Talk NERRdy to Me: Betsy Blair

Mar 7, 2024

 Betsy (left) with Jaime Kooser and Becky Suarez, touring the Elkhorn Slough Reserve by boat. Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 30—soon to be 33—Reserves. This month, NERRA’s restless reporter Nik Charov interviewed Betsy Blair, the “mother tree.”

Nik: Betsy Blair! I was going to introduce you as “manager of the Hudson River reserve,” but … you’re no longer that, or even officially in the Reserve system anymore, after decades.

Betsy: A lot of decades.

Nik: You retired and went to work for Blair Environmental Consulting. Was that a coincidence?

Betsy: We shared the name and I thought it’d be good to work with them. Of course, Nik, Blair is me. I have enjoyed working part-time on interesting projects. Many have been with Reserves, so although I’m not formally a part of the System, I still feel connected, in part through the marsh migration corridor protection project. And the NERRS Science Collaborative; I chair the advisory board and get to hear about all the good work that’s happening at Reserves.

Nik: Does the Science Collaborative need a lot of advice?

Betsy: They regularly seek input from applicants, project teams, the advisory board, and others so they listen, adapt, and improve the collaborative’s well-oiled machinery and to ensure they’re enabling impact in an equitable way. They are a remarkably astute, generous, capable, and visionary bunch—and a key part of the System, a position they fully embrace.

Nik: Has it been five years already for the U Michigan-based Science Collaborative?

Betsy: Five years times two! And NOAA recently had a request for proposals out for the next five. The team submitted a proposal and I’m hopeful they succeed. Transitions to new teams can take a few years, as it takes a couple years to get to know us.

Nik: I’ve always wanted to ask somebody this: you’re on the Advisory Committee, so … why wasn’t science always collaborative? Why a Science Collaborative? Does collaboration need to be mandated?

Betsy: Well, that’s a good question. It wasn’t always thus, that people, scientists, and research communities looked to the users to inform their research. 

Nik: Why the hell not?!

Betsy: Because we as scientists often know what questions we want to ask, and we think we know what’s good for other people. I remember when the New Hampshire team started strongly recommending that applicant teams include stakeholders in the decision-making. I watched the evolution of that, experienced the benefits, and became a true believer.

Nik: Was there a “dawn breaks on Marblehead” kind of moment? When did collaborative science and participatory research really click for you?

Betsy: For me, personally, it was our Sustainable Shorelines Project on the Hudson River. We needed to talk to people who would use the information, so we brought in the engineers and asked them, “What would it take for you to apply a particular shoreline treatment? What would you have to feel confident about, in order to suggest it to your clients?” And we asked regulators, “What would you need to know to require permittees or applicants to use less hardened shoreline stabilization approaches?” That resulted in a body of work that spoke to how well sustainable shorelines could hold up and the comparative cost relative to conventional approaches. Asking the practitioners may seem obvious in hindsight, but back then, it was novel.

Nik: Did you bring those two groups together to talk to each other? I would imagine that they would speak somewhat different languages, or at least have different cultures.

Betsy: We provided good lunches. Always the secret to a good meeting.

Nik: <heavy nodding>

Betsy: We had expert facilitation and we spent some time learning each other’s languages; we had to put ourselves in a position to understand each other.

Nik: And from there it just snowballed? 

Betsy: We got to know each other. We began to exchange information and rely on each other. We talked through a lot of complicated questions that we hadn’t anticipated: cost projection for very different methods of shoreline treatment, for example. We got students involved, built relationships. People developed a really strong personal interest in making an impact. That collective work on a collective impact was very empowering for everybody.

Nik: So, is the Hudson River shoreline stable now? Because I visited your old Reserve last November for the first time, and it seems to me its shoreline is mostly … water chestnut pods?

Betsy: We specialize in a particularly unique shoreline type—caltrops! I’ve seen them go through sneaker soles into people’s feet.

Nik: Those things are terrifying! I thought it was some alien egg sac. 

Betsy: Well, they are aliens. They form floating mats that have some ecological value, but not as much as our regular native vegetation.

Nik: I did steal some and bring them to New Jersey to auction off. That’s bad?

Betsy: I wouldn’t introduce them anywhere.

Nik: Hmm. Good to know. Were you the first manager of the Hudson River Reserve?

Betsy: I was. I was initially hired to write the management plan.

Nik: How did that Reserve come together?

Betsy: Scenic Hudson had a staff person, Fran Dunwell, who connected with a scientist at Bard College, Erik Kiviat, and others who were very knowledgeable about Hudson River habitats. And they, working with other state agency people, chose four already-protected sites that contained large wetlands. I got hired to start a fellowship program and then interviewed for the manager job in 1985 … and left in 2018.

Nik: You never wanted to leave?

Betsy: I had some really good job offers, actually, but I realized how much more of an impact one could have by staying in one place—really coming to understand its issues, the players, and where the potential pathways to success were. And of course I love the Reserve System. In my life, I haven’t known a group of professionals as passionate, knowledgeable, fun, and hardworking as folks in the Reserve System—both in the states and at NOAA.

Nik: I question your sample size, madam. I hear good things about the Independent Grocers Alliance, for instance. But do you think the current generation feels similarly about their careers? Or is it something one learns over time? I hear the lament, “Oh, kids these days just want to move around so much.” But maybe kids always want to move around until … they find something that they really like and then they stay there for a long time and realize that they can make great change in a very small part of the world?

Betsy: It’s a good theory. You should pursue that in Talk NERRdy going forward.

Nik: Challenge accepted. You were also the first president of NERRA, and then treasurer. What was the generation and genesis of NERRA like?

Betsy: NERRA came out of a time when the Administration was trying to shut down a lot of environmental programs, including the Reserve System. In 1984, one NOAA appointee, Peter Tweed, was addressing a formal meeting of NERRS representatives in Washington, D.C. and compared the nascent NERRS to a “pig with a tapeworm,” something that would seek to consume ever more resources. He ended by declaring his intention to shut the program down. Those Reserve staff promptly decided to meet elsewhere in the future. Old Woman Creek NERR stepped up to host the 1985 meeting.

At Old Woman Creek, we started talking about how important it was to be able to advocate for ourselves. Steve Bliven, a coastal program manager who was helping start the Waquoit Bay Reserve, suggested having a Friends group, which would enable us to have an independent voice and tell the story of how reserves were benefitting coasts and communities. A lawyer friend in New York helped us register NERRA and get set up, and away it went.

Nik: NERRA was incorporated in New York? So were my children! Though I would have thought NERRA was a D.C. thing from the get-go.

Betsy: Back then, we had a very small annual budget for Reserves, but some savvy people understood we needed to speak with one voice to the right people. We also understood how important it was to learn from each other, that we’re all starting programs that are unique in our states, our regions. There was a camaraderie that was truly special. I can’t count the number of times Terry Stevens, the founding Padilla Bay manager, who was ahead of the rest of us on building visitor centers and laboratories, would sit down with the new people, and talk about what was involved in a construction project.

Nik: Did you all feel you needed a 501(c)(3) because so many of the early Reserves had state agencies as local partners, which is a challenging environment to work in for many states?

Betsy: Yes.

Nik: Do you miss working in a state agency?

Betsy: No, but I truly enjoyed the people I was privileged to work with. 

Nik: Including Chris Bowser?

Betsy: Oh yes. 

Nik: Even Chris. Wow.

Betsy: What a great team. But I don’t miss the out-of-state travel approvals or the management plan rewrites. I know a lot of people are going to find that hard to believe. 

Nik: Ahem. Let’s talk about your recent work. I’ve been in the NERRS for 11 years, and I still don’t understand how marshes migrate. Each Reserve in the marsh migration project is on the Atlantic Flyway—is THAT a coincidence?

Betsy: Marshes fly in Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron. That movie was dark, I gotta say. Not the Totoro my kids grew up with. But Nik, you do know that real marshes don’t pick up and fly, right?

Nik: Yes?

Betsy: They send their seeds and rhizomes forward. They “move” when water floods new areas. We know that our marshes are either going to keep up in place, move, or cease to exist. That’s the hard truth of it.

Nik: How fast does this happen? Because just this past month in Maine we had the highest water levels ever recorded. Can a marsh migrate a couple feet inland over a weekend?

Betsy: Where there are chunks of peat coming loose, that actually does happen, and salt water inundation is killing trees fairly quickly in places like the Mid-Atlantic, but for the most part, it’s a gradual process. It’s really important to protect areas where future marshes can exist.

Nik: Did you acquire your marsh knowledge on the job, or was it your studies at U-Dub or the Yale School of Forestry? Were you a marsh ecologist from birth?

Betsy: Birth would be stretching it, but I do remember playing in ponds by the age of four.

Nik: Where’d you grow up?

Betsy: Upstate New York, for the most part. We moved around a lot. I spent some time in Topsfield, Massachusetts. Wonderful wetlands there. I had a natural affinity for having muddy feet. In college, I remember the moment when I decided I wanted to work in wetlands. I was standing on the Ponkapoag Bog in Massachusetts and thinking: this is it. My professor was somebody who helped write the wetlands laws in Massachusetts and who took us on all kinds of wetlands expeditions. I worked for a wetlands mapping company for a while. Also in a tortellini restaurant, and as a fisheries observer in the Bering Sea and North Pacific.

Nik: Those are … diverse experiences. Sidebar: when you say ‘wetland,’ does that always mean freshwater? I should know these things.

Betsy: I think of wetland as the broadest term, which encompasses saltmarshes. In some laws in New York State, it includes submerged vegetation, as well. Forested wetlands, swamps, mangroves, bogs … those are all wetlands. 

Nik: It’s important to learn things. What’s the most important trait for a manager, besides listening? Everybody says listening. Boring!

Betsy: Curiosity.

Nik: That’s more like it! I’m a terrible listener, but I’m very curious.

Betsy: I love that about you.

Nik: What I love about you is that you bought me in the live auction at my very first annual meeting. I arrived at the National Conservation Training Center, heard there was a dodgeball game, and I had the idea that I would put on some shorts, get up on a table, and sell myself as a dodgeball free agent. You, who I’d never met before, bought me for the evening, back when I was a strapping young lad with hair, and muscles. The auctioneers, Terry and Peter, said, “Oh, kid, you’re in trouble.” And ever since then, I’ve been yours, Betsy.

Betsy: I’ve long been a fan of you.

Nik: That makes TWO of us! But back to curiosity: that’s what drives scientists. I think it’s also got to drive everybody nowadays. A few answers ago, though, you admitted you don’t know how fast marshes migrate. Even after a career in this, you’re still saying, “I don’t know”? Why not?

Betsy: The more you know, the more you know about what you don’t know. You just keep peeling back the layers and realizing there are more questions. I’ve been ‘not knowing’ for a long time, so I’m practiced at it.

Nik: What’s the key for a long career in the NERRS? What’s your advice for the folks coming in? 

Betsy: Take the long view. Consider the big picture. Consider how your work fits into, not just the local context, but the regional context. Work toward larger successes and larger wins for the coast. Take care of yourself, because this can be hard work, especially during these days of climate change foreboding. 

Nik: It can get pretty gloomy. How did you talk with your children about climate change? I have this continual challenge around my dinner table. I’ve got two teenage boys and they get pretty anxious.

Betsy: I think it’s important to counter the bad news with any good news that there is. I get an email once a week from Katherine Hayhoe, the chief climate scientist at The Nature Conservancy. She shares the Good News, the Not-so-good News, and What You Can Do. That feels like a constructive way to approach it.

Nik: Are those equally long sections of her newsletter?

Betsy: They are! 

Nik: We talk solutions over dinner, but we do a lot of reality talk, too. It’s going to be a century of pain and suffering, unevenly distributed. To their credit, my children are pretty irritated by that. 

Betsy: It should piss them off royally. My kids are 25 and 30. They’ve both chosen not to go into the environmental field, but to go into social services. They’re doing things that will have a shot at making the world an incrementally better place. 

Nik: What are you most proud of in your career, Betsy Blair?

Betsy: That I got to work with so many wonderful teams of people and in the Reserve System. I’m glad to have been able to be a role model for younger professionals, many of them women. 

Nik: The projects, strategic plans, management plans come and go. But it’s the people along the way that have been the most interesting?

Betsy: Them, and developing a collective big picture view of how to keep things moving in a positive direction, how to keep doing a little more good, a little better.

Nik: Every day, a little bit more, a little bit better. Maybe it’ll work!

Betsy: It’s not much, but it’s all I’ve got. That and a really nice garden.

Betsy with her garlic harvest. 

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