Would you spend eight weeks living out of a van and camping every night somewhere new, with 20 strangers? This group of scholars is, and they represent the new face of conservation work.
Written & Photographed by Kat Morgan, Puget Sound Community Partnerships Manager
On a chilly morning in the North Sound, 20 semi-sleep deprived undergraduates from across the country (there were some fireworks and late nights at their campsite the previous night) stood in our Mount Vernon office parking lot learning about who The Nature Conservancy is, and our work in Washington, particularly Puget Sound. These were the 2016 cohort of Doris Duke Conservation Scholars, a program sponsored by the University of Washington. This two year program is designed to help foster and ultimately increase diversity in the conservation workforce. These were the first-year students – freshmen and sophomores - participating in this 8-week field program in Washington. They visited conservation projects and professionals around Puget Sound, learned about current conservation needs and issues, and about the people doing this work. We toured our Mount Vernon office to give them a sense of what it might be like to work for The Nature Conservancy, and then headed to one of our flagship project sites – Port Susan Bay. Most students knew the Conservancy purchased and conserved lands. Only one knew that we actively managed those lands, or that we supported and implemented large-scale, landscape changing projects beyond our own ownership.
After hearing about the needs for restoring floodplain systems across Puget Sound, they had lots of questions about how you work with communities to do this work. What kinds of outreach were required, and how did you go about it? We talked about how each community has different needs, and you approach each community differently depending on the circumstances and people involved. They nodded their heads when we talked about the similarities – in each community, you ask questions and listen. You listen a lot - to understand what is needed, what is important to the people who live in that place, and you work together to find space for all those needs in a project.
We toured the Port Susan Bay restoration project site at low tide, when all the restored tidal channels and estuarine marsh were visible and visited the flood return structure, installed to address local flood issues as part of the project. Migrating shorebirds moved around the shallow pools left by the tide. The students marveled at the remoteness of the site, even though houses are visible all around, and the subtle energy, where at a distance everything appears very still, but when you get closer, you see song and shore birds flitting round the marsh, rushes moving in the breeze, and raptors on the wing looking for lunch.
As we wrapped up the tour, we turned the tables and I asked questions of this group of future conservation professionals. Jared Rivera is one of the Doris Duke scholars. He studies environmental engineering at UCLA. As a Native American, Jared is very interested in the intersection of social justice and conservation, in making sure Native American communities are engaged in problem-solving and decision-making around natural resources. Jared appreciates the interdisciplinary teams the Conservancy puts together to tackle conservation problems, and one day, when he finishes his environmental engineering degree, is interested in a seat at the table.
Name: Jared Rivera
Hometown: Murrieta, Southern California. Going to college at UCLA.
Murrieta is located in the center of the Los Angeles San Diego mega region of 20 Million people. After interstate 15 was built in the 1980’s, suburban developments started being constructed. Today, Murrieta is known as a commuter town and the largest employer is the school. I know this area though. I have family on Camano Island. It’s really interesting to hear about your projects here.
Childhood Dream/what did you want to be when you grow up?:
Until I was 17, I wanted to join the Marines. Then my ideas changed. I had an AP bio teacher who taught us about ecology and took us on field trips to the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. I was fascinated by a project they were working on of sustainable algae fields for biomass production. I applied for a student study program at the Wrigley Institute and was accepted.
What about our work do you find most inspiring? What is most surprising?
The Levees at the Port Susan Project. The fact your conservation organization isn’t afraid to make changes to the environment, and to build infrastructure if it will help you accomplish your goals. Humans have already meddled with nature to mess it up. The only way to fix it is to keep meddling.
What would you most like to see The Nature Conservancy work on that you didn’t hear about today?
I would like to see The Nature Conservancy become more involved in social justice issues. Particularly as a Native American, I would like to see more indigenous communities included in the problem-solving and decisions around our natural resources.
What would make you want to work for us?
I am really excited about the interdisciplinary approach you described bringing experts from all different fields together to problem-solve, to have a seat at the table, particularly involving social justice issues.
Engaging tomorrow’s stewards in community-supported conservation
Written and Photographed by Laura Lea Rubino, Marketing Intern
Could you ask for a better classroom? On Friday July 10th, the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars (DDCS), a group of 25 undergraduate students, learned about building community support and collaboration for conservation at the Conservancy’s Fisher Slough restoration site. The DDCS program offers competitive applicants an opportunity to learn more about conservation by exposing participants to professionals who are reshaping landscapes and transforming communities. Given the history of the Fisher Slough restoration project, its selection as the outdoor classroom of choice was clear.
Fisher Slough is without a doubt a success story. Located in the Skagit River Delta, it is the end product of a recent restoration effort aimed at creating salmon habitat and advancing the interests of local community members. Its revitalization is living proof that stakeholder engagement is the foundation of effective conservation.
The Skagit River Delta is noteworthy—it contributes 50% of the wild Chinook salmon population to Puget Sound and sustains an annual $300 million agricultural industry. Yet conditions have changed considerably since the arrival of the first European settlers—diking and draining started in the 1800s, resulting in a river disconnected from its floodplain and a 73% loss in tidal wetlands.
These wetlands have the potential to provide a variety of invaluable natural benefits, such as habitat for endangered Chinook, flood protection, and water filtration. But capturing these benefits requires the alteration of landscapes where humans live, work, and grow food. Understanding community needs and incorporating community benefits is essential for mobilizing local support and sustaining conservation outcomes.
The initiative to restore Fisher Slough, a task that The Nature Conservancy was invited to lead, was successful because it was a fundamentally collaborative effort. All groups with a stake in the area participated in the project’s decision-making process and took an active role in setting project objectives.
Reflecting on the reasons for its remarkable success, Fisher Slough Project Manager Jenny Baker (pictured in photo 2), who led the site visit, suggests “Multiple community needs were satisfied because a process that valued everyone’s needs equally was established at the project outset and followed throughout the life of the project.”
At the end of the day, the restoration of Fisher Slough strengthened flood protection, increased fish habitat, and provided the community with updated flood and drainage infrastructure. This kind of win-win solution is the cornerstone of the Nature Conservancy’s approach to conservation.
Like The Nature Conservancy, the DDCS program is a proponent of inclusive conservation strategies that honor diverse stakeholders, voices, and values. Its philosophy is rooted in the belief that the future success of conservationism hinges on its ability to diversify and uphold an ethic of inclusivity.
The young scholars who visited Fisher Slough were passionate, inquisitive, and eager to learn more about conservation as it relates to the Skagit River Delta. With backgrounds in a variety of disciplines—not just conservation—these students’ participation in the DDCS program signifies their commitment to the environment and their understanding of the many possibilities for addressing environmental issues. By meeting with conservation leaders like Jenny, these young men and women are learning that effective conservation is not simply the work of conservationists, but the work of entire communities.
No matter the direction of their future careers, these students will continue to view problem solving through a lens of inclusivity and collaboration. Though freshmen and sophomores in college today, these scholars are the leaders of tomorrow. This is good news for conservation, and good news for the world.