Caspian Sea where the convention was established in 1971.
To his surprise, they said yes. Later, he urged them to consider a proposal that the reservoir be dedicated as a state park, and again, they agreed. But there was an enormous amount of work to do to achieve those goals, to demonstrate the value of the reservoir and to strengthen it.
One of the keys was to document just how many species of birds the reservoir supported. Rose-Burney, a lifelong birdwatcher, was well prepared to lead the effort. After a year-long study of the birds of the reservoir, he and some of his Mexican colleagues researched, wrote and illustrated Las Aves del Municipio de Puebla — the Birds of the City of Puebla — and got a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development along with local funds to print 1,500 copies.
“It’s something that completely changed what I wanted to do with my life,” Rose-Burney recalled, and something that led to his time in the Peace Corps. “That’s where I wanted to be.”
Rose-Burney and six colleagues also produced a second book, The Birdwatching Hotspots of the State of Puebla, Mexico, documenting the best places to see the nearly 600 individual species of birds that are endemic to, or migrate through, the State of Puebla. Without this book there is no other readily available information about birds or where to see them in Puebla — and therefore no reason for birdwatchers to go there. “People go to Mexico for beaches and pyramids,” Rose- Burney said. “Now they can go for birdwatching and tourism that supports conservation.”
Rose-Burney even started a birdwatching club while he was there, collecting e-mails of interested parties and one day just calling a meeting. With the help of a bus provided by the City of Puebla, the club soon took off, attracting kids, older people, students and a mix of bird enthusiasts.
The project Rose-Burney instigated was recognized in 2013 by the American Planning Association with its Pierre L’Enfant International Planning Award. The satisfaction in achievement was its own reward.
“I didn’t get to be in a National Park,” he said jokingly, “but I could create one.”
In a sense, Rose-Burney was always preparing for his work in Mexico. But he was also always readjusting his notions about what he wanted to do with his life.
As a child growing up in a nature preserve — his father, Jay Burney, was an environmental educator at the Beaver Meadow Audubon Center — he always loved the outdoors. As a child growing up in the city, he always wanted to help rebuild Buffalo. He went on to UB on an honors scholarship and, after a few wrong turns, found the Environmental Design program, from which he graduated in 2005, and then the master of urban planning program.
Near the end of his graduate study, Rose-Burney spent a summer at the school’s Sustainable Futures study abroad program in Monteverde, Costa Rica, working on planning projects to support eco-tourism development in the mountain “cloud forest.”
Along the way, he provided student leadership in an undergraduate studio on the redevelopment of East Aurora’s Roycroft Campus. The Roycroft project was engrossing, Rose-Burney recalls, because it brought so many issues — history, environment, tourism, economic development, design, landscape and more — within a single frame.
His performance on the Roycroft project won him a job offer at the School of Architecture and Planning's Urban Design Project, where he devoted much of his effort to producing The Olmsted City — The Buffalo Olmsted Park System: Plan for the 21st Century.
Earlier this year, not long after his return from Mexico, Rose- Burney accepted a position with the Western New York Land Conservancy, where he is working to preserve natural lands for posterity — like the Mill Road Scenic Overlook in East Aurora and the Stella Niagara Preserve in Lewiston. He’s also maintained his connection with the Urban Design Project, facilitating a working team on land use and development for the One Region Forward sustainability plan.
It is what Rose-Burney always wanted to be doing — for now.