Monday, May 16, 2011

Invasive Phragmites: Wicked

My, how time flies! There are only a few weeks remaining in my fellowship at the Great Lakes Commission, and I’m busy trying to finish up my work in between traveling. Given all the interesting experiences I’ve had since my last post – including the opportunity to visit Capitol Hill to advocate for Great Lakes priorities in February, and planning and conducting a workshop on the Ecological Effects of Wind Energy in Indianapolis in March – it’s hard to select just one topic to write about. But I think I’ll focus on the project that I’ve had the most involvement in during my time here: a partnership with the Michigan DNR, DEQ and other groups to build capacity for the management and control of invasive phragmites.

Non-native phragmites is a tall, aggressive wetland grass that has invaded many coastal areas in the Great Lakes region. This invasive species seriously impacts native biodiversity, habitat quality and human uses such as recreational access and lake views. In response to this issue, the Commission worked with various partners to plan and convene Phragmites Invasions in Michigan: A Symposium to Build Capacity for Management, held March 28-30, 2011. The symposium was attended by over 120 stakeholders representing diverse sectors. I was fortunate to be involved in every stage of planning this event, and was asked to present on the results of a state wide questionnaire we conducted on invasive phragmites management and control.

What really struck me at the symposium was the level of local engagement and commitment to combating invasive phragmites. Ordinary citizens across the state, with day jobs unrelated to natural resources management, are turning their concern about this invasive species into decisive action. These “local champions” are giving countless hours to galvanize their communities, educate their neighbors, and seek resources to control phragmites along their shorelines.

In my Environmental Policy class at graduate school, we learned about “wicked problems” in which stakeholders disagree on the definition of the problem, values are in conflict, and a large community will be required to resolve the issue. I never truly understood the nature of a wicked problem until I became involved in invasive phragmites management in the Great Lakes region. Although most who attended the symposium shared a desire to eradicate invasive phragmites, I was surprised at how frequently participants’ values differed. Some felt strongly that herbicide use was damaging the ecosystem, and that phragmites should not be treated without a clear plan for ecosystem restoration and a strong likelihood of success. Others felt that eradicating invasive phragmites was always justified, even if other invasive plants moved in after treatment. Although most symposium attendees spoke of private landowners willing to cooperate to control phragmites, I was amazed to hear that some landowners want to keep infestations on their property to serve as privacy screens.

There is no simple answer to the invasive phragmites problem, but what I have taken away from this experience is this: The 120 participants at the symposium were not daunted by the immense challenge of invasive phragmites. I believe the commitment and strength of local communities, combined with the resources and knowledge of environmental professionals, can overcome just about any wicked problem.
- Julie, GLC Fellow 2010

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Coastal Management Fellowship matching workshop

It was a busy and occasionally stressful week, but a productive and ultimately successful one. Finalists from across the country came to Charleston, SC to participate in the 2011 NOAA Coastal Management Fellowship matching workshop. In this process, 6 of the 11 finalists were placed with 6 different state coastal management agencies through a partnership between the state and the NOAA Coastal Services Center. Our backgrounds were as varied as the projects themselves, which ranged from climate change policy and adaptation to development of a coastal erosion index.

Zach and his new mentor from NY.

During the first day of the workshop, representatives from each state office presented their project and talked a bit about the pros of living in their particular city. States from colder climes endured some good-natured jabs from South Carolina regarding its superior weather. As if to underscore that point, it was beautiful that week in Charleston. It's a charming town.

During the second day, the tables turned and the finalists gave presentations on their backgrounds. This was the most nerve-wracking part of the process for me. Some of us tailored our presentations to certain projects we knew we were interested in, while others gave a more general overview. I spoke to my background in GIS and coastal mapping, as I thought I'd be a good fit with the two marine spatial planning projects. Hearing about the accomplishments and skills of the other candidates was a humbling experience, and all of us felt honored to be among the group of finalists.

During the third and fourth days we interviewed with our potential hosts to determine if the fit was mutual. Most nights saw the finalists going out to dinner and/or bars as group. Despite the fact that we were "competing", the group bonded quickly and developed a real sense of camaraderie in the face of the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the week. The Coastal Services Center, which acted as a sort of intermediary between the state hosts and finalists, also helped allay our nerves and ensure a smooth process. In the end, I was matched with the state of New York's Division of Coastal Resources. I'll be helping with their offshore spatial planning efforts, and my two-year fellowship will being sometime in August. I think it will be a great fit with a great group of people. Stay tuned for details on that front.  - Zach, CMF 2011