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  • Writer's pictureMaryland Forests

Did you know that there's a fellowship program designed to build leadership in rural communities?

Updated: May 23, 2022

Meet Debbie Simpkins, Program Director of the LEAD Maryland Foundation


The work of LEAD Maryland Foundation Program Director Debbie Simpkins has always been about our role as stewards of the land. Over time, those roots have spread even further from forestry work to the role of educator and advocate. With a Penn State associate’s degree in forest technology in hand, she jumped right onto the frontlines of forest fire prevention as a fire tower lookout for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry at French Creek State Park and part of a specialized forest firefighting crew that traveled everywhere from Idaho to North Carolina. The PA native’s natural resources career continued as a park ranger in Valley Forge National Park, French Creek State Park and Warwick County Park, where she established an environmental education program. Simpkins also was head ranger at Central Perkiomen Valley Park. She then worked with Natural Lands Trust and was a property manager for conserved and preserved properties for several years. Motherhood entered the picture, and an entrepreneur was born, with Simpkins starting a gourmet honey mustard business to work from home and take care of her daughter. She was recruited into a new career providing job skills training for disabled adults. Education was a calling that could not be ignored. This led to a return to college to earn a B.S. in agricultural education and environmental science. While teaching agricultural education at a New Jersey high school, Simpkins brought forestry into the agriculture curriculum by starting a dendrology class before the agriculture education program eventually closed due to funding cuts. A brief stint as a science teacher at Elkton Middle School, and the realization that she wasn’t cut out for daily exposure to middle school students, was all the inspiration she needed to head for greener pastures, joining the University of Maryland Extension in 2008. Considering her background of growing up with horses, extensive boating experience in her youth and her love for water…all things Maryland and Chesapeake Bay…Simpkins was meant to come full circle into the world of agriculture and forestry in this state’s diverse watershed. As part of University of Maryland Extension (UME), the LEAD Maryland Program (LEAD) is connecting producers from both farms to forests, with leadership and communication skills and public issues education, creating new leaders to lift up these sectors to greater levels of collaboration and success. If someone has a “yearning for lifelong learning,” Simpkins says, then participating in the LEAD Maryland Program is a must. The fellowship program teaches people from all sectors how to be advocates for their industry or cause, from a community to a commodity. The LEAD Program started in 1998, and by 2002 the LEAD Maryland Foundation was formed and designated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to govern and fund the LEAD Maryland Program. It obtained University of Maryland Extension Signature Program status in 2019. This 2-year fellowship program offers 9 multi-day seminars held in various locations in Maryland and Washington D.C., and includes an international study tour for 10-12 days. Each seminar is 3-4 days in length, and averages 20-25 people in a class.

When it comes to natural resources and forestry professionals, more impactful advocacy will come with more training through programs like LEAD, turning great foresters into great advocates. Debbie Simpkins knows that improved networking skills can close the communication gap between agriculture and forestry.

With Executive Director Susan Harrison, Administrative Assistant Elizabeth Friedel and Simpkins guiding the way, program participants are able to increase self-awareness and broaden their own perspectives and appreciation of diverse perspectives and people. A few LEAD Fellows who are leaders in forestry and natural resources include MD Department of Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Rural Maryland Council’s Charlotte Davis, MARBIDCO’s Steve McHenry, Holly Porter from Delmarva Chicken Association, and MD Forests Association’s very own Elizabeth Hill.

Going forward, Simpkins would like to see more natural resources and environmental education professionals go through the LEAD Maryland Program. There is a need for emerging leaders in natural resources and agriculture to become more connected and to learn from each other, and the belief that everyone deserves a “voice at the table” drives the work of LEAD and Debbie Simpkins. With more advocates in forestry and natural resources, these sectors will not only survive but thrive.


Debbie Simpkins at Holly Lane Farms with LEAD Alumni Jason Spicer, his daughter Sophie, and current LEAD Fellow Elizabeth Hill (MFA).





LEAD Maryland

Delmarva Chicken Association


Maryland DNR Forest Service

Rural Maryland Council



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