Talk NERRdy to Me: Nancy Torres & Matt Virden

Talk NERRdy to Me: Nancy Torres & Matt Virden

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29-soon-to-be-30 Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed two Davidson fellows for the price of one: Nancy Torres (above left), at California’s Tijuana River Reserve, and Matt Virden (above right), from Mississippi’s Grand Bay Reserve. In our system for only half a year, they’ve already drunk our brackish Kool Aid.

Nik: Nancy and Matt, welcome to Talk NERRdy, this time with two people! Double the pleasure, double the fun. You’re both Davidson fellows, which is a new program for the NERRS. First of all, how did you find the fellowship program?

Nancy: My advisor, Jeff Crooks, was actually at the Tijuana River Reserve. We came up with some projects combining my interest in ecotoxicology with the needs of the Reserve listed for the fellowship. I’m always looking for mentorship opportunities.

Matt: I worked for Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center. I had a research project that I was just finishing up, and my boss said ‘there’s this new opportunity I’ve heard about, would you be interested?’ I had worked with the people at Grand Bay Reserve a few times, so I knew what they were about and what was going to happen with the project.

Nik: So Nancy, are you from California, and Matt, are you from Mississippi?

Nancy: Yeah, I’m from Southern California, Greater Los Angeles area. Now I’m two hours south of that. I go to school at the University of San Diego, and the Reserve is about a 20-minute drive south.

Matt: I’m from Montgomery, Alabama. I moved to Starkle, Mississippi, for undergrad at Mississippi State University, and then came down to the coast after I graduated.

Nik: Had either of you worked coastally before? 

Matt: My major was Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture. I randomly took an internship with my advisor in 2018, and that’s how I ended up on the coast. When I came down here, I liked it a lot.

Nancy: I did my undergrad at UC Santa Barbara, which has a beautiful campus right on the coast. I got my first internship there at the Valentine Lab of Earth Sciences. I did a project on microbial oceanography, and I realized the extent of all the coastal issues there are to help with, so now I’m getting my master’s here in Environmental & Ocean Sciences.

Nik: Did either of you worry about finding a job or career in these fields? You’re of a generation that has seen a couple economic collapses in your lifetime. So I always wonder about recent college grads: did you think that there would be opportunities going forward?

Nancy: I had no idea what getting an environmental science degree meant career-wise when I was interested in pursuing one! Luckily I was part of the McNairs Scholars Program that helps underrepresented groups on their way to get their PhD. That program gave me the tools to understand what research actually means, how to conceptualize a project, how to work with an advisor…

Matt: I don’t think I ever worried about finding a job, but I was more worried about what I, personally, would want to do, because I don’t know! People still ask, and I tell them, well, I’ve got a couple more years to figure it out. Hopefully I do!

Nik: You both have gravitated towards wildlife, oceans… were there experiences earlier in your lives that pushed you towards this? Were you outdoorsy kids? 

Nancy: I’ve always loved being outdoors, yes. And then when I went to UC Santa Barbara, I spent a lot more time outdoors, being by the coast, and I became aware of all these environmental issues. I really wanted to be part of that and do what I could.

Matt: Right along the same lines, I always loved being outdoors. Growing up in Alabama, that’s pretty much what you dogo outdoors. And then my grandmother lives along the Florida coast, so we’d always go down and visit her every summer. I remembered that when I did my first internshipI was like, oh yeah, I love the coast! That was probably a major reason I got into the field.

Nik: In both Santa Barbara and Grand Bay, the oil industry is a big presence. I mean, you can see oil rigs from the shore, usually. How does that play into your experiences? 

Matt: Events like the Deepwater Horizon spill have funded a lot of environmental work and restoration. That’s the side I’m more involved in. The project I’m doing research on, studying oyster reefs, is funded from the BP settlement. So indirectly, it affects everything I’m working on.

Nancy: Walking along the shores in Santa Barbara, you would get tar spots on your feet pretty regularly. It was a normal thing to bring oil wipes so you could just wipe them off. My first research project was to see how the microbes around the area respond to large amounts of oil and hydrocarbons.

Nik: Tell me more about your current projects.

Nancy: Mine involves ecotoxicology. I’ll be sampling sediments and target species to use as abiotic and biotic indicators of the contaminant levels within the Tijuana River Estuary. I’m doing my own fieldwork assessing current conditions to combine with historical data from past monitoring efforts to get a timeline of pollution levels within the area and see how that’s been responding to changing inputs and management strategies. It’s especially exciting because there’s a lot of interest in remediating that pollution right now.

Nik: For those who don’t know, Tijuana’s unique in that half of the watershed is in Mexico, yes? So are you working across the border?

Nancy: Yes, about a whole 2/3 of the watershed is in Mexico. I want to! I am very interested in adding a social science component, because both communities are being affected by the issue that’s presented here. I want to find a way I can do outreach and turn it into a win-win situation for everybody. 

Nik: What about you, Matt?

Matt: Like I mentioned, it’s a very large RESTORE-funded project in Mississippi. They’re constructing oyster reefs at four different bays along the coast, including Grand Bay. They’ll be constructing multiple different designs at two different locations, both intertidal and subtidal reefs. So my project is really to come in and evaluate how those reefs are performing. 

Nik: Is this an aquaculture project, studying the oysters themselves, or their impact?

Matt: Their impact. I’m really looking at secondary productivity and wave energy. Basically if they have any effects on the waves and shorelinesif they reduce erosion or if there’s any kind of interaction between the shoreline and the reefs. One aspect of the project is the Management Application Team. We call it the MAT. Different stakeholders get together and influence the project, give suggestions about what they would like to see from the project, or if we’re doing something wrong or could be doing it better, they give us a heads up and suggest ‘hey, try it this way.’ This way we get that input while the project is still going on.

Nik: The Davidson Fellowships are short timeframes, so I’m sure you’ve had to hit the ground… eh, the water running… eh, swimming. How have you been welcomed into the system and into your individual Reserves? I know it’s been difficult for everybody with the pandemic.

Nancy: My Reserve has weekly meetings online, so at least we “see” each other pretty consistently. And across the NERRS there’s always really cool events. At the annual meeting you could really tell everyone’s an awesome group of people looking to collaborate. 

Nik: That’s good to hear. It was our first-ever virtual one… we were making it up as we went along!

Matt: I’ve gotten four emails this morning about working with staff at the Reserve for a presentation to local educators. Even though that’s not my project, they still invite me in and are asking me to bring aspects of my research in.

Nik: Have you two found other ways to go “cross-sector”?

Matt: Yeah, definitely. It’s pretty cool the amount of opportunities that have arisen just from applying to this fellowship. I now have connections with NOAA, the Reserve staff, the state partner. And also all the other Davidson fellows. Everyone gets together to talk about papers and projects. 

Nancy: Yeah, it’s been really cool collaborating with all the fellows. Everyone that manages the fellows has done a really great job making sure we’re all connected and supported. There are a lot of opportunities to collaborate with others.

Nik: It sounds so 21st Century, in the whole networking aspect! If you started in science 40 years ago, you might be getting papers on microfiche and having to read them at the library. And if you wanted to get in contact with somebody you had to call or write them a letter and wait a couple months! The whole collaborative aspect of science, on which the NERRS is built, seems to be part of the foundation of the fellowship program too. We’re grateful to Congress that they took this leap and stepped up to fund the Davidson Fellows. It’s so gratifying to see new young scientists that are going to go out there and make a difference. I’m glad we got the chance to catch up. What advice would you have for the next class of fellows?

Matt: Take all the opportunities that you can, even if they’re not mandatory. The more stuff you can do, the more people that you meet, that’s just more experience for you.

Nancy: Come open-minded and with the intent of staying flexible and finding ways to develop collaboration. I feel like I keep saying the word collaboration! But it’s so integral to project development. What’s really important is to think of who your project will benefit, who’s your audience, and reach out to as many stakeholders as you can in the beginning. Think about different perspectives and the communities who would be affected by your project results. 

Nik: I love to hear folks new to our system, part of this new program, already talking about it’s essential NERRdiness. You’re pulling on the strands of what ties the system together. You already see it’s not just these different places, it’s a network for collaboration across geographies and sectors. You’ve drunk the Kool Aid.

Nancy Torres (left).

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Rising to the Challenge

Rising to the Challenge

Properties elevated above the flood level in Alabama’s Baldwin County. Photo credit WPMI.

Floods are the most common natural disaster in the country. For the residents of coastal Alabama and Mississippi, who are impacted by flooding regularly, one of the smart ways to protect their property is through flood insurance, which covers $28.5 billion worth of properties in both states combined. However, many of those property-owners at-risk lack knowledge and resources to navigate the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). That’s why Alabama’s Weeks Bay and Mississippi’s Grand Bay Reserves are helping floodplain managers rise to the challenge of protecting their communities.

An elevation certificate is a critical piece of paperwork mandated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) NFIP. It describes the building location, lowest floor elevation, flood zone, and other characteristics—all of which are necessary to enforce local ordinances and determine insurance rates. These certificates are often filled out incorrectly and thus rejected by FEMA, leaving properties vulnerable.

In response, Weeks Bay Reserve and Grand Bay Reserve partnered to host three Elevation Certificate trainings in 2018 and 2019, reaching more than 100 participants, including floodplain managers, planners, city and county officials, building inspectors, code enforcement staff,  land surveyors, engineers, insurance companies, and real estate representatives.

“Many participants were surprised at what they didn’t know or were doing wrong,” says Margo Posten, coastal training program coordinator for Grand Bay Reserve. “Floodplain managers asked us for this training, and a lot of them found it exceptionally useful.”

The need for the training was identified by the Southern Alabama Flooding Engagement Team (SAFE-T), which Weeks Bay Reserve is an active participant in, and augmented with the perspectives of a coastal Mississippi flooding user group. Weeks Bay staff worked with the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), the state agency responsible for administration of the NFIP, as part of the training. 

“This is very hands-on class from the perspective of someone who fills out Elevation Certificates,” said one workshop participant in a post-workshop review. “Most beneficial class I have been to in years!”

“For me, a highlight of the training was the interaction between local floodplain managers, the state-level agency people, the insurance representatives, and the surveyors,” says Mike Shelton, coastal training program coordinator at Weeks Bay Reserve. “Instead of being in a fraught or adversarial mindset, workshop participants were able to provide their perspectives to the examples identified by the instructor.”

As a result of these trainings, theAlabama Society of Professional Land Surveyors.d is planning to hold its own elevation certificate workshop at their state-wide annual meeting. Because of the overwhelming response from other participants, the Reserves also plan to hold future trainings.

“Having partners, including other NERRs, for training such as this is really invaluable,” says Posten. “I know that I personally don’t have expertise in all the different topic areas that our diverse audiences need training in. Partners are the key—they bring their expertise to the training and often access to professional experts.”

Grand Bay Celebrates 20 Years

Grand Bay Celebrates 20 Years

Grand Bay Reserve is celebrating 20 years of scientific, stewardship, and educational success in style. Protecting more than 18,000 acres in southeastern Mississippi, Grand Bay is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, and manatees are found in the deeper waters of the Reserve, while oyster reefs and seagrass beds serve as nurseries for blue crab, shrimp, trout, drum and more. Annually, the Reserve hosts more than 260 different migratory bird species.

In addition to a full spectrum of scientific, stewardship, educational, and recreational offerings, Grand Bay NERR staff are currently partnering in an effort to protect and restore wet pine savanna and other critical coastal habitat using Deepwater Horizon oil spill related funds.

The Reserve celebrated its birthday as part of National Estuaries Day on September 28th – and yes, there was birthday cake. Happy 20th Grand Bay – keep up the good work!

Healing Grand Bay Habitats After the Deepwater Spill

Healing Grand Bay Habitats After the Deepwater Spill

Healthy habitats, like this pine savanna, nurture fish and bird communities in Grand Bay and improve recreation and quality of life for local residents.  Photo courtesy of Sandra Huynh.

Nearly a decade after the largest maritime oil spill in U.S. history, Mississippi’s Grand Bay Reserve and its partners have embarked on a large-scale restoration of the region’s wet pine savanna and other critical coastal habitats. Their goal? Restore the places that host migratory birds, support commercial fisheries, protect water quality, and provide opportunities to hunt, fish, and paddle across thousands of acres along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts.

“The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill had a huge impact on our community, in terms of lost wages from closures of fisheries, injured birds and other wildlife, and people want to see the restoration funds being put to work,” says Dr. Ayesha Gray, director of the Grand Bay Reserve. “That’s one of the reasons we positioned our initial restoration effort adjacent to Highway 90; people will definitely take notice when we restore hundreds of acres along their commute.”

Prescribed burns are part of the effort to restore wet pine savanna and other critical habit in Mississippi’s Grand Bay. Photo courtesy of Cher Griffin.

Officially known as the Grand Bay Land Acquisition and Habitat Management Project, the work is being funded by the Mississippi Trustee Implementation Group (MS TIG)  through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Program, which is in charge of addressing natural resource injuries in Mississippi caused by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  The group allocated $6 million to acquire up to 8,000 acres and to manage up to 17,500 acres of coastal and freshwater marsh, beach, savanna flatwoods, and forested freshwater scrub-shrub. Restoration efforts will include a combination of mechanical, chemical, and prescribed fire treatments. 

A project of this scale could only be accomplished through partnership. Mississippi’s NRDA Trustee, the MS Department of Environmental Quality, and the MS Technical Implementation Group (TIG) have partnered with the U.S. Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the MS Department of Marine Resources, and the Grand Bay Reserve (NERR) to accomplish the work. 

The Reserve’s role is to advise on land acquisition, perform and lead habitat management on state owned parcels, assist the Refuge on habitat management of federally-owned parcels, and conduct project monitoring. They will also educate the community about the project. 

“Our Reserve is perfectly positioned to provide outreach to the community on the restoration activities,” says Dr. Gray. “Since it is in such a visible location, we can show people the value of these wide-open spaces and teach them about how they’ve been impacted and what we can do to help—their curiosity gets satisfied, and that’s good for the environment and the community.”

Henslow’s sparrow captured during the Reserve’s outreach event. Photo courtesy of Sandra Huynh.

The Grand Bay Reserve hosts more than 260 migratory bird species annually, making its health and biodiversity a critical priority for regional wildlife conservation. The conserved and restored lands also support recreational and commercial fisheries through the permanent protection of nursery areas for blue crab, shrimp, trout, and drum. The project will provide expanded access for hunting, wildlife watching, and other important coastal recreation-related tourism activities.

Mississippi acquired the first set of parcels in December 2018, placing an additional 1,500 acres of coastal wildlife habitat in conservation. Many of the new acquisitions are adjacent to areas that are already under active management, which makes restoration easier to do and more effective overall.

Large parcels provide contiguous habitat for wildlife and make it possible to manage the area with fewer fire lanes,” says Dr. Gray.

Estuaries Are For Everyone

Estuaries Are For Everyone

The New England team for “Watershed Stewardship in Action: Deaf Students on the Estuary” fingerspells ‘estuary’. From left: Todd Czubek, Boston University; Suzanne Kahn, Wells Reserve; Jeanne Reis, The Learning Center; Joan Muller, Waquoit Bay Reserve; Maureen Dewire, Narragansett Bay Reserve; and Caryn Beiter, Wells Reserve.

Watching a heron hunt, walking along a golden marsh, fishing on a misty morning—little compares to the sense of wonder we get from being on the coast. For National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we are celebrating some of the advances Reserves have made to make estuaries part of everyone’s coastal experience.

Finding the Right Words: Before 2018, American Sign Language (ASL) had no signs for words like “estuary,” or “watershed.” For people with hearing loss, this creates a barrier to experiencing and learning about the coast. That’s all changing, thanks to educators at our New England Reserves and their partners. Teachers and interpreters for people with hearing loss now have access to ASL coastal terms and instructional videos through the Teachers on the Estuary curriculum at the Wells, Waquoit Bay, and Narragansett Bay Reserves. Read more in the The Wrack from our Wells Reserve in Maine.

Making Trails More Accessible: California’s Elkhorn Slough Reserve has a new ADA-compliant trail welcomes visitors of all physical abilities, and features a flat, gentle path through a variety of habitats.

Improved Water Access: In Mississippi, the Grand Bay Reserve is outfitting their new education boat to accommodate wheelchairs. An ADA-accessible kayak launch is also in the works. The Reserve widened their Savannah Trail boardwalk and installed rails, boosting safety and helping wheelchair-bound visitors view more habitat.

Therapeutic Horse Riding: Access Adventure at Rush Ranch provides therapeutic horse riding in the San Francisco Bay Reserve for people living with mobility challenges, special needs children, the elderly, and injured veterans.

Veterans Bring Fire Power to Grand Bay

Veterans Bring Fire Power to Grand Bay

From left: Rebecca Weaver and Mandi Wilson of the Veterans Fire Corps with Bill Olive from the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Complex at Grand Bay. Photos courtesy of the Grand Bay Reserve.
According to a study by the Civic Enterprise Institute, more than ninety percent of returning, post 9/11 veterans want to continue to serve in some way and doing so can ease the transition to civilian life. This dedication to service was evident when the Veteran Fire Corps came to support prescribed burns at the Grand Bay Reserve the past spring. The Corps provides veterans with job training in wildland fire mitigation and conservation. With local wildland fires suppressed by development, Grand Bay staff and their partners were happy to have the veterans’ support.

“Some of the National Wildlife Refuge land around the Grand Bay Coastal Resources Center hasn’t been burned in a long time,” says Sandra Huynh, Grand Bay’s director’s assistant. “The veterans have been awesome—energetic and fully able to do this kind of work. They are the kind of volunteers you can rely on.”

The long-term management goal is to restore Grand Bay to its historic condition of being an open longleaf pine savanna with a diverse plant community. This requires repeated fires over a long period of time to open up the understory and encourage growth of warm season grasses and other plants. A grant-sponsored partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife Mississippi,  Student Conservation Association, and the Grand Bay Reserve was able to focus the Corp’s energy on this challenging goal.

Alongside support for burns, Corps members helped Reserve staff with many tasks, from helping with SET data collection (Rebecca Weaver) to setting up the Celebrate the Gulf festival (Phil Collier).
The veterans were literally “thrown into the fire” almost as soon as they arrived. They took up residence in the Reserve’s dormitories and soon became invaluable members of the Grand Bay crew by assisting with burns and other conservation activities, including mapping, repairing boardwalks used for salt marsh monitoring, collecting marsh elevation data, picking up debris, helping out at the Gulf Marine Education Festival, and a lot of chain sawing.

“It is not glamorous work, but it is another tool we use to open up the landscape, and each crew member was moving on to a job where chainsaw skills were needed,” observes Jonathan Pitchford, Grand Bay’s stewardship coordinator. “Of course, we also hope that they walked away with a better understanding of why they were doing the work and thinking about other conservation avenues they could explore.”

In all, the Corps helped burned a total of 873 acres at Grand Bay this past year. Reserve staff and their partners broke up the work with discussions of the management goals for the activity at hand, helped familiarize veterans with the local plants and animals, and talked to them about research and monitoring.

Veteran Fire Corps members Adam Arenas and Mandi Wilson take time out to get to know the local fauna.

ReservesGrand Bay, Mississippi