Talk NERRdy to Me: Sebastian Mejia
This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed Sebastian Mejia, Stewardship Coordinator at the Old Woman Creek Reserve in Ohio. They discussed the parallels between invasive species control and the Public Health Crisis That Shall Not Be Named, the real roots of stewardship, and creeks for Young Men, too.
Nik: Sebastian Mejia, welcome to Talk NERRdy. You’re from The Ohio State University, now you’re the SWMP coordinator and the stewardship coordinator at the Old Woman Creek—two jobs in one?
Sebastian: That’s how I started, but now we have a dedicated SWMP coordinator, and I’ve moved over to stewardship full-time.
Nik: Ah. Do you miss calibrating instruments and pulling foul probes from mucky tubes?
Sebastian: I don’t miss the day-to-day grind of SWMP, but I still help out from time to time.
Nik: We’ll edit that to say, “Yes, of course I miss it. It’s the best job in the world.” C’mon, man. I do love Old Woman Creek, though—to me it’s the most effective Reserve per acre in the entire System.
Sebastian: All 573 acres!
Nik: Very good. Looking at the aerial view, I see this oasis of trees bounded by highways, Lake Erie, and farmland. It’s clearly a protected place.
Sebastian: The aerial makes it look like an invasive spiny water flea entering Lake Erie. Actually, the NERR was designated in 1980, which helped to protect the Old Woman Creek watershed from development.
Nik: Moving on. Don’t you have a degree in evolution and ecology from The Ohio State University?
Sebastian: I do, but a lot of it was actually environmental and public health. I initially applied to do social work and then transitioned.
Nik: You moved from public health to animals and water?
Sebastian: So much of what affects humans is their environment, constructed or otherwise. I wanted to go closer to the source, to study how humans degrade their own environment and what actions are needed to repair that. Though it’s more fun learning about plants and nature than the woes of public health.
Nik: You’re a root source kind of guy. Did you grow up in Ohio?
Sebastian: I moved to Cincinnati when I was 8 or 9 and went to school there. Then I went to The Ohio State University for my undergrad.
Nik: Cincinnati, Columbus… Did you continue north to Old Woman Creek or were there stops along the way?
Sebastian: I started at Old Woman Creek in 2019. Before that I worked at the Ohio Department of Agriculture as a survey technician on the Asian Long-horned Beetle (ALB) Eradication Program near Cincinnati.
Nik: You have ALB in Cincinnati?!
Sebastian: An hour east of Cincinnati is the only established Ohio quarantine site.
Nik: OK, you’ve got this one ALB infestation. What happens next? Is it like a COVID quarantine?
Sebastian: You set up surveying sites, working with landowners. A lot of citizens support the cause, but some don’t, so it’s a lot of outreach and education. ALB is a poor flier, so its main pathway of spread is through firewood. There’s a campground nearby where, as people were leaving, we would ask if they were carrying firewood. We’d take it and dispose of it.
Nik: With your public health background, what was it like doing contact tracing on pieces of wood?
Sebastian: I personally didn’t do that, but I did report what kind of groups were coming through, and which contractors might be in the area. I did some outreach for Spanish language folks. That’s kind of like contact tracing.
But, you know, terms like invasive, exotic, or non-native species have a lot of impact. Humans are going to travel, there’s going to be global commerce. How do you reduce the impacts on ecosystem services and how do you safeguard—to some extent—ecological relationships? I think there’s a cost-benefit to managing invasive species. Some can be used beneficially and that’s what I’ve tried to do at Old Woman Creek. Instead of them being wasted biomass, how can we incorporate them into the landscape in areas where they’re not going to spread?
Nik: What, like, phragmites houses?
Sebastian: No, we are considering experimenting with invasive species compost piles. This material could then be transported to use around our rain garden, pollinator garden, and hedges that don’t have access to water.
Nik: And no spread?
Sebastian: If you cut the phrag above its root and remove the seeds (and dispose of them in a sealed bag), then my understanding is that you drastically limit spread. You don’t want it to get into areas that have sensitive species, of course, but if it’s already present, why not use it to our benefit?
Nik: It’s endemic, so you’re learning to live with it? Sounds familiar. But you’re talking about a stewardship jiu jitsu move: use the invasive.
Sebastian: We have the smallest Reserve, so why not try some quirky things and see what works?
Nik: OWC is surrounded by a lot of farms, right? Is there a market for compost?
Sebastian: There might not be a market because of the perception of spreading invasive species. But also, how do you get buy-in for that type of usage? Removing and pulling phrag is more time-intensive than spraying it with herbicides; it takes people power. Farmers currently have a shortage of workers so this would just be another chore. But anything can be scaled up if there’s a will. My hope is to try out different things and see what works.
Nik: Is the farm labor in your area migrant workers?
Sebastian: Migrant labor is utilized primarily for vegetable and fruit crops. The Old Woman Creek Reserve has a long partnership with the Erie Conservation District’s Breann Hohman, who has a more agricultural lens. Talking to her inspired me to ask what groups we’re not reaching. Sometimes the sciences can be insulated from the outside world, and this can sever interest or community connection. That’s not to say that researchers or scientists know more, we just know differently, we have different methods. People’s lived experience has merit, perhaps more than any graph or analysis. The former is more likely to elicit behavior change.
Nik: The human dimension.
Sebastian: Right. We had plenty of outreach to farmers, but how can we engage the workers? Their livelihood is on the farm. Farmers (often) have more capital to absorb a bad harvest or blight. If you raise awareness with those on the fields, specifically the children, then your net positive impact might be greater. It’s about resilient communities and knowledge informs that resilience.
So given that Ohio delivers the migrant education program regionally, I reached out to the Director of the Summer Migrant School, Donna McDowell, and asked if they’d be interested in a weather and climate lesson plan. We’re experiencing a changing climate, and weather plays a big part in the livelihood of these families. We did a field trip and then a classroom lesson for about 25 students utilizing the expertise of our Education Coordinator, Jen Bucheit. We wanted to present the kids with a greater awareness of the science and what kind of opportunities exist for Latinos in the environmental field.
Nik: How old were the students?
Sebastian: Preschool to middle school. Only a couple older students.
Nik: Ha! That’s a ways away from their careers, but they’ll get there eventually.
Sebastian: I expected more high school students, but all the older students were working, according to school staff. That was a blind spot in my understanding of the migrant community.
Nik: Did you speak Spanish with them, Mejia?
Sebastian: Yes. I am proud of my Colombian heritage that afforded me two languages and dual citizenship. Most of my extended family is in Colombia and I emigrated with my mother and grandparents in the 90s.
Nik: You touched on this earlier, but how do you talk about invasives with migrant families? We were recently discussing this sensitivity in some conference planning and I said “I think it’s great to talk about invasives with White audiences, because White Europeans were invasive.” When it comes to migrant workers and non-English speakers in the US, how do you thread that messaging needle in this charged time?
Sebastian: I think invasive species fill an ecological niche, one that may be necessary or useful to some extent. Phragmites creates a monoculture and reduces biodiversity, but it also helps with sediment stabilization and sequestering nutrients. Can we benefit from that? How can you use what you have? How can you revalue a seemingly negative factor and use it as an asset? That’s the kind of management I hope to foster at Old Woman Creek.
Nik: All these idealists on Talk NERRdy! I don’t know how this happens every month.
Sebastian: Stewardship coordinators put a lot of stock—some might call it faith—that the work we do is going to be effective. This will be an ongoing project. We have a lot of initiatives in the works for this summer. Our pilot year with the Migrant Education Program was a great learning experience. We want to keep this relationship going in the years to come so that the preschoolers come back as interns, fellows, and hopefully employees. At least raise awareness that everyone has a role to play in stewardship.
Nik: You people with your ideas and resilience and sustainability. Hasn’t stewardship become fighting with nature, beating back invasives?
Sebastian: It doesn’t have to be that way. We learn a lot from nature. Obviously, there’s going to be times where you need to spray a whole field of invasives. I’m not discounting the science either, but I think fighting against nature won’t yield nearly as positive results as you hope. If anything, you get burnt out and you don’t want to do it anymore. Especially when sustained action is lacking.
Nik: What do we mean when we say stewardship nowadays? It’s definitely changed.
Sebastian: We’re called to be stewards of this earth. We’re temporary, here for the short season of our lives. How can we leave this planet in a decent state for those to come? There’s stewardship beyond the NERRS that I hope to promote at Old Woman Creek.
Nik: Putting your former SWMP hat on for a minute, what’s happening in northwest Ohio? What are the trends?
Sebastian: Intense storms are happening more frequently.
Nik: You too?!
Sebastian: We have longer periods of droughts, but the greater precipitation events are becoming more frequent. When we get a hard storm, what doesn’t infiltrate runs off the fields and impervious surfaces and into the Creek. We partner with the Erie Conservation District in coordinating the Firelands Coastal Tributaries Watershed Program. I think adults participating in these programs are aware of some of the concerns. How do we get more people involved, and how do we make it more accessible for them? As a part of the migrant education program, we wanted to install Community Collaborative Rain Hail & Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) rain gauges. Keep the teachers and students involved in monitoring precipitation.
Nik: That’s a National Weather Service community science thing, right?
Sebastian: Yes. My hope is for civic engagement. We need people to know what’s happening, and we need those who have an understanding of science to meet the public where they’re at. My hope is to start with younger people so that a new generation will be more informed as to how to protect their natural spaces and live responsibly.
Nik: When you were young, were there experiences that sent you into this work? Are you a product of the same thing you’re doing?
Sebastian: I lived in an apartment complex and the development stopped right in the floodplain. We had this really cool stream that ran through the apartment complex and I remember going down there and trying to find frogs or playing with rocks, looking at the vegetation, or even jumping over the creek with my bike. That natural feature provided a space for exploration, where I could test my hypotheses, even though at the time I didn’t think about it like that.
Nik: A creek, right in your own backyard!
Sebastian: I’m sure it wasn’t safe to play in. More of an overgrown drainage ditch probably.
Nik: Ultimately, they all will be safe. Especially if we keep doing what we’re doing. Stewardship is nothing if not a long game.
Sebastian: Tell me about it! I started working for the government when I was 16; I’ve invested 12 years into public service. It’s a surprise when others realize that – a comment about my age or the retirement systems usually follows suit.
Nik: It’s a powerful motivator to work on natural resources within a state for an entire career. I love talking with long-time State agency folks.