Friday, October 29, 2010

A whole new world...

Julie Mida, Sea Grant FellowIt's hard to believe this is my first blog post and I've already been at the Great Lakes Commission (GLC) for almost five months! I spent my summer getting to know my coworkers and familiarizing myself with the policies, agencies, and institutional structures that make up Great Lakes governance.

My transition from pure science to the science/policy interface has been eased by the science-based focus of my projects, and I have been pleasantly surprised to find the social science and policy aspects of my work just as interesting and engaging. For example, one of my primary responsibilities is to co-lead a project to plan and conduct a regional symposium on the management of non-native Phragmites australis. This invasive reed is taking over coastal and inland wetlands across the region, destroying native habitats and impacting human use of water resources by restricting access and impeding views. To address this issue, the GLC is working with Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources and Environment staff to bring together interested stakeholders in order to forge relationships and to develop a strategic framework for management on a statewide level. This symposium will be held in Lansing in March 2011, and I'm looking forward to seeing this project through from beginning to end. Since I devoted my graduate work to understanding the ecological impacts of invasive species in the Great Lakes, I have enjoyed the opportunity to see how this type of science is applied to complex decision-making processes.

I've also been heavily involved in the GLC's facilitation of the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative, a multi-sector coalition of stakeholders working towards the sustainable development of wind power in the Great Lakes region. One of my main projects is planning a State of the Science meeting on the ecological impacts of wind energy in the Great Lakes. Last week, I was in Lakewood, Colorado at the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative's 2010 Wind Wildlife Research Meeting. This year was the first time there was an offshore wind session at the meeting, and I really enjoyed learning about the unique ecological, scientific, social, policy and regulatory issues surrounding offshore wind development. With the lease for the first offshore wind farm in the US being signed by the Secretary of the Interior just a few weeks ago, it is a very exciting time to be working on offshore wind issues!

This is just a small samplling of the work I've been fortunate to be involved with at the GLC over the first part of my fellowship. My time here so far has been educational and exciting, and I have really enjoyed the opportunity to network with the Great Lakes community beyond the realm of academia. I am beginning to realize how important relationship-building, cooperation, and communication are to responsible governance of natural resources, and I am looking forward to delving even deeper into these issues in the latter half of my fellowship.   - Julie, GLC Fellow 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Controversy and Resolution - Lessons from a Year at the Commission

Anjali Patel recently completed a one year, Sea Grant fellowship at the Great Lakes Commission and has now moved onto a law firm in DC. I caught up with her this week to get her perspective on the fellowship and what she’d learned about science and policy in the Great Lakes region.

“This was just a good year to be a the Commission – between the growing interest in wind energy, the federal restoration initiative, ballast water regulations and Asian carp there was just a steady stream of really interesting work!” said Anjali. “By the end of the year, I realized I had worked with just about everyone on staff on some type of project.”

Anjali started her work at the Commission in the summer of 2009, just after securing her law degree from the University of Michigan. Anjal has a history of working with communities and non-profit organizatinons, but interstate compact agencies, interjurisdictional cooperation, and multi-stakeholder consensus building was a whole new game.

From day one of the fellowship, she was thrown into a series of contentious Great Lakes issues at the science-policy interface. I asked her what surprised her most about this new world.

“I was really struck by how small the community is,” Anjali said. She quickly became familiar with the players because she often saw the same people at meetings, even when the topics were very different, such as wind development and Asian Carp. Staff and time are limited, so leaders from state agencies and NGOs often had to be experts on many different topics.

This one observation – about the intimacy and overlap within the Great Lakes environmental policy community – is connected to many of Anjali’s other observations.

We’ve all witnessed the ebb and flow of political will, but this became a driver of Anjali’s daily work life. When she began the fellowship, there was a growing momentum to develop strict rules for ballast water in ships travelling into the Great Lakes. Anjali took a maternity leave mid fellowship and when she returned, this work had been completely eclipsed by concerns for Asian carp. I asked her what she thought was driving the shifting attention, is it driven by the media? Anjali thinks it is partly a function of the small community. Staff time is limited, so when a crisis comes up, energy is diverted from other less urgent issues. The Great Lakes region can only make progress on a few issues simultaneously, particularly if progress requires regional consensus and coordination.

Anjali got to watch how regional negotiations unfold. The Commission helped assist the Great Lakes states and provinces in developing a single resolution about Asian carp and the needed response. Commissioners from all ten Great Lakes states and provinces were able to agree that the best permanent solution for the health of both the Mississippi River and Great Lakes watersheds is ecological separation. Given the disagreement over short term solutions, the parties engaged in multiple conversations in which they expressed their underlying concerns and goals in order to craft language which was acceptable to all. 

“The Commission has a history of successfully building consensus and it was fascinating to see how it’s done. The sides weren’t nearly as polarized as the media portrayed, but it took face to face meetings to find the commonalities.”

Anjali was also really struck by the friendliness of Great Lakes community, despite the controversies. “People treat each other with respect even when things get heated. It might be the Midwest style.” She also had another explanation. Because the community is small, two people might be on opposing sides of the current issue, but find themselves on the same side of the next issue. So people tred lightly. Your enemies today might be your allies tomorrow. Rather than large polarized groups facing off over a controversial issue, discussions involved people who had established relationships that they wanted to maintain.

Before I said good bye to Anjali, I asked how her experiences and observations would help her in her new job with an energy law firm in DC. She said the Commission has trained her to write more quickly and cogently, a skill every lawyer needs. And her work with the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative will be a bonus as her law firm begins to focus on alternative energy issues. She also feels the fellowship has given her a broader perspective on how policy, industry and NGOs fit together. So when she’s focusing on the needs of a particular energy company she can see how it fits into the bigger picture. “I can now see how and why things happen and who makes it happen. And that’s just interesting.”

You can read more about Anjali’s work in these reports:

Report – The Role of Ports for Wind Energy
Prospectus – The Great Lakes Wind Collaborative