Talk NERRdy to Me: Andrea Woolfolk

Jul 28, 2022

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 Andrea Woolfolk, long-time Stewardship Coordinator at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve in California. They spoke of restorations large and small, primal knowledge, and what it takes to be a steward. (Spoiler alert: bug spray.)

Nik: A little bird told me that the Stewardship sector is turning 20 this year. But the National Estuarine Research Reserve System has been around for 50 years. So… what was going on in those first 30 years? Who went a-stewarding?

Andrea: It’s my understanding that stewardship was covered by the managers when the System was newer and there were fewer staff. Their roles changed over the years and by 2000 they were bringing in staff to do what they could no longer do.

Nik: They shifted from natural resources to human resources!

Andrea: Yeah, as your staff and program get bigger, there’s more administrative stuff.

Nik: Sure, sure. But the lands and waters with NERR boundaries have been managed for thousands of years, right? Managers and Stewardship Coordinators aren’t the first. Is there a “natural” state we’re trying to get to, or get back to?

Andrea: Oh boy, you went right for the big question, didn’t you? Every land manager needs to make their own decision because there’s no “right” decision. Increasingly land managers—along with everybody—are realizing there’s no turning back the clock. We’re not trying to go back to anything anymore. You can use the past to understand things, but you’ve always got to be looking forward and thinking about today’s needs: for native plants, animals, people. You need to think about their needs and stressors and figure out a way forward in a way that helps them. 

Nik: You’re in California: record drought, sea level rise, things bursting into flame… no stressors there! So what are you trying to do for the next generations around Elkhorn Slough?

Andrea: Most of the land at Elkhorn Slough is old dairy land. It was used to make food for people, but once it became a nature reserve, the objectives changed. My job is to manage that land for native plants and animals so that people can do research and enjoy it out there. We’re doing the best we can to bring back what we lost during the dairy days but bring them back to be more sustainable.

Nik: How does an SC choose what to work on? In Southern Maine, for instance, the forests were clearcut a couple centuries ago and, as they grew back, we lost habitat for some species but gained it for others. There are more mosquitoes now, fewer rabbits. Not a choice I support! But when was “natural” if it’s always shifting? How does a NERR Stewardship Coordinator focus on moving targets? 

Andrea: When we update our management plan at Elkhorn Slough, our staff identify priorities, feasibility, and what we’re interested in tackling. We try to get the most bang for our buck. One of our current projects is the Hester Marsh restoration. We’re restoring around 120 acres of lost salt marsh. All the programs are involved and agreed to do it. We brought in stakeholders from regulatory agencies, local neighbors, and local research institutions. But on smaller projects, I make the decision.

Nik: How?!

Andrea: OK, I’m a historical ecology nerd. It helps me understand processes and gives me context I wouldn’t have otherwise. To stick on Hester Marsh for a bit more: we took paleoecology core samples, surveyed maps from the early 1900s, and looked at aerials. There were originally about 120 acres of salt marsh that got diked off and drained for agriculture, and the marsh plain dropped. At some point, the levees broke down and the tidal waters came back in and it became mudflat. Look, our marshes aren’t keeping track with sea level rise. We’ve already lost about 50% of the salt marsh in Elkhorn Slough and we were on track to lose most of it. We saw an opportunity to restore 120 acres – about 10% – and make it a little higher, so it would be sustainable moving forward. We used the past and future to figure out how to best use our time, funds, and partners to do something good for Elkhorn Slough.

Nik: I’m a “glass half empty” person, but you just described a 90% empty glass in the future. Are you telling me you’re a “glass 10% full” person?

Andrea: Well, we’re going to keep going! We want marsh in the future at Elkhorn Slough, and we think we can do it. We’re going to take the lessons learned and apply it throughout the System.

A public planting day at the Hester restoration project, working on the grassland above the marsh restoration area. They planted about 17,000 native grasses and flowers that winter.

California Conservation Corps at the Hester restoration site in December 2021, where they planted 20,000 native plants and flowers.

Nik: Ah, ye land shapers, ye species managers. The SC sector definitely has an earthy vibe. At annual meetings, I hop around sectors to check out what’s going on. Whenever I stick my head into the Stewardship room, it feels like you all had just been squatting around a fire talking about how to skin a mammoth or something, but then you quickly jumped back into your chairs when I came in and it’s, like, “oh, we’re just discussing sentinel sites and data layers, nothing to see here.” You were UP to something. What’s the raison d’être of the stewardship sector?

Andrea: The mission of the NERRS mandates the protection of resources, so the stewardship folks can often do mapping and sentinel sites, because the Reserves’ local state partners tend to do the land management. Not every Reserve has a dedicated Stewardship Coordinator for that, but everyone wants to come to our meetings, so some Reserves send their GIS people. Our meetings are often a mishmash of land managers and the GIS people. We get along well.

A stewardship sector field trip at Mission-Aransas during the 2017 annual meeting in Texas.

Nik: That’s grown and evolved over the past couple decades in the sector, with GIS tools coming into their own, hasn’t it?

Andrea: When I was first hired in 1999—which was before there were dedicated Stewardship Coordinators—half of my job was to launch GIS at the Reserve, and the other half was doing restoration planning.

Nik: Can you even do stewardship planning without GIS nowadays?

Andrea: You do often need a bigger picture, which is hard to do without GIS.

Nik: But there’s still the “ground truthiness” side of the business. What other tools does an SC need? A machete and antivenom, a la Jeff Carter at Rookery Bay?

Andrea: Jeff’s job is VERY different from mine. I’ve never had to go after Burmese pythons or rattlers. It’s really cool seeing stewards from around the country. Hope Setton at the North Carolina NERR has to worry about all the boaters on their islands on the Fourth of July.

Nik: And the wild pigs in the South are insane! And Alaska has bears! The Wells Reserve has zero terrifying megafauna, thankfully.

Andrea: Having an adventurous spirit makes a good land steward.

Nik: Hey, I’m adventurous and outgoing … I just don’t like bugs or getting wet. 

Andrea: You have to love being outside. And you definitely need a high tolerance for being uncomfortable. 

Nik: See, that there’s my problem.

Andrea: That’s probably a job requirement for a steward. You also need a tolerance for planning. You have to be persistent. These are things that require years of monitoring, adaptive management, and follow up. And you have to be able to work with and listen to other people, who will always have an opinion about what you’re doing. You cannot do this job without collaborators. You’ve got to be able to lead crews, work with volunteers, and have patience. 

Nik: SCs are the boots on the ground and often plan and run volunteer projects, don’t they? 

Andrea: Volunteers help every step along the way. We couldn’t do our work without them.

Nik: Another natural resource and rare species you manage! Because I’m so near retirement, I’m also interested in preparing the next generation to take over our jobs. [Editor’s note: Nik is nowhere close to retirement.] What should they be studying, thinking about, and interning on? 

Andrea: I’d advise a strong background in science and trying an entry level job first to make sure you like it.

Nik: Are you worried that kids aren’t spending as much time outside nowadays? 

Andrea: I still see a lot of people outside in Central California. Elkhorn Slough’s education program gets kids to the Reserve; we’re definitely getting people who’ve been involved with these programs. Locally I haven’t felt a lack of people who want to do this work.

Nik: Good! Back to the past: what were some of the most illustrative moments from the Stewardship sector over the past two decades? You’ve been around since its beginning.

Andrea: Our first meeting was in 2000 to see if we could get a stewardship program launched, which was the first time we used the word “stewardship” to describe the land management, acquisition, and public access we were doing. The first meeting with just stewardship people was at Rookery Bay in 2001. Judy Haner took us on field trips to show us her work. I was still pretty new. I had a Master’s in marsh ecology, but stewardship and land management were new to me. I was working on smaller-scale stuff. At Rookery, they were managing forests of exotic trees, doing large-scale hydrological modifications, and tending controlled burnings. It was eye-opening to see the scale that stewardship could be working on. It was formative. It changed my idea of what this job should and could be.

The SC sector on a field trip at the 2016 annual meeting, held in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Nik: Rookery Bay is 110,000 acres! They’ve got a big sandbox. Plus, [former RBNERR Manager] Gary Lytton has no respect for authority or process … That’s why he’s in prison now. [Editor’s note: Gary Lytton is not, and has never been, in prison.]

Andrea: More recently, Eric Brunden at Weeks Bay gave the SCs a tour of his projects in Alabama. I’d been to Alabama before, but hearing about his interaction and deep knowledge of the place made me fall in love with Weeks Bay. That was the same meeting that Will Underwood at Grand Bay took all the stewards on a boat trip up a bayou to a restaurant he loved. He took us through some of the lands he managed and knew best; everyone on the boat fell in love with that place. On the way back, Will was singing to us. 

Nik: I knew it! There’s the “gathering around the fire / talking mammoths” vibe that the stewardship sector has!

Andrea: I will never forget that. It’s magical going out with people who know a place so intimately. Getting to see how other people do and love their work is inspiring. They work on the land, they know it, and they love it. It was also early on that Craig Cornu from South Slough finished up this big hydrological marsh restoration project. Seeing how they used dynamite to restore the marsh was eye-opening.

Nik: I don’t like getting wet or being bitten by bugs, but if I get to play with dynamite … What’s next for the sector?

Andrea: Nobody crowned me queen of the stewards, but I’d guess more maps, sentinel sites … I was recently involved with an NERRS Science Collaborative project dealing with restoration science and thin layer placement across several Reserves. Eight different Reserves did the exact same experiment where we tried different kinds and amounts of sediment on high and low marsh. It can be hard to standardize land management and restoration techniques across different Reserves but it was really satisfying to bring the System together to tell a story of how to do restoration moving forward. I hope we do more of that. 

Nik: More spraying cake batter all over the place?

Andrea: It’s pretty fun to watch!

Nik: You’ve convinced me. I’m no longer “glass half empty” after talking to you today. You certainly are enthusiastic. 

Andrea: You don’t stay at a place for 23 years if you don’t love it. I’m grateful there are stewards and I’m grateful to be one.

Taken during a Hester grassland restoration event in December 2021 where Woolfolk led a volunteer event to hand broadcast 65 lbs of native grass and flower seeds across 2 acres.

NERRA is proud to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Coastal Zone Management Act—the legislation that led to the creation of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

ReservesElkhorn Slough, CaliforniaTalk NERRdy to Me: Andrea Woolfolk