Talk NERRdy to Me: Kerstin Wasson

Talk NERRdy to Me: Kerstin Wasson

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 Dr. Kerstin Wasson, research coordinator at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve. They talked about marsh making, work marriages, ungrateful and grateful children, Indigenous knowledge, and the non-monetary valuations of mud.

Nik: Welcome to Talk NERRdy, Dr. Kerstin Wasson! You recently told me Kenny Raposa was your work husband. How does your home husband feel about that?

Kerstin: Many days I interact more with Kenny than with my husband. We often send hundreds of messages back and forth within a week. We don’t really talk or see each other, but we interact through collaborative manuscripts. It’s been one of the high points of my last decade of work to interact with Kenny Raposa. It’s just what a collaboration should be when you’re challenging each other and debating things, but making it better as a result of that.

Nik: Are you referring to the National Synthesis?

Kerstin: In the last decade of NERR work, my main papers have been with Kenny. The assessing tidal marsh resilience to sea-level rise (MARS) project was the first in a series of collaborative projects. Then we looked at crabs across the NERRS, wrote another paper on that, then we coordinated a thin layer sediment restoration experiment across eight Reserves. We’ve been trying to camera trap across all the Reserves but haven’t found the funding yet.

Wasson with her “work husband” Kenny Raposa (right) and sediment science rockstar Neil Ganju in Rhode Island.

Nik: That all sounds exhausting. Also, didn’t Elkhorn Slough just build Hester Marsh? Is it fun to play God? 

Kerstin: Scary, but fun. We are super proud that we did this, with a huge team and a lot of funding, of course. We asked, “How high should we make it?” and the answer was “as high as possible without becoming a grassland.” The king tides need to get it wet so that you don’t show your funders, “Look at this weedy pasture that we made!’”

Nik: I’ve got a weedy pasture in my backyard. Agreed: not impressive.

Kerstin: And because it was going to sink, we wanted to overfill it, but how much do you overfill? And what about tidal creeks? If we fill the whole thing, it has no creeks. Where are we going to put them and what should they look like? We decided to use history as a guide and look at the 1931 aerial photo—our oldest—and make them that way.

Nik: What does it mean to “make” a tidal creek?

Kerstin: We thought about maybe filling them with straw or something and protecting them, but it was more effective to just dig them out at the end. On a smaller scale, we are now doing lots of experiments.

My hero, restoration scientist Joy Zedler, encouraged the NERRS to use large-scale restoration activities as a place to learn and do science, and we have really taken that to heart.

When the landscape was bare, people used to ask, “Is it a flag farm?” Because there were so many red flags for this experiment and green flags for another. We planted 17,000 plants! We are learning from this restoration and that part is a lot less scary than playing God at the large scale.

Nik: You generously bumped a graduate student off your schedule so that we could talk today. How are the kids coming up? Did they do all that planting without complaint? What faith do you have in the future?

Kerstin: They’re awesome. My academic daughters are so much more grateful for the advice I give them than my biological daughter. 

Nik: Because you’re not related to them. I have teenagers, too.

Kerstin: I love having graduate students and working with them. The gold standard of what we know about the estuary comes from graduate theses that really dive into something. We provide a lot of guidance and logistic support in return.

Nik: There will be $77 million over the next five years for NERRS habitat restoration. Are we all going to build enormous outdoor sandboxes? Or does 30 by 30 mean everybody will get another 100 acres of marsh? “You get a marsh, and YOU get a marsh, and YOU get a marsh!”

Kerstin: Sea level rise is threatening marshes in so many regions. If we can save an existing marsh, that’s better than anything we can create. Meters of peat represent thousands of years of carbon sequestration and plant and animal communities that take hundreds of years to form. But sea level rise is not going to leave us many choices. 

In Elkhorn Slough, modelling suggests we will lose all marshes to 50 centimeters of sea level rise. If we want there to be a marsh for our great-grandchildren, the one we built is going to be the only one there. However, we also made some migration space for it to move up. I think that a lot of us will be doing that across the System in the coming decade. 

Nik: Why “Hester” Marsh, by the way?

Kerstin: Andrea Woolfolk, our stewardship coordinator, has done a lot of historical ecology research in the region to really inform our restoration work. She discovered that one of the first European landowners in the area was a woman named Hester Miller. She had a dozen or so kids and that seemed like a good omen for our marsh, to have a female name and a fertile landscape.

Nik: It rolls off the tongue. Hester sounds like a heroine in an Austen novel.

Kerstin: You’re thinking Scarlet Letter

Nik: Hester Prynne! Right, but that’s New England. Speaking of which, let’s get back there, because I’m too jealous of California’s beauty.

My chat with Kenny was a little depressing—he’s  spent his entire career in Rhode Island and he expects that, within his lifetime, everything that he’s worked on may disappear. I guess I understand why you’re on a first name basis with your marsh—it’s something that will outlive you and won’t drown. It’s gotta be pretty gratifying to bring that into the world. And scary as well. Like parenting.

Kerstin: Climate change is going to alter our estuaries but that scares me less than the outright loss we’ve seen in the past century. Half of the Elkhorn Slough estuary is behind dikes and water control structures, which is a much bigger change than a marsh converting to a mud flat.

When marshes drown in sea level rise, migratory shorebirds will feed on the mudflats they become, and fish nurseries will expand in the eelgrass, which is actually thriving in the estuary. Sea level rise may allow us to regain disconnected wetlands, and conservation organizations may restore some of those lands. It may actually look better in 50 years, so I’m optimistic.

Sorry… my [home] husband’s coffee timer keeps beeping. He doesn’t want the french press to brew too long or too short.

Nik: We use an eight-minute brew in my house. How do you do it? 

Kerstin: I’m a tea drinker.

Nik: I don’t trust tea drinkers. First, you’re lauding colonialism with your Hester Prynne Marsh, now you’re talking about tea. Why couldn’t you have named it after the Native Americans?

Kerstin: I wish we had more of an understanding of who was living around our estuary and what they were doing. But we are partnering with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, who are trying to reconnect with their ancestral lands.

Most of them can’t afford to live in coastal California but they come back and do activities along the coast with partner organizations. On December 1st, they’ll be doing oyster restoration with me. We’ll learn from each other; our Reserve staff will learn about cultural perspectives and spirituality that they bring to interactions with nature and coastal stewardship. Their tribal members have never seen, touched, or eaten a native oyster even though their ancestors ate them for millennia.

Nik: More and more it seems that there are connections with local tribes in the NERRS, working together and sharing traditional ecological knowledge, but your approach sounds different.

Kerstin: I think there are prospects of learning from Native American communities further north on the coast that still have experience passed down directly from generation to generation. There are reservations near the Padilla Bay Reserve on coastal lands and oyster restoration efforts. Not every culture had the same practices but there are probably commonalities that could be exchanged up and down the coast. We’d love to work on that in the coming years. 

Celebrating finishing planting at Hester Marsh at the end of a muddy day, Karate Kid style.

Nik: What else is going on at Elkhorn Slough? We’ve gotten 20 minutes into this and you haven’t said the word “otter” once, which makes me happy.

Kerstin: What do you have against otters, and how long has this issue been troubling you? 

Nik: I went to school in California and I dated a girl who really liked otters and that was the beginning of the end of our relationship. And I can’t stand that some Reserves have such charismatic megafauna that they could live on the proceeds of otter stuffed animals for the rest of their existence.

Kerstin: I decided to be a biologist when I was five because I wanted to study marine mammals. I wanted to learn dolphin language. But when I took invertebrate zoology, I realized that invertebrates are so much cooler than marine mammals. I ended up doing my PhD on modular organisms that have many bodies per genetic individual. It’s like having thousands of twins.

Nik: Is that a colonial organism?

Kerstin: Yeah, and that’s a lot weirder than dolphins.

Nik: It sounds pretty slimy. So you’re a zoologist by training?

Kerstin: I am.

Nik: So what are you doing, plugging plants into a marsh? That’s botany!

Kerstin: They’re modular! The pickleweed I work with reproduces clonally, so there are some commonalities there. The invertebrates I was working on, Phylum Kamptozoa, don’t look that different from a pickleweed plant.

Nik: I’m getting more into the colonial and slimy. I learned about Bowiebranchia in an interview a couple months ago and that was one of the highlights of my year.

Kerstin: I’m drawn to slimy things. But I’ve come around to the fact that it’s hard to get our community to fall in love with mudflats and marshes. Otters are such a great flagship for why they should care. 

Nik: They’re wonderful and adorable, and I don’t want to hear any more about them. Let’s move to ecosystem services and their valuation: Why do we have to put a dollar figure on everything? 

Kerstin: I understand having that as a tool in our conservation toolbox when we’re working with partners, private landowners, and businesses who don’t necessarily care about protecting our wetlands. 

I recognize the value of the tool, but if we already own the land and we have communities who can afford to love music or art for its own sake, those same people can afford to love nature for its own sake. I think we can, with no embarrassment, love our marshes and our oysters for their own sake, not for what they do for us. And isn’t the whole framework of, “what can nature do for humans”, what got us into trouble in the first place?

Nik: If you could put a dollar figure on otters, where would it land? 

Kerstin: I have no idea. You’re making a face. Did you actually want me to say something more about otters? 

Nik: No! Stay outta the otters! ….How did you get into all this? Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up?

Kerstin: I grew up in LA, but my parents both grew up in villages—in Arkansas and Northern Germany. My happiest times were wading the creek in Arkansas and walking in the woods in Germany, so I decided I wanted to live and work with nature.

I would see the park rangers and be like, “Oh you get paid to live on a nature reserve in beautiful places? That’s what I want to do.” But I was also this nerdy intellectual that liked books and writing. Conservation scientist melds those two for me. 

Nik: And you never deviated from that course?

Kerstin: It was completely indirect, but it’s a long story. I was a professor at Humboldt State University, and I met my husband when he was a new professor here. I don’t know if you know California geography but that’s like 400 miles apart. Not so good for a marriage. 

Nik: “Here” being UC Santa Cruz

Kerstin: Yes, that’s where I’m zooming from, I live on the UCSC campus. So there I was, 22 years ago, in the market for a Monterey Bay area job and didn’t know a darn thing about estuaries. 

Nik: We’ll strike that from the interview.

Eating a native Olympia oyster—there aren’t many grown commercially on the West Coast, so most people have never tried one—with former collaborative lead of NSC-funded Native Olympia Oyster Collaborative and current graduate student leading conservation aquaculture efforts.

Slogging through the mud excited to go use calipers to measure aquaculture-raised Olympia oysters.

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Talk NERRdy to Myself: Confessions of an AuctioNERR

Talk NERRdy to Myself: Confessions of an AuctioNERR

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed himself, in a ludicrous bid (get it?) to build excitement for the annual NERRA auction, which he somehow got stuck co-managing some years ago. While everyone else was busy doing real work.

Nik: Hi Nik, welcome to Talk NERRdy. It’s so good to finally sit down with you.

Nik: Whatever. This is your psychotic, quarantine-borne delusion; I’m just here for the snacks.

Nik: That’s great! Every year at the annual meeting, whether it’s in-person or virtual, NERRA raises extra money for all the good things it does through an auction of donated handmade goods, services, trips, and equipment. That support helps NERRA lobby on behalf of the NERRS in Congress. But tell us, Nik, what don’t we know about the NERRA Auction?

Nik: Oh, it’s wild backstage. If it weren’t for the multi-talented auction committee, the whole thing would go down in flames. First of all, the items come in like a California mudslide, and we have scant hours in between Important Meeting Sessions to sort them, price them, arrange them, and determine which special ones go into the live portion of “The Show,” as we call it. The trips and the SWMP equipment, the “rare” wines from New Jersey, and rum from Jobos Bay—those are all locks for the live auction. But then … there’s the weird stuff.

Nik: Can you remember any particular items?

Nik: Funny thing about that: I reached out to a number of past auction committee members about their favorite items from auctions past and most said, “Oh, somehow I just can’t remember.”

Fortunately, auctioneers have perfect recall. Over the years, we’ve sold beaver nuggets, fake cat vomit, lost & found wallets, industrial lubricants, Estuary beer, precious art … and uh, less-precious art. I sold myself in 2012 as a dodgeball free agent, but that got awkward … Anything for NERRA, I guess. (shrugs)

Nik: How did you get into auctioneering?

Nik: Well, as a young boy, I spent my summers tidepooling on Maine’s coast, picking up periwinkles and selling them to other beachcombers. I also wore a lot of suits as a kid and majored in Competitive Microeconomics at Duke.

Nik: Hmm. Are you usually funnier in the auctions?

Nik: Yes. Listen, it’s not an easy gig. I really don’t like talking into a microphone [Editor: this is a lie], and I really don’t think it’s fair to coerce the Underpaid NERRds of America to spend their government salaries on sea turtle jewelry or metal water bottles.

But then again, I do love to sell things and make fun of people like former manager Willy Reay. Plus: the NERRA auction is super important. How did I get into it? Like so many NERRA volunteer opportunities, co-managing the auction was an “everyone else stepped back while I wasn’t paying attention” selection process.

Same thing happened to my fellow auctioneer Chris [Bowser]. We filled a vacuum. The previous auctioneers, Terry Stevens and Peter Wellenberger, God rest their souls, were great, but they retired to The Old Auctioneers Home in … 2015, was it? 2016? I’ve heard they’re still there, writing books about climate change on sheets of toilet paper.

Former auctioneers Peter Wellenberger and Terry Stevens ran the annual show for decades before succumbing to patrician neuroses and changing cultural norms.

Nik: You mentioned Chris Bowser? Isn’t he “the funny one” in the auction?

Nik: He was, yes. Also “the loud one.” But at the last in-person meeting, he sold an enchanted mermaid doll handcrafted by known sorceress Betsy Blair. Chris fell under a powerful curse, and we haven’t seen him since.

Last known photo of auctioneer Chris Bowser with the cursed doll.

Nik: You auctioneers have been known to walk the edge of humor?

Nik: Listen, it’s for charity, and we expect the audience to be charitable. The sound system never works anyway, so most of the jokes turn into “<crackle> <hum> crabs <hiss> <pop> Delaware.” The most important thing is that we’ve cut the auction down to just 90 minutes of malarkey and shenanigans, and it reliably raises twenty thousand dollars. You wouldn’t believe how long the old auctions used to go …

The auctions used to go on so long, these photos of former Great Bay CTP Coordinator Steve Miller were taken ON THE SAME NIGHT.

Nik: The annual meeting is once again virtual this year, and so the auction is solely online. It’s one big silent auction showcase. Does that make it less fun for you and the team?

Nik: Next question.

Nik: Where do you see the NERRA Auction going in the future? I know the NERRA Auction Committee has a Strategic Planning Subcommittee with monthly calls and a whitepaper in pre-print …

Nik: We’ll be back together again in Seattle in 2022, because Jude Apple bought a fusty, cryptic blanket in 2019 for $800 and—surprise, surprise—it comes with Annual Meeting hosting duties. Sucker! No, seriously, the team is really looking forward to hawking crustacean art, overpriced bumper stickers, three-sleeved handknit sweaters (or were those pants, Coreen?), and beautiful sweetgrass baskets from Sapelo Island, live and in-person again.

I think we’ll be adding more musical numbers in the future, maybe some juggling or burlesque routines. Really, the sky’s the limit. We’ve got material and merchandise for years. I’ll do anything for NERRA, because they’ve got a lot of compromising information on me.

Pro tip: Never hand over a microphone.

Nik: So you’re in it to win it?

Nik: For at least two more years, yes.

Nik: Do I hear three? Can we get five more years?

Nik: I see what you did there.

The 2021 NERRA Auction runs from November 1 to November 18. Register to bid and get shopping now!

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Pete Wiley

Talk NERRdy to Me: Pete Wiley

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed Pete Wiley, Economist at NOAA, former CTP lead, writer-musician, and blogger. They talked about motivation, music and meaning, and life and death. You know, the light stuff.

Nik: Mr. Peter Wiley, hello. We’ve really gotten to the bottom of the barrel—it’s the end of the Talk NERRDy list if we’re at ‘Covid-positive Guy talks to Half-retired Guy.’ So it goes. Pete, you’ve been at NOAA for 31 years, which is longer than I’ve been alive. Why is that? 

Pete: Why have you not been alive that long?

Nik: No, no. Why have YOU been at NOAA for 31 years? Were you afraid to leave?

Pete: I honestly, sincerely believe in what NOAA is doing and the way we do it. I love the emphasis on partnerships. We get to work with a variety of organizations and people who are smart and passionate and committed to what they do. I believe in public service and I believe NOAA makes a difference with the organizations that it partners with to achieve its missions.

Nik: How does one get a belief in public service? Is one born with it?

Pete: I think when people are young, they think about doing something that’s meaningful and earns them a living. My first two jobs out of college were anything but meaningful, so when I happened across the NOAA job, meaning was at the forefront of my mind. Public service gives meaning to what I do.

Nik: You talk about work being meaningful, but you do economics!

Pete: I didn’t even study environmental economics in college. I studied straight economics. Most economists don’t think about keeping the planet healthy. But a friend who worked for NOAA said to me ‘Hey, we’re looking for junior economists, and you’re looking for a job.’ It was pure dumb luck I was able to find a way to make economics about the environment and the value of natural resources—which is a totally cool way to think about economics.

Nik: Why economics? Studying economics in undergrad is, like, pre-investment banker, which is the least meaningful thing to do in the world. 

Pete: Economics is really the study of scarcity, and how humans respond to scarcity. It’s the study of behavior. To me, economics got to the heart of what I’ve always been interested in: people’s motivations. 

Nik: Sum up your entire career in a sentence: What I’ve learned about people’s motivations is that…

Pete: People are going to do what’s in their best interest. That’s the way we’re wired. My whole career has been helping people realize what’s in their best interest is also in the best interest of the planet—that when they engage with the world, they’re a part of the rest of the species on the planet.

Nik: This finally makes clear to me why you were The CTP [Coastal training Program] Guy. …but you aren’t anymore.

Pete: No.

Nik: Sorry. But CTP likes to figure out what gets people to do things, right? CTP is not just delivering training, it’s also getting that training’s lessons to be applied. How long were you the CTP Guy?

Pete: Seven years. But I would like to say: everything the Reserves do, not just CTP, is about people. There’s no way to separate people from what we do; they’re always going to be one of the most important variables. I don’t mean to say people are more important than anything else we study; it’s just that humans have this capacity to both impact everything we study and benefit from it. To leave people out of the equation is missing half the story, and it was really important to me as a CTP Coordinator at NOAA to really think about that.

Nik: You have always been interested in people, I know this. Your other job is as a blogger, a thinker, even as a [self-]published author. 

Pete: I was waiting for you to get to my plug.

Nik: That’s the only reason I have this show. 

Pete: That’s the only reason I’m talking to you.

Nik: We’ve got to move some merchandise, so let’s get right to “Blocks of Life.” Did I pronounce that correctly?

Pete: Yes, very good.

Nik: What is Blocks of Life, Peter Wiley?

Pete: My interest in people has driven everything I do, from my NOAA career to my writing. Blocks of Life is my platform to think about people from a completely holistic perspective: people’s place in the ecosystem, the planet, the universe. Luckily it’s a non-scientific endeavor so I can think about it in any way that strikes me at the time.

Nik: And like this monthly feature, it must have dozens of readers by this point. How much of its success would you attribute to its… refreshing lack of specificity? 

Pete: A good deal. It’s got a little something for everybody. It’s a self-selected audience and there are people–I won’t name names, but one rhymes with ‘Dik Marov’—who really don’t get it. But there are lots of people out there who it hopefully helps. It’s an exploration more than anything else: I’m not answering questions, I’m asking them. It’s been fun to think about different human nature topics over the years and put them out there and see how people respond. 

Nik: How many posts do you think you’ve written by this point?

Pete: It’s every two weeks since 2015. I’m not going to do the math.

Nik: How has it changed your thinking?

Pete: Anytime I think about a topic, I read as much as I can and I think about it for a couple of weeks. When I start writing, I never think about it as a conclusion. I think about it as an exploration and I think that really helps me—

Nik: —to not reach a conclusion?

Pete: It helps me to write things that are not obvious, or are obvious to many people, but not to me.

Nik: Blocks of Life is not only a repository of your thinking, it has been for many years the home of the official campfire song book of NERRS national meetings, which everybody should download and memorize. It’s also a place where you can now find other music you’ve personally recorded…I noticed a lot of Wileys in the liner notes. Are you like the Partridge Family or the Osmonds, but not as hardcore? 

Pete: I hang around with my family a lot and some of them are way more talented than I am. It’s been really fun to write and record music with them. I’ve been hanging around musicians my whole life. And some of them have been kind enough to help me record some music.

Nik: Your mother was a musician, wasn’t she?

Pete: My mother was a pianist and music teacher her whole life. And I’m recording and posting some of her music as well: Barbara H. Wiley on Spotify. That’s why this extra time I’m spending on Blocks of Life is so fun. I’ve expanded it to music and poetry and images.

Nik: You’re one of the first people I know that’s gone into half retirement. You’re doing three days of NOAA and two days of Blocks of Life now. Do you push away from the desk on Wednesday at 4PM, grab a guitar and put on cowboy boots?

Pete: It wasn’t an obvious transition. Trying to complete my NOAA work in a discrete time period has never been one of my strong suits.

Nik: Everybody says that. 

Pete: To be true to what I’m trying to do with Blocks of Life, I really have to stop on Wednesday night. I put my work computer away and I take out my personal computer and I don’t have tabs open.

Nik: Nice life. Have you always lived where you live? Are you a Mid-Atlantian?

Pete: I was born in New York near the Hudson River Reserve. I moved to Maryland when I was eight; I consider myself a Marylander. I love to travel but I also love coming back home. I love the Mid-Atlantic. It’s got mountains, it’s got oceans, it’s got everything. There is a winter, there is a summer. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere that doesn’t have seasons. 

Nik: Yeah, “seasons.” You’re not really living at the extremes. You don’t have mountains, c’mon. You’re neither north nor south. You’re bland mid-latitude, at the center of coastal things. Is your geography a synecdoche of your life preferences? 

Pete: I am very close to my family and it would’ve been hard for me to live far away from them. But if I had found a job in the North Pole, then I would have gone there. I never had a job opportunity elsewhere. 

Nik: You didn’t apply! You’ve been at NOAA for 30 @#$$# years!

Pete: If I had found the perfect job, I would have left. …I think you were trying to make a metaphor that I just ruined.

Nik: I’m just spitballing here. OK, we already plugged your thing. Unless there’s merchandise, let’s run out the clock with trivialities.

Pete: Aren’t you going to play the clip from my upcoming movie?

Nik: Do we have a clip?

Pete: …no.

Nik: That’s fine. Both of us love music, you love to play it and I love to hear it played, and you love to sing it, and you hate to hear me sing it. That’s why we get along so well. What about music brings people together? You pull out a guitar before a change of clothes at the annual meeting.

Pete: Music brings people together because it’s a common frame of reference. Music is an emotional exploration for people that don’t have the capacity to explore their emotions otherwise. Music is fun, it’s joyful, it’s a celebration. 

Nik: Especially for emotionally repressed people, which you just accused all of us of being?

Pete: I am among those people for whom music helps them express emotion. Anybody who says that they’ve got emotions figured out and music doesn’t help them explore their emotions is lying. I am not accusing you, I am accusing every single person on the planet. 

Nik: Beer and bourbon do not figure in emotional expression whatsoever. 

Pete: No, that would be inappropriate. And you, Nik Charov, are the worst singer I’ve ever heard—with one exception, and that is me— but both of us are perfectly willing to sing at the top of our lungs.

Nik: That’s the first time you’ve been honest with me about my singing in ten years and now I think this interview is over.

Pete: I said you were a better singer than me. I’ve hurt you now, haven’t I? There’s no coming back from it.

Nik: “We exist to hurt each other” is MY theory of human relations and everyone can read my thoughts about that on MY blog,

Pete: Wow. 

Nik: I’ve interviewed about two dozen people for this column read by dozens of people, but I think you’re the first from NOAA HQ. How do you stay connected to these estuary things from that gleaming silver cube in Silver Spring?

Pete: By going to them. This whole system is about relationships and talking to people and comparing notes and working in collaboration. As a non-biophysical scientist working in the Reserves, it’s hard to have a common frame of reference sometimes, but I talk to people and people are passionate about what they do and I feel like a part of it again. It’s a really cool, welcoming, friendly bunch of people, which helps. 

Nik: What about our system’s natural spaces? The water and mud, the grass and hills.

Pete: People often think when I’m going to Reserves, I’m going to nature. But people are never out of nature. If you’re in your air conditioned house, you get in your air conditioned car, you go to an air conditioned building, sit at your computer all day, and do all that in reverse at the end of the day, you are in the ecosystem the entire time. You’re drinking water, you’re breathing air, you’re using products that come from nature.

We cannot be talking about the human dimension as a separate thing. People have such great potential to impact the rest of the ecosystem and they have such potential, with appropriate education and behavior, to be a great part of the natural system and create benefits in a reciprocal way. But it has to be reciprocal or it’s never going to work.

Nik: How do you feel about ecosystems without people, Peter Wiley? 

Pete: When I get depressed about what’s going on, I think, ‘We’ve had a good run as a species; it’s about time we exited stage left. We’re only doing harm now.’ Different species go extinct for different reasons and, in our case, our technology got ahead of our wisdom. Maybe we can fix it. I hope we can. But if humans weren’t here, I think that the world would be just fine.

Nik: Again, everyone can read more about that at MY blog, Thank you for sitting down with me, Peter Wiley. I look forward to working with you three days a week, or less, for two more years. See you at And occasionally at NOAA.

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Adam MacKinnon

Talk NERRdy to Me: Adam MacKinnon

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 Adam MacKinnon, education coordinator at Georgia’s Sapelo Island Reserve. They talked shipwrecks, disentangling whales, and 4,500 years of Sapelo Island history.

Nik: Welcome Adam! What’s going on down in Sapelo?

Adam: Since September 2019, I’ve been dealing a lot with the Golden Ray. You ever heard of that?

Nik: Is that a fish?

Adam: It’s the costliest Maritime disaster in US history. No one knows about it. It’s right in my backyard, a couple of sounds south of the Reserve.

Nik: What??

Adam: A car carrier rolled in the sound with 4200 cars inside of it. The largest crane in the Western Hemisphere is straddling the ship and they’re using an anchor chain to cut it into pieces. They put it on a barge and send it to Louisiana. I’m the only representative from the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Nik: How deep is the water?

Adam: The ship was driven onto a sand bar so it would not sink in the  main shipping channel They call these ships ROROs [Roll On Roll Off].  It’s the fifth RORO that’s basically done this. We’re already over a billion dollars in cost for this disaster.

Nik: This has been since September 2019? I never heard of this.

Adam: 2021 and it’s still there. It’s just bizarre. It was on national news, but people don’t know about it. Every day, every single day, it’s in our paper.

The Golden Ray

Nik: The ultimate small-town life. How many people live on Sapelo Island by this point?

Adam: Well, I don’t live on Sapelo. But there’s two types of people on Sapelo: descendants and others. Now for descendants, you have the Gullah Geechee. They’re descendants of the freed slaves of Thomas Spaulding, but they all claim descent from his head slave Bilali Mohammed. Bilali was a highly educated, Islamic slave from West Africa. He did all the day-to-day operations, so people could live where they want, they could keep their culture—that’s why the Geechee culture survived. It’s ironic they survived slavery keeping their culture pretty much intact, but now the price of their land is so high, and there’s all these wealthy white people moving in. 

Nik: Wasn’t Sapelo given to the state of Georgia?

Adam: State of Georgia owns all but 400 acres. That’s the little Hog Hammock enclave, which is private property. It’s a nice work environment on Sapelo, we get along great, but there’s a bigger picture of animosity. They remember when their fathers or grandfathers were displaced from other parts of the island. There were many communities on the island, they all got moved to one community. 

Nik: I am in love with the South, I am fascinated by the sea islands. I just read The Water is Wide, you know, the basis for the movie, Conrack. You’ve got prehistoric cultures, you’ve got 4,500 years of history, you’ve got slavery. You’ve got R.J. Reynolds and Detroit Motor bearings.

Adam: You’re well versed!

Nik: I read Buddy Sullivan’s history of Sapelo, because I’m so interested. Hate the sin, but love the SINERR, man! You’ve got so much going on down there. I just want to dive into it! But how did you get there? What are you doing there?

Adam: Education was never my career path. I have about 24 years working with the Department of Natural Resources. I’m an endangered species biologist by education and trade. I did research in Costa Rica with leatherbacks. I tagged green turtles and hawksbills in St. Croix. I actually met my wife on a loggerhead project in Georgia. I was with the Endangered Species Program for 14 years here. 

And then I had kids and I just found out something—well, many things. But one is that I love teaching. I used to disentangle Right Whales, and it was a big high, but after a while that becomes work and I’m getting old, too.

When the education coordinator position came open I thought, you know, this would be a great way to give back. I love science, I love wildlife, and I thought if I’m going to really make an impact, this is probably more of a lasting legacy.

Nik: Did you have any experiences early on in childhood where you found yourself teaching?

Adam: It was really having kids that showed me. I coached soccer and taught Sunday school. You have a chance every day to make a difference. Saving a Right Whale is great, then it gets hit by a boat next week. Great. 

Nik: Great job, whale. Stupid. That’s why you’re endangered!

Adam: Scientists can be absurdly, myopic. I’d say most scientists are terrible naturalists. Naturalists are generalists—they know a little bit of everything. I’ve always been more of a naturalist. I hate not knowing what I’m seeing. This job also allows me to do that. It’s more like imparting general knowledge, all of my 24 years with DNR. Adam’s Big Book of Useless Facts!

Nik: So what do you love about these places?

Adam: Well as I said, I met my wife tagging sea turtles on one of our northern barrier islands, called Wassaw. Most of our islands are protected. We only have about 110 miles of coast, but we have the 16 major barrier islands. You can only get to four of them, so that leaves a lot of wilderness. It’s probably the longest contiguous line of wilderness on the East Coast. 

My favorite island is Ossabaw. It’s about 13 miles of beach, and the general public’s not allowed. You can be in these wild places and feel like you’re a million miles away. No one knows about this coast. It’s kind of a big kept secret. Come on, Nik! I’ll pick you up!

Nik: If I wasn’t afraid to leave my house, I would be on the next plane.

Adam: I got Kenneth out there, I could get you out there.

Nik: I know it’s probably signing my death warrant here to ask the guy who has Adam’s Big Book of Useless Facts at his fingertips, but what’s your favorite part of the ecosystem? 

Adam: Estuaries are so fantastic. Sapelo is where modern ecology was invented by Eugene Odum. John Teal is a contemporary of Odom, a highly published ecologist in his own right, and I’m friends with his son. So it’s cool to walk in the footsteps of legends like that. Plus, Sapelo is like science central. 

Not only do we have the NERRS doing science, DNR does a little bit, but we also have University of Georgia and part of that, there’s an LTER there, a long-term ecological research site. I get to surround myself with these high-powered scientists all the time. On Sapelo we’re dictated by that ferry, and I can only do school groups on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So I like to fill the other times.

Nik: It’s not one of these drive-up Reserves. I think I heard you were involved with the friends group and two of my favorite friends, Linda and JD, came from Sapelo. How does the friends group help out?

Adam: The Friends were under me for years and years, but now our stewardship coordinator took it over. They’ve really taken a hit with COVID because they haven’t been able to go out there. I know other Reserves have this issue but our group is kind of getting old. Mentally, they’re sharp—they’re great.

Nik: How is Sapelo dealing with climate change?

Adam: So the big noticeable effects are the increase in tropical storms we’ve been experiencing. Sea level rise is hard for the average person to comprehend even if you say, “Oh look! Ours is going up by 3.8 millimeters per year!” And they’re like, “That’s not really bad.” They don’t understand it’s bad. 

The last hurricane to directly hit the Georgia coast was 1898. Hurricanes tend to either go behind us or skip us. So people always thought we were just immune. Matthew was the big wake-up call. It knocked down 68 trees across our main road. And then Irma was a big flooding event. Hog Hammock got flooded including the old church. FEMA was out there and they’re telling everyone you got to raise your houses where everyone lives in a trailer. How do you raise a trailer? 

Nik: They’ll just swim!

Adam: I hated hearing after Irma, “Well we finally got hit by the big one and it wasn’t that bad.” No, we didn’t get nearly hit by the big one. I took a pole and put a line on it where Irma’s flooding was, right on the baseboard. And then I did all the major hurricanes and then Katrina’s obviously way up the pole. Just to get people used to the concept that that was nothing. It’s not going to go away. I know I’m tired of spending my vacation money on evacuations. My wife works at DNR too, and some of her co-workers, their wives are just done. They were having PTSD from all these hurricane evacuations, just one after another. 

I have an overly long climate change talk because my brother is not a climate change guy, which was actually perfect for me because I listen to all of his arguments why it’s not real or scientists are making it up or whatever. And answering those arguments was my whole PowerPoint. A lot of my talks are about how just because someone has a study doesn’t mean it’s a good study. I talk about what it really means to be a scientist, you know.

Nik: Science is not done on Facebook or, you know, by guys who have podcasts.

Adam: I’m committed to telling them how true good science works. If you get within a 95% confidence rule, you’re pretty certain about a trend or something like that. And it’s amazing when people say, “Why aren’t you 100%?” I’ve never been 95 % certain about anything in my own life.

Nik: Listen, I heard that in a wedding vow once, which did not go well, so.

Adam: Yeah. I chose my wife well (laughs).

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Talk NERRdy: Suzanne Shull

Talk NERRdy: Suzanne Shull

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 Suzanne Shull, GIS specialist at Washington’s Padilla Bay Reserve. They talked about spaces, places, and ground truthing everything from eelgrass to David Bowie’s nudibranch-forward fashion sense.

Nik: Suzanne Shull, you’ve been at Padilla Bay since 1997, which is longer than most of the Davidson Fellows have been alive. What do you do there, and why do you do it?

Suzanne: I’m a Geospatial Information System (GIS) specialist. I get to work in the sciences, do a lot of different kinds of hands-on work while also bringing GIS technical skills. It’s allowed me to help scientists understand the value of GIS and implement it. GIS is technically all about what’s where; everything we do has a spatial component to it. Every spreadsheet you’ve ever used could be translated into a GIS beta layer. 

Nik: “A lot” of scientists [Editor’s Note: n=29, CV>=1] read this monthly newsletter. What sells them on GIS? What are some things that they might want that GIS provides?

Suzanne: Well, habitat maps, for example. That’s not something you just hand off to somebody outside of the Reserves and say, “Make me a map.” You’ve got to know the habitats and what it is you’re after.

Nik: This is a relatively new specialty, right? I mean, we’ve been making maps since forever. Aerial photography originally by planes and guys out on the wing with a flash and a hood, right?

Suzanne: And hot air balloons! Yeah, it’s been around for a long time, but it’s become more accessible. Doug Bulthuis was the Research Coordinator at Padilla Bay until he handed the reins off to Jude [Apple]. In 1989 he mapped from aerial photography onto a topographic sheet, just using a zoom transfer scope, and then that was translated to a GIS much later. And that’s really how I got started.

I went to graduate school here in Western Washington University and worked on hyperspectral imagery from our state Department of Natural Resources to map nearshore vegetation. They handed that imagery off to me and said, “We’d like you to make a map of Padilla Bay so that we can compare our results,” and the rest is history! When I finished that master’s program, I got hired at Padilla Bay to set up the GIS and here I am. We still have aerial photography flown every yearwe don’t always map from it, but we have this record where just by looking at the imagery you can see whether or not that subtidal edge is stable, for instance.

Nik: I’m going to cut to the chase and ask: has Padilla Bay changed?

Suzanne: I’d say we have more distribution of the eelgrass than we did. But one of the problems for remote sensing is getting at the species differentiation. We’ve got two species (at least) an introduced species and a native species, and they grow intermixed so you can’t do it without ground truthing.

Nik: I know our GIS specialist and UAV pilot here in Wellsthe incomparable Sue Bickfordstill loves her some ground truthing. Do you feel the same way about getting out there, getting the old waders on?

Suzanne: I do! Next week we’re headed out to do our annual biomonitoring acquisition of vegetation characteristics and hopefully our aerial photography will be flown simultaneously.

Nik: As an expert in spaces, what does it mean to you when places change over time?

Suzanne: Well, it’s fascinating. One of the first projects I worked on at Padilla Bay was to try and get a handle on the land use changes in the surrounding watershed. It was really hard to find a way to either use remote sensing or even census data to figure out what those changes were and how we could assess them, but I found it fascinating. 

The distribution of eelgrass is interesting too. The shellfish growers are not keen about the introduced species because it will grow where they are harvesting shellfish. It used to be that eelgrass in Washington State was protected, and it was irrelevant what species it was. Now they differentiate the two, and each county can decide whether or not they want to apply herbicides on the introduced species.

Nik: What drew you into this world?

Suzanne: I studied urban planning as an undergraduate, with a background in engineering, so I’d done a lot of the sciences and math. When I graduated, I was hired as a research technician for a physical oceanographer and we would study currents and coastal seas all over the world. We were starting to use satellite imagery to look at sea surface temperatures, SSTs, and we would deploy drones to do sea surface temperature measurements. That just fascinated me, that you could do that kind of science remotely. So that’s how I chose the graduate program that I went into.

Nik: …Wait, how’d you get from urban planning to SST?

Suzanne: Well, I grew up in San Diego near the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I had done some volunteer work and a few projects in my undergraduate program studying the marshes north of San Diego. Oh, and my dad was an oceanographerhe was actually a professor at San Diego State.

Nik: Ah. The family business. And then you got to the mapping of places…Or is it mapping spaces? We had a Wabanaki tribal representative at the Wells Reserve recently, talking about Indigenous peoples’ sense of place. He mentioned that the geographer and philosopher Yi-Fu Tuan came up with a formula that, “A place equals space plus culture.” In the GIS world, how does the mapping of human and cultural resources, possibly also known as human dynamics, get pulled in?

Suzanne: That’s an excellent question. I’ve been focused on the natural resources side of it, but I do like that we’re growing our relationship with Esri, which is the company that makes the software we use. They have this thing called the Living Atlas, which has authoritative datasets that include census data, economics—whatever tribal data is available publicly… It’s a quick and easy way to bring in all those things. I would like to see more of that incorporated into our GIS products as we move forward in the NERRS, because I think it’s a ready resource that’s underutilized. 

The other important thing is: how can we bring those different data layers together to tell a story? I’ll put a plug in for the Landscape Scale Marsh Assessment as a beautiful example. We have sea level rise data, land use, land cover, soil dataand we combine those to look at where our marshes are more vulnerable to SLR and where they are most adaptable. The key is in the creativity of how you get at combining those layers. The beauty of what Great Bay’s Rachel Stevens and Cory Riley did was to turn that into management actions, so you not only have this data that really supports an assessment of vulnerability, but also what you can do with that information. 

Nik: There is a prescriptive aspect of it, isn’t there, where GIS specialists across the System are going, like, “Here’s what you can do,” right?

Suzanne: Yeah, but I would broaden that. What I’d like to see is that all of the sectors value the use of that GIS data to be prescriptive, so that it gets incorporated into every project that we do. GIS can seem like a scary word. People are like, “That’s a technical thing and that goes over here in the corner,” but we should start thinking of giving these projects a spatial component. You can take all the data in the world, but to know what to do with it is going to take the minds of all these different types of thinkers and scientists and outreach specialists and educators.

Nik: Not to put you on the spot, but how might you bring your work to a summer camp for kids? I’m looking out my office window at some campers right now. How would we take your big scary GIS to first and second graders that have a couple of weeks with us in the summer can we do it?

Suzanne: Oh yeah, they’d eat it up! You could take them to the beach, do surveys for forage fish eggs, and then look at the sand those eggs are sitting in. Back in the lab, you can look at your online mapping application and it will show you where the feeder bluffs are located, where the eggs they found are located, and where that is relative to, say, the kelp and eelgrass beds. You put that whole story together, and they just love it, right? Because kids are super good at the digital side of it. They can add the layers and build the maps more easily than many adults.

Nik: …You just did that off the top of your head? That was amazing. ECs, take note. What’s your favorite animal at the Reserve?

Suzanne: The sea slug [laughs]. You heard of the Bowiebranchia, that website that compares David Bowie’s outfits to sea slugs’ color patterns? Oh, it’s fabulous. He nailed it in so many ways and they’re just such amazing animals.

Nik: No way! Also, thank you for not saying sea otters. As a space and place person, what’s your favorite spot in Padilla Bay? 

Suzanne: I have done a lot of ground truthing out there and I’ve been to a lot of places nobody else has been. There are some channels out there where, on a low tide, water drains off of the eelgrass meadow and creates a waterfall effect down into the channel, and it’s absolutely full of fish.

What I’d like to do is take all those groundtruthing data points I’ve collected with photographs and build a story map that archives all of that. I’m probably going to retire in the next ten years, so I think about all this data I’ve got that nobody else knows even exists. I love story maps for that; it’s not dry data, it’s a story you can really use.

Nik: Right. And it would be your story. Your footsteps. From 24 years in the same place. I mean, in your head you have a generation of knowledge. 

Suzanne: True, yeah. [laughs]

Nik: With all respect! 

Suzanne: No, yes, thank you. It’s an honor to be able to age. It really is.

Nik: Safely and healthily. I’ve heard rumors that Padilla Bay will someday soon be hosting the annual meeting, should we go back to annual meetings in person. In Wells, there’s no hotel big enough. 

Suzanne: Yeah. I just visited Steve Baird up at Kachemak Bay. Oh my goodness, talk about heaven on earth. It would be virtually impossible to do an annual meeting there but, man, I think it would be really good for all of us to witness what it is that they’re doing up there.

Nik: We could charter a cruise ship. It could be the NERRds Cruise. 

Suzanne: They’re probably pretty cheap right now.

Nik: Solved another one!

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Cory Riley

Talk NERRdy to Me: Cory Riley

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 the very familiar Cory Riley, manager at New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve and past NERRA president. They talked about life stages, the need for friends and constant curiosity, and, naturally, mid-life motorcycles. Photo courtesy of Courtesy Danielle MacInnes.

Nik: We’re talking with Cory Riley today! Who is basically the last person on our list. Summer-brained, we couldn’t think of anybody this month, so we said well, why not Cory?

Cory: Anything for NERRA, Nik. Anything for NERRA.

Nik: You’ve been involved for like 50 years, or at least that’s how it feels. Why “anything for NERRA”? Why is NERRA worth Cory Riley’s time, by this point?

Cory: What!? NERRA does things for the system that nothing else can do. It gives us a collective voice to the Administration and Congress, which is really important because that’s how we get our funding. You need a friend in DC if you want to be a part of the federal budget! So that, number one, is why NERRA is worth all of our time, not just me but anybody who is in the Reserve system. NERRA helps us have a common message and forces us to have a vision.

And I love NERRA because in the last few years it’s really provided a very friendly way for Reserves to talk to each other and celebrate each other’s successes. Also, political winds change, there needs to be somebody who can remind people how awesome the Reserve system is—someday we won’t be so lucky. I love the historical stories about NERRA and why it started. 

Nik: What about how you started? Where are you from, Cory Riley? 

Cory: I am from Middleton, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Not far from the ocean, loved the beach as a kid. 

Nik: What about Middleton and the beaches of Boston’s North Shore was so great?

Cory: I had a best friend in high school who had access to a hunting shack on a little island on Great Marsh. We decided we were going to go out and fix up the shack, and so we spent every weekend cleaning out all the junk, bringing camp chairs out, and hanging out.

Nik: Wait a minute. High schoolers, unsupervised, in a shack in the middle of a marsh?

Cory: I know. I wouldn’t want it to happen within my Reserve boundaries. But it’s what made me realize that I love the smell of salt marsh. We weren’t doing anything nefarious because I was a big, fat nerd in high school.

Nik: So, it wasn’t the “beer bust at the Moon Tower” out there?

Cory: No. I always knew I loved the beach and the coast, but that’s when I really got into salt marshes. I studied biology at William and Mary and I had a professor who also worked at VIMS, which is, you know, where Willy Reay rules.

Nik: Has for 80 years. Retirement coming up, I hear. [Editor’s Note: This is a perverse rumor that starts—and ends—with Nik and has been repeatedly debunked by Dr. Reay.]

Cory: Yeah, yeah. Then… where was I? Peace Corps in Jamaica, where I did environmental education work in an organic garden in a little coastal town. Then I did something not related to the coast for one year, which was also awesome; I worked for a nonprofit with teenagers on the border of Texas and Mexico, training them how to do community service projects in their towns.

THEN I went to grad school to study Coastal and Ocean Science and Policy at UMASS Boston.  They have this research institute there, the Urban Harbors Institute. That’s how I got hooked up with the Reserve system, because I ended up working on a project with Jeff Benoit, who worked for Mass Coastal Zone, then NOAA, then Restore America’s Estuaries. He was behind a project at the time to look at performance metrics.

Photo courtesy of Courtesy Danielle MacInnes.

Nik: Oh, so performance metrics are your fault?

Cory: All of it is my fault. And the managers who were around then still blame me. As part of that project, I interviewed Paul Dest and the other New England managers at the time at Waquoit, Narragansett, and Great Bay. At my first interview, I was like “This is amazing! This is kind of what I want to do. I want to be someplace where you can do place-based research and education.” I got hired by NOAA out of grad school. I bopped around with Reserve work and did whatever needed to be done for a long time. It’s been almost 20 years! So I do feel like I know the System really well.

Nik: Where’s the system at by this point, if you had to give it a stage of life? We’re no longer larval.

Cory: (laughs) No, not at all. I think we’re in our mid 20s to mid 30s. For me at that time, it was like every two years, some big decision was happening. You’re going back to school, having a kid, buying a house,  getting a puppy… You were doing new things and taking on new responsibilities and learning things at an incredible rate. So I think that’s where I see the Reserve System now. We’re mature enough to be directing our own destiny, but we’re still moving at an exciting clip. 

Nik: We haven’t hit the midlife crisis yet. 

Cory: Right. I can’t wait to see what kind of motorcycle we buy when we do.

Nik: (laughs) A shiny one!

Cory: Sparkles and flames!

Nik: Do you think we would have a midlife crisis? Or do you think our System is like one of those lucky people that just keeps getting better as a person. Not that I know anybody like that. 

Cory: I think the people who do keep getting better are willing to embrace their mistakes and successes. They put their ego aside and are always taking a fresh look at the world. They aren’t afraid of a challenge or something that threatens their worldview. So I hope the Reserves can be like that.

If there’s anything we know about the coast is that it’s always changing. And I think that if the Reserves stay nimble, they will remain the sanctuaries that they are. In the last six years especially, Reserves have really embraced the place-based part of our mission. And I do think that’s what makes us special and is gonna make us relevant in the long term. 

Nik: What does “place-based” mean to you?

Cory: To me, a place is the thing you fall in love with. You can’t fall in love with a concept, you know. You’ve got to see it and touch it and smell it. We get people hooked on science, on ecology, on stewarding the coast. We show them what it really looks like—this is erosion, this is what marsh deterioration or flooding looks like. To fall in love and have your heart broken is what being place-based means. 

Nik: Someone should write an 80s rock song about us. What’s going on at Great Bay lately? Didn’t you just inherit a farm? 

Cory: Oh yeah. The farm has been a real handful, but it’s also stunningly beautiful and I cannot wait to connect people to Great Bay there. It also has a really interesting history that we’re learning a lot about. You sit at a coastal farm yourself at Wells! It’s fun to interpret history.

Nik: When you go place-based, there’s that history that’s straight behind you every single day.

Cory: Yup. We do that at the Hugh Gregg Discovery Center. All of our fall field trips interpret how people have interacted with Great Bay, from Native American times to today. We’re making the farmhouse into housing for visiting researchers. And then we’re going to build a big picnic pavilion to create an amazing space for people to go, and we’re partnering with other parts of our agency to restore the boat launch that’s there. 

Nik: Great Bay NERR’s state partner is New Hampshire Fish & Game, yes? 

Cory: Yes. I love being a part of Fish & Game because we have similar missions—to protect and steward the state’s natural resources and to connect people to those resources. All of our lands are open to hunting and fishing.

Nik: Everything sounds really well functioning. So why do you need the Great Bay Stewards

Cory: They are part of our birth story. The Great Bay Reserve was created when Aristotle Onassis wanted to build the country’s largest oil refinery here in Great Bay,  and a group of citizens came together and stopped that. That group morphed into the Great Bay Stewards once the Great Bay NERR was up and running. They have been invaluable because even though we are supported by NH Fish & Game, we are a self-funded agency, so all of our state match comes from hunting and fishing licenses, which is a challenge.

The Stewards provide all kinds of amazing project specific support. They also serve as fiscal agents for external funding, so they provide that essential role, which NERRA and the Laudholm Trust at Wells do too. It’s not glamorous but it’s very important. They’re also our citizen advocates for Great Bay and the community and carry our mission forward in different circles—as community leaders, as people who are engaged in their town. They’re an amazing group, we’re very lucky to have them.

Nik: I feel that Wells is very lucky to have its friends group, as well. You like the give-and-take. Who’s your favorite giver-and-taker in the Reserve system? Somebody the three people who read this every month will now.

Cory: I like to argue with you. As far as give and take, where you sit down and argue over beers? North Inlet-Winyah Bay’s Eric Smith is a good one.

Nik: Something this important can’t be left to the Eric Smiths. …hey, come to think of it, there are so many new people in the system lately!

Cory: I think that’s great. It’s a sign that the Reserve system is becoming this professional organization, where hotshot people come and work for five years and then go somewhere else. This has its pros and cons, but I do feel like we’re really contributing to the next generation of amazing people—you have to let people go to know that we’re influencing the world. 

Nik: It feels to me like more people have just retired, and the new people coming in are young and exciting and diverse and really prepared… You talk to the Davidson fellows and they sound just like you, except they’re, like, 19!

Cory: Oh my gosh, yeah. I’m ready to give my job to Anna Lowein, the Davidson fellow who works at Great Bay right now. She’s such a rock star.

Nik: I think we all just need to quit and give it to them, and see what happens. I think that’s the next stage in NERRS development. 

Cory: I’ve thought about that a lot lately. Am I becoming a stale voice in this community? At what point do you say ‘I should show myself the door?’ How do I productively challenge myself? How do I need to light my fire to have a totally different perspective on the Reserve system?

Nik: I think you should get a motorcycle.

Cory: I think you’re right. [Editor’s note: With sparkles.]

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Talk NERRdy to Me