Restoring land, food, and people at Heʻeia

Restoring land, food, and people at Heʻeia

Freshly-harvested taro (Kalo, Colocasia esculenta) being cut in preparation for cooking. Cultivation of taro is a keystone element of Hawaiian social-ecological systems. Photo Credit – Sean Marrs

250 years ago in the Hawaiian islands, Indigenous resource management practices sustainably supported a population of more than a million people. Within this context, native habitats and biodiversity co-prospered with a thriving human community. Today, to feed roughly the same number of people, Hawai’i imports 90% of its food and has experienced significant loss of native species, habitat, and coral. The Heʻeia Reserve is combining Indigenous and conventional science to restore lands to help solve these problems.

The Reserve works with its community-based co-management partners to restore and manage  Indigenous wetland agro-ecology systems (loʻi kalo) and associated aquaculture systems (loko iʻa). The systems are cultivated by lineal descendants and other local families, which builds cultural identity, connection to place, and food self-sufficiency. Early findings show this approach is successfully restoring habitat for native plants and animals. It also contributes to Hawaiʻi’s sustainability goals, which include doubling food production in 20 years, protecting watersheds and ecosystems, and facilitating community-based management. 

“Ancient Hawaiians figured out how to manage wetlands to increase their ecosystem services—specifically food production, water filtration, and aquifer recharge,” says Dr. Kawika Winter, manager of the He’eia Reserve. “They did this through a resource management approach we call ‘ecomimicry,’ whereby ecosystem processes were managed to support human populations within them.”

An endangered Hawaiian Stilt (ʻAeʻo, Himantopus mexicanus knudseni) foraging in a wetland agro-ecosystem (loʻi) within the Reserve. Photo credit – Sean Marrs.

Just as the Hawaiians of old, contemporary communities use ecomimicry to restore habitats for native fish, insects, plants, and birds, including the endangered Hawaiian stilt, while restoring Indigenous food systems. Food security has become a big issue during the pandemic, and the approaches at Heʻeia are addressing that issue as well. In addition, current estimates suggest that if the family volunteer farming program goes to scale, it could increase returns to the state’s economy by $2 million. 

“The place that we’re working at becomes more abundant and healthier and restored,” says a participant in the program. “The thriving factor increases as we work not only for my own family, but for the place.”

The partnerships that support this work extend beyond the Hawai’i throughout the Reserve System and NOAA, according to Winter.

“Standardized water-quality monitoring is foundational to the NERRS entire research program, and that’s what our community wants us to do,” says Winter. “Beyond that, we are trying to develop a career pipeline for local students.  The various fellowship and internship opportunities within NOAA allow us to open the door to local students for some of the best professional development opportunities around.”

“I’ve been involved in conservation my entire life, and professionally for the last 15 years. I’ve never witnessed such strong community support for conservation work,” he adds. “The level of support we have is the envy of conservation efforts elsewhere, and I’m really proud that our community truly appreciates the work we’re doing.”

Longtime NERRd Returns

Longtime NERRd Returns

The Delaware Reserveand NERRAare excited to welcome Jennifer Holmes back to the NERRS family in her new role as coastal training program coordinator. Jennifer previously served as the Reserve’s education coordinator from 2006–2014.  

“Over my career, I have had amazing opportunities and experiences which allow me to see resource use and protection from numerous points of view. It has been wonderful to work collaboratively with so many talented individuals,” says Jennifer. “In my new role, I look forward to working with my colleagues in the NERRS as well as local and regional partners toward a sustainable and resilient future.” 

Jennifer returns to the Reserve from serving as the natural areas program manager for Delaware State Parks, and prior to that as a science and mathematics instructor at Calvary Christian Academy in Dover, Delaware. Before she served as education coordinator at the Delaware Reserve, Jennifer worked as an environmental scientist with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Wetlands and Subaqueous Lands Section and program manager in the DNREC Drainage Program. Before arriving in Delaware, she was a wetland ecologist in Ohio.

She has a Master of Science degree in Natural Resources Management from Ohio State University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science from Salem-Teikyo University (now Salem University) in West Virginia.

Healthy Lands Feed Students in Need

Healthy Lands Feed Students in Need

Sandra Sanchez from Pajaro Middle School distributes fresh organic produce to local families. Original story courtesy the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, friends group to California’s Elkhorn Slough Reserve.

The Elkhorn Slough Foundation’s “Healthy Lands, Helping Hands” program connects organic farmers who cultivate Foundation-protected lands with the Hall District Elementary School to distribute fresh, organic produce to local families in need.

Since mid-April, the program has distributed more than Four tons of produce. It began as shelter-in-place orders threatened food security for local families, many with students who visit the Foundation’s Carneros Creek Outdoor Classroom for docent-led field trips in ecology and environmental science.

“In April, we were approached by an anonymous donor who challenged us to find ways to help local families in need,” says Foundation Executive Director Mark Silberstein. “We thought about the kids from Hall School, no longer able to gather under the spreading oaks of the Outdoor Classroom, and their families, impacted by the sudden loss of jobs and income. We also thought about the organic farmers who cultivate Foundation-protected lands and were impacted by the reduction in demand and income. We reached out for a way to link our local farms and families.”

Pajaro Valley High School students volunteer to distribute food to their peers at Pajaro Valley Middle School.

That link was forged at Hall School in Las Lomas. Through generous contributions from individual donors, family foundations, the Community Foundation of Monterey County, and the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, the Elkhorn Slough Foundation raised $45,000 to purchase organic produce farmed on conservation lands just across the road from the school. With this support, Pajaro Valley Unified School District coordinators and the school’s food service distribute more than 500 meals a day and serve an estimated 150 families a week. Funding will allow the program to continue through the summer.

The schools, farmers, and families appreciate this circle of health—healthy land and water, healthy farms, healthy food, healthy families!” says Silberstein. “We are discussing expanding the program to additional schools including a school adopted by the Reserve.”

Farmers Javier Zamora and Jesus Calvillo, who deliver fresh-picked produce, are proud to help the school and families in their community—they are also grateful for the support of their farming operations during economically uncertain times.

“Jesus and Javier are great—good farmers and good people,” says Connie Norris, the school’s  food distribution supervisor. She says the families truly appreciate the quality of the fresh produce. “They love the vegetables and are making soups and trading recipes. They tell us they’re making cauliflower ceviche and stuff like that. It’s great.”

Pajaro Valley High School students volunteer to distribute food to their peers at Pajaro Valley Middle School.

“The Elkhorn Slough Foundation is grateful for the opportunity to highlight the link between the health of our lands and the health of the people in our community,” says Silberstein. “Conservation is all about the connections between land and people, and programs like this and our Outdoor Classroom offer hope for the future.”

The Carneros Creek Outdoor Classroom is an open-air learning space on Foundation-conserved land, a short walk from Hall School. For five years, fourth-grade students from Hall District Elementary have gathered there to learn about natural history and conservation science from their teachers and Foundation staff and volunteers. This year, the program was expanded to additional local Title I schools—just before shelter-in-place measures went into effect.

The Foundation has worked hand in hand with the National Estuarine Research Reserve for nearly 40 years. The non-profit assists with administering grant funds coming into the Reserve and is proud of the strong partnership between the Reserve, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and NOAA.  

The Elkhorn Slough Foundation is the only nonprofit land trust dedicated to permanently conserving and restoring the Elkhorn Slough and its surrounding lands. For more than 35 years, the Foundation has promoted community involvement in the slough through award-winning education, volunteer, and research programs. 

Elkhorn Slough, located at the heart of California’s iconic Monterey Bay coast, features the largest tract of tidal salt marsh south of San Francisco Bay. The area’s mix of oak woodlands, maritime chaparral, sand dunes, coastal prairie, freshwater and tidal wetlands support rich biodiversity. The slough’s distinctive ecological communities are among the most rare and threatened habitats in California. In 2018, the Elkhorn Slough was designated a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

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Building Hawaiʻi’s COVID-19 Testing Capacity

Building Hawaiʻi’s COVID-19 Testing Capacity

“Reserves are a public resource,” says Katy Hintzen, coastral training program coordinator at Heʻeia Reserve. “If a hurricane hit, you wouldn’t go on as usual. You would marshall the resources you have to help the public in what they need.”

As part of the University of Hawaiʻi COVID-19 Working Group, the Heʻeia Reserve is working to expand local COVID-19 testing capacity in partnership with the City and County of Honolulu. 

Aided by $3.9 million in federal funding, the partnership’s goal is to perform up to 100,000 tests—potentially reaching up to one-tenth of the island’s residents. To do this, the University has established a diagnostic and research laboratory, the Tropical Medicine Clinical (TMC) Laboratory, with support from Reserve Coastal Training Program (CTP) coordinator, Katy Hintzen.

“The TMC Lab will augment existing local COVID-19 testing capacity and provide surge capacity to effectively respond to dynamic changes in testing needs,” says Hintzen.  “The lab will also marry diagnostic testing with ongoing, university-level research.” 

Hintzen provided administrative support, including grant writing andcommunications products, for the partnership. She also contributed to outreach and engagement coordinating across the University, the community, philanthropic organizations, government agencies, and Oʻahu’s seven community health centers.

“A lot of what CTP does is build connections across different stakeholders with different worldviews,” she says “And a lot of it is translating science for decision makers. Virology was a different science than I’m used to, but the skillset from CTP and Reserve work translated well.”

The close ties between the University and the Reserve helped make the connection with CTP. Dr. Rosie Alegado, community liaison lead for the new TMC Lab and associate professor of Oceanography at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, had worked with Hintzen on Heʻeia Fishpond restoration efforts. She is enthusiastic about the TMC Lab’s capacity to support the needs of the Hawaiian Islands as they reopen.

“Hawaiʻi may see an increase of infections as restrictions relax. We believe it is important that the University provides supplemental capacity in case there is a surge of cases,” said Dr. Alegado. “We want to be able to serve our islands as needed.”

Dr. Alegado (left) and Katy Hintzen (right) lead a workshop on long-term community-researcher partnerships at He’eia Fishpond.

While the focus remains on COVID-19 for now, once the pandemic has passed, the TMC Lab will be a resource to study other pathogens that affect the communities of the Hawaiian Islands.

“Hawaiʻi has contagious diseases that are different from the continental U.S. because of our climate, such as dengue fever, Zika virus, and others,” says Hintzen. “There’s a need for additional diagnostic testing and diagnostic testing that’s linked to research. From a resilience standpoint, these things will be worse with climate change in the future.”

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Local Knowledge Strengthens Flood Resilience

Local Knowledge Strengthens Flood Resilience

Photos courtesy of the Tijuana River Reserve unless otherwise noted.

Residents of the Tijuana River watershed know pouring rain can mean more than an afternoon spent indoors. In the worst cases, sediment and debris bury sensitive habitats, impact evacuation routes, and cause head-high flooding in communities in Los Laureles Canyon, in Tijuana, Mexico.

“Flooding can not only cause ecological damage, it also presents major risk to human health and security in local communities,” says Kristen Goodrich, coastal training program (CTP) coordinator at the Tijuana River Reserve.

Photo courtesy Steve Zylius.

Navigating these risks gives residents on the U.S. and Mexican sides of the watershed unique knowledge that can help their communities be more resilient in the future. Their experiences informed the Flood Resilience Infrastructure and Sustainable Environments (FloodRISE) project —an initiative to promote resilience to coastal flooding in Southern and Baja California by mapping hazards and making this information available to local communities.

FloodRISE is led by the University of California, Irvine, and funded by the National Science Foundation. As part of the interdisciplinary project team, the Reserve’s CTP focused on research impact and integration at the project’s southern sites. They created a bridge between the project and local communities by applying collaborative modeling, an iterative process that brings scientists and decision-makers together to define problems and find solutions.

Through this process, local residents helped shape the project’s flood models, maps, and, ultimately, a hazard viewer that can be used to support planning and response.

Social scientists, including Goodrich, conducted in-depth interviews, surveys, and focus groups with community members on both sides of the border to better understand aspects of their lived experience with flooding. 

This approach, grounded in rationale from the public health field, built upon community strengths. For example, surveyors in Tijuana were also community members, which according to Goodrich, increased participation.

“The high completion rate—more than 365 surveys collected in a steep, erosive canyon—was largely due to engaging people who live in the community in the research process. They know, far better than us, about the issues and the best approaches for reaching and working with vulnerable populations and navigating—literally—difficult terrain.” 

The Tijuana River Reserve was also able to point researchers to city planners, emergency responders, and others who could provide critical feedback on their model and how well they addressed decision-making needs.

“In Los Laureles, we knew the initial models weren’t depicting what was happening,” says Goodrich. “Through collaborative modeling we were able to reflect the reality—that significant debris can block flood water conveyance channels. One resident told us about a mattress blocking a culvert that caused head high flooding—that’s something we couldn’t have known without going into the community and listening.” 

The FloodRISE hazard viewer reflects their knowledge by including, for example, the ability to see what happens when flood channels are blocked. CTP provided training to decision-makers, including community members, on the viewer to support its use in land use planning, emergency response, and wetlands restoration, and ultimately, improve flood resilience.

The Reserve is also developing a partnership with Protección Civil, a Mexican emergency preparedness and response agency, building upon efforts through NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. Their goal is to develop training and educational materials to promote awareness of the relationship between solid waste and flooding, encourage residents to take actions that clear flood channels before a rain event, and equip decision makers with science-based information to improve policy response.

Intercepting the trash that enters the Tijuana River Estuary is part of the Reserve’s ongoing efforts to protect the estuary and reduce marine debris.

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Kristen Goodrich

Talk NERRdy to Me: Kristen Goodrich

Talk NERRdy to Me follows leaders and luminaries from across our 29 reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov chatted with Dr. Kristen Goodrich, coastal training coordinator, boundary spanner, long-time brewer with more time on her hands, newly-minted PhD, and a true adaptive mind from California’s Tijuana River Reserve.

Nik: This month I’m talking briefly with Dr. Kristen Goodrich of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, where she’s the Coastal Training Program coordinator [CTP]. Of course, it doesn’t have to be brief, because who’s going anywhere right now? 

Kristen: We have all the time in the world!

Nik: You’re CTP, you’ve been dealing with change on our coasts, but over the past month, what’s changed fastest in our world is this pandemic. How are you holding up?

Kristen: I’m just feeling grateful to have my job and the work and a comfortable home. The company of my weiner dog has been very helpful. 

Nik: You recently became a doctor—are you worried about being called up to the front lines in the hospitals?

Kristen: I’m not, I have no training or skills in that department!

Nik: There’s a different front line you’ve been on. What’s your new PhD in, and how’s it going to help?

Kristen: My PhD is in social ecology and is based, in part, on issues faced by communities that we interface with at the Tijuana River Reserve—mostly in canyons adjacent to the estuary in Tijuana, Mexico. My research looked at issues around flood resilience and adaptive management, but what became very clear to me through that work was the enormous pressure on environmental professionals and resulting mental health impacts. Ever since, I’ve been looking to build support for environmental professionals who are working on the front lines of climate change.

Dr. Goodrich and Salchicha the weiner dog participate in an online training to help professionals plan and facilitate engaging virtual meetings. 

Nik: When you say “adaptive management,” is it the management of the resources, or the people managing the resources? I understand adaptive is “changing over the course of change” but what’s the management part?

Kristen: It’s both. For example, I started by thinking that in order for natural resource managers to be able to adaptively manage for resource protection in their work, they need to be adaptive individuals, and psychological resilience plays a role in that. 

Nik: What grade would you give yourself for your adaptation to this current Covid situation?

Kristen: I’d say I’m doing fairly well. How about an A-?

Nik: Wow, nice. I’m a D+.

Kristen: I’m coming off a pretty intense six-year period for my PhD. I filed all my paperwork over the holidays, jumped back into work full-time, and then… coronavirus. So this is actually a moment of slowing down in ways I haven’t seen in many years. If I can compartmentalize and not look at the incredible tragedy of it all, it has been lovely to be home and be slowing down.

Nik: You’re welcome. Your latest project involves a number of Reserves and coping with stress, doesn’t it?

Kristen: The Adaptive Mind project brings together thinking around mental health and resilience for groups including the Research Reserve system. The idea is that we’re experiencing constant change and uncertainty, and more frequent and traumatic disruptions, including natural disasters. All of that requires people to engage in what we’re thinking about as transformative change. That’s hard in itself, but it’s going to get a lot harder. Folks working on environmental protection and resource management are on the front lines; there are also serving (and often in) front line communities, and there are health impacts associated with that.

I focus on the environmental professionals like those within the Reserves: we have our educators, our researchers, our coastal training community as boundary-spanners. We are people engaging with climate change and its impacts in many different ways, and in some cases, experiencing burnout because of the demands of the work.

Nik: You graded yourself on your pandemic response, but stepping back pre-coronavirus, how were environmental professionals and communities feeling?

Kristen: We conducted a survey of professionals working on climate change and adaptation, like NERRs and groups like Sea Grant, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and the American Society for Adaptation Professionals. The results were somewhat troubling: we saw really high levels of burnout and lots of issues around dealing with the urgency of climate change. Individuals felt like they were not doing enough fast enough. The barriers of bureaucracy and inflexibility create a work environment that makes it really difficult to respond to the existential threat and urgency of climate change in a way that feels meaningful and timely. 

We also looked at what we called “frequency of feelings.” They reported monthly or weekly emotional exhaustion from the topics that they addressed. But they also reported that they were determined to succeed, because of what they know about climate change and its impacts. It’s the perfect recipe for burnout. So the Adaptive Mind project looks for ways to support environmental professionals and other groups on the frontline of climate change.

Nik: Do you think those findings would scan over to healthcare professionals right now? 

Kristen: Absolutely. Our thinking was informed by what was being done, pre-coronavirus, on the impacts of stress, anxiety, grief, and mental health within the health and emergency response fields. I would imagine right now it’s even more relevant. There are a number of parallels between what’s happening with coronavirus now and the compounding anxiety related to persistent threats to our planet’s health.

Nik: You called the CTP community “boundary-spanners.” Is that something that comes specifically from your experience on the border? 

Kristen: Yes, I’ve learned a lot about boundary spanning—and barriers to it—from work on the border. My CTP family is the inspiration for a paper that colleagues and I just wrote about who they are and how to support them. To address sustainability challenges, boundary-spanners help link science to decision-making. Which is exactly why the coastal training program is in place—to work across disciplines and span different boundaries to help knowledge become more actionable. This couldn’t be more important now that we’re thinking about coronavirus. How do we take the science and knowledge we’re rapidly gaining and apply it to issues?

Nik: I think we should just put it all on Facebook and let the world decide. What makes a good boundary spanner?

Kristen: They’re considered communications stars, they have empathy, they have cross-cultural competencies, emotional intelligence, oftentimes a lot of social capital and knowledge and that helps, and may amplify, cross-boundary organizing and relationship-building. They play that unique role in the space between science and policy. And I think they will become increasingly important as we move into these uncertain futures.

Nik: What’s your advice for boundary-spanners, whether they work on environmental challenges or the pandemic response? Faced with the monumental indifference of nature, which seems lately like it wants to wipe out our civilization, how do we stay sane? How do we stay productive?

Kristen: There are parallels between the existential dread of climate change and of coronavirus. This is a moment to be sensitive to compounding anxiety: how are we thinking about coronavirus on top of the already heightened anxiety about climate change? In both situations, there’s a feeling of being out of control. We’re being forced to develop new coping skills, and that can be really stressful because the tools we used in the past may not be the  best ones anymore.

Of course, another layer is the disproportionate effects on disadvantaged communities. I see a lot of parallels in how folks on the front line are impacted by coronavirus and climate change. That calls into question: what can we do about both, maybe at the same time? There maybe are some ways to better cope with both crises. 

Nik: Such as?

Kristen: Learning to take care of ourselves better, for one. If we take better care of ourselves and others, maybe those tools will help us address climate change once the virus is contained and as we get into a new version of normal. I think the issue of self-care is going to be crucial for folks to weather this storm and then weather the longer climate change projections.

Nik: I’m eating and drinking as if each day were my last. The 19 in Covid-19 is actually pounds.

Kristen: I’ve been cooking a lot and experimenting with new beer brewing recipes.

Nik: You’re an essential service! What’s your favorite part of your job?

Kristen: Prior to coronavirus, the ability to work in Mexico and look at the social-ecological system. The border region is infinitely fascinating to me. It creates such complex, and often frustrating, circumstances that impede progress. But it offers this unique opportunity to think about collaboration and coordination. I love my job. 

Nik: You grew up on Long Island, you were a waitress on Fire Island. You went to the University of Miami and did work in the Gulf of Mexico. Now you’re on the Pacific. What’s your favorite body of water? Salty or fresh?

Kristen: I’ve definitely been enjoying the Pacific. The kelp forest is just amazing. It’s a lot colder than the Caribbean where I did a lot of my coral reef research, but the Pacific is spectacular. So are the bright orange garibaldis. Salty! 

Nik: Favorite animal?

Kristen: My weiner dog, Salchicha (spanish for sausage or hot dog). She’s a rescue from Tijuana and she’s been a terrific comfort to me through this pandemic and my dissertation.

Nik: Lucky dog. Thank you, Dr. Kristen Goodrich.

Kristen: Be well, everyone. Remember: we can flatten the curve. There’s a lot to be taken from that in how to be hopeful—while understanding ongoing losses, we can have an impact. That’s where I see the most parallels to climate change. 

Nik: Gotta find the hope.

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