UM Scholar Blazes Own Trail En Route to Prestigious Udall Award

Tess Jarden is a 2023 recipient of the prestigous Udall Scholarship.


MISSOULA – University of Montana student Tessa Jarden first developed a love for the outdoors while exploring the salt marshes and creeks of her hometown in southeast North Carolina. During her 2017 field season with a Montana Conservation Corps wildlands restoration crew, that love transformed into a calling. 

Now, six years after blazing her trail en route to a career in public service, Jarden has earned a prestigious Udall Scholarship.

“We live in a huge country with lots of forests and landscapes that need our care,” Jarden said after being notified of the award. “I want to be in a position to help provide that care.”

Jarden’s journey to being a Udall Scholar was not a traditional one.

She spent the summer of 2017, her first in Montana, sleeping in a child-sized secondhand tent she purchased for $35 – confessing she had to contort sideways to fit inside. She returned for another season with the Montana Conservation Corps in 2019, this time as a member of their Women’s’ Fire Crew.

In 2020, after her first season fighting wildland fire as an engine crew member in Mesa Verde National Park, she decided to take the next step in her academic journey.

“I moved to Missoula and enrolled at UM so I could pursue a more scientifically informed career in conservation,” Jarden said. “I wanted to dig deeper into the underlying principles and learn more about the various species and ecosystems that I love working with so much.” 

Today, even after thousands of hours camping and working in sun, wind, rain, snow and smoke across the Rocky Mountain West, her passion for conservation work only continues to grow stronger.

Since arriving at UM, Jarden has excelled in the classroom as a student in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, pursuing a major ecosystem science and restoration with minors in wildlife biology and climate change studies.

In the summer months between academic commitments, she continued to fight fire as a member of Missoula Helitack, a Forest Service helicopter crew. This upcoming summer, she will be conducting research on forest responses to fire and drought as a Montana Space Grant Consortium intern in UM’s Sala Lab, in addition to spending two weeks in the Yukon Flats of Alaska conducting fire ecology field research with the Higuera Lab.

Jarden is one of 55 students across the country to be selected as a 2023 Udall Scholar, considered among the most prestigious undergraduate awards in the fields of natural resource conservation. She is the latest UM student to receive the award, reaffirming UM’s status as one of the nation’s top producers of Udall Scholars since the award’s founding in 1992.

As part of her scholarship, Jarden will spend a portion of her summer in Tucson, Arizona, alongside other scholars from across the nation. She also will receive $7,000 for academic expenses.

Jarden chose to enroll at UM for three specific reasons: Missoula’s unique access to the outdoors, the opportunity to learn by doing in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation and the community of acceptance UM offers to students who seek a nontraditional path toward graduation.

“Tess has been one of the most motivated, curious and focused students with whom I have worked,” said UM Professor of Fire Ecology Philip Higuera. “She demonstrates an exceptional commitment to environmental issues and potential to positively shape our future.”

When asked to reflect on those who helped her unleash her passion for ecology and conservation, Jarden acknowledges the list is long, but then is quick to shout out the Montana Conservation Corps and the Missoula Helitack fire crew for training and supporting her during the early years of her career in public service.

After graduating next spring, Jarden plans to enroll directly in graduate school. Her list includes some of the most prominent ecology programs in the world – including UM.

Her ultimate goal is to launch a career in research ecology to address the unprecedented challenges facing conservation and restoration. She wants to provide the information necessary to ensure the future health and resilience of ecosystems across our public lands.

“As we enter an uncertain new era of ecological crisis and climate change, our nation’s land management agencies will need balanced, data-driven guidance as they develop policies to meet unprecedented challenges in conservation and restoration,” Jarden added. “In my careers as a research ecologist, I intend to make that guidance my life’s work.” 


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659,