Talk NERRdy to Me: Rebecca Roth

Apr 27, 2023

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This budget season, NERRA’s raving and roving reporter Nik Charov spoke with Rebecca Roth, NERRA’s executive director. They talked about her life in coasts, the best Dr. Seuss story of all time, and why telling emotional stories puts the f-u-n in “Congressional funding.”

Nik: We’re speaking just after the NCAA Finals weekend. Last month I chatted up Connecticut and now you, a San Diego State alumna. Second, that’s just how it all worked out. Sorry.

Rebecca: It was very exciting. I’ve never rooted for my alma mater ever really. It was fun. 

Nik: If we did a Marsh Madness—with 32 Reserves the bracket would totally work—who would you root for?

Rebecca: All my children are beautiful!

Nik: That’s what we’re all supposed to say. But I know that one of my children is more beautiful than the other, and I definitely like one of them more depending on the day.

Rebecca: I love the Reserves differently, just like I love my kids differently. Not less, or more, just very different.

Nik: But can we all agree that we don’t really need the second Chesapeake Bay Reserve? *cough* Virginia.

Rebecca: I definitely think we need both! They’re so different.

Nik: Eh, maybe. An Apple recently told me that Chesapeake is NOT the deepest estuary in North America

Rebecca: I’ll break that out at a dinner party.

Nik: As the executive director of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association, do you make it a point to talk salt marshes at dinner parties?

Rebecca: I do. I can’t help myself. Maybe that’s why I don’t get invited to many … kidding. I love the coast and Great Lakes and oceans. It’s part of who I am. I’m always curious about where people have visited and their special place. And I always want to know why people do what they do, whatever it is. Where did their passion come from?

Nik: Why do you do what you do, Rebecca Roth? You’ve been in coastal work your entire career.

Rebecca: We don’t need to get into it … it’s been over 30 years. As soon as I finished college, I started working in coastal management and public service. I started with the California Coastal Commission, I did land use planning in Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties. Then I was at the HQ in San Francisco.

But I grew up about four miles from Manhattan Beach, in Southern California. I was on the beach all summer long. Every family vacation was a campsite somewhere on the Pacific coast, from Baja to Canada. I do what I do because having access and being in these places was such a recharge for me as a kid. I was fortunate that these were public beaches. I can’t imagine a world where everybody didn’t have that access. 

Nik: Does any other state have a Coastal Commission? 

Rebecca: I think the State of Rhode Island has a similar type of regulatory land use planning body that is independent of the Governor’s office. The California Coastal Commission is unique, though; it was created by the people through Proposition 20 in 1972. A bunch of activists said, “We want to be able to see the beach from the Pacific Coast Highway, we want access to it, and we don’t want our wetlands filled in. California had a big oil spill in 1969 in Santa Barbara. We’re losing the beach, we’re losing access. We have to do something.” 

Nik: It seems like many Reserves have a similar creation story. People at a kitchen table saying, “We want to save this place. We want to draw a line around an area, and protect it forever.” Wells, Waquoit Bay, Great Bay … I know the New England ones have that story. 

Rebecca: And Tijuana River too! Mike McCoy is a veterinarian. He, along with his wife Pat, are part of what really made it happen. There are many examples.

Nik: As somebody who was in public administration, is citizen-driven success what you want to see? Is the purpose of a public administrator to harness the energy of the people? 

Rebecca: I think so. As much as I’m interested in the national and regional governance aspects of coastal and ocean management, I think it starts with what really matters to people in their communities. It’s the Lorax, right? Public trust is an ambiguous term, but we’ve all been in that role of caring for somebody or something that is not us.

Nik: When something like the BP oil spill—or more recently the East Palestine train derailment—happens and galvanizes a bunch of people, are you encouraged by the response, or do you not want those things to happen in the first place?

Rebecca: Both. There is a part of me that really subscribes to the precautionary principle—let’s be really sure because some of this is not reversible. And yet, when things go awry on a big scale, it’s an opportunity to dig into your community, to help people see they can make a difference. 

Nik: Part of NERRA’s role is to raise awareness about these places and help them come into existence, but also to garner continued support. People love to save things, but it’s not as exciting to continue things. How does NERRA advocate for continuing things, or is it always about what’s new and next?

Rebecca: A lot of what happens at the Reserves is what people don’t see. It’s the water quality that’s still intact, marsh that’s not lost, birds that are still there. All the “doing the same old thing” is done to make sure the place remains protected. As my mentor and friend from years back, the late Peter Douglas, would say, “It’s never saved. It’s always being saved. We are never done.” In public service, so much of what we do is not seen. Nobody will ever say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad we still have access to this, that we still go fishing and hunting here.” Enter The Lorax. He spoke for the trees, and we have to speak for the estuaries that cannot.

Nik: And you can never stop doing it. 

Rebecca: Right. There’s something to caring for things that are bigger than us. It’s a gift. Public service is a gift. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a labor of love. If it isn’t what you love, you’re probably not in the right place.

Nik: And you have to get collaborators and new generations involved. I’m very encouraged by the people coming into the System. But this next generation, while bringing their New Ideas, needs to learn the Tried and True too. I’ve heard you give the “How a Bill Becomes a Law” presentation easily 10 times, but there are people who still want to know what to do when in Washington D.C. during Capitol Hill week. How much of your job at NERRA is shepherding that annual operating and PAC funding through Congress?

Rebecca: There’s a lot of scaffolding that goes into requesting funding. It’s education, relationships, building trust, looking for opportunities, and talking to other foundations and national NGOs. You have to be creative. We don’t have a lot of staff resources so sometimes it feels like the dial isn’t moving, but all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, wow! We just made a lot of progress.”

Nik: There’s an Estuary Caucus—didn’t use to be! There are other groups out there doing this as well, so I wanted to clear this up for our dozen readers once and for all: the Association of National Estuary Programs, Restore America’s Estuaries, the Coastal States Organization, NERRA … There are certainly overlapping jurisdictions and interest areas. But what does each one do?

Rebecca: Each organization is a different piece of the coastal management puzzle—and all are essential. Because we work together, we’re able to get so much more done. The Coastal Zone Management Program has authority with regard to land use along the coasts, but it’s not “protect in perpetuity and study the change,” the way Reserves do. The National Estuary Programs work with communities over large areas to help land use planning and improve water quality. They’re hooked into the EPA, so they get their authority through the Clean Water Act, but they don’t own the land or steward it. We all have a different oar to row. 

Nik: So the NEPs are more like research plus CTP and maybe some education. Less stewardship and conservation?

Rebecca: They build capacity, yes, but not within a boundary of a Reserve, so you’re not getting the interdisciplinary nature of a Reserve. Then you have Restore America’s Estuaries, which has ten partner places around the coast. They are not in the geographic boundaries of a National Estuary Program, nor are they in the boundaries of a Reserve. Again, another important piece of the coastal management puzzle.

Nik: The NERR system has grown significantly. 

Rebecca: We were at 27 when I started; now it’s 30. 

Nik: But now there are five coming on in the next five years!

Rebecca: Yep. There’s at least one this year in Louisiana and one next year in Wisconsin. Then the Virgin Islands, Michigan, maybe another Florida … 

Nik: So this season in particular, let’s ask not what NERRA can do for us, but what we can do for NERRA. What can “the royal we” of Talk NERRdy readers do this spring and summer? 

Rebecca: The first thing people can do is to share their story with someone who doesn’t know about a Reserve. Get really specific, talk about something that you feel real emotion around, and share it with someone that wouldn’t otherwise know. I guarantee that they’re going to be compelled to stop by.

I got to sit in on a D.C. Congressional visit with two NERRA board members talking with their Senator’s office for the first time. They both were giving fabulous information. But then one started talking about this beautiful area that’s going to be the target of restoration and acquisition, and he started talking about his own kayaking trip through it, the time of year to do it, how great it was. You could just see this tide of emotion rush in and the congressional staff member was completely engaged. I mean, I wanted to go! 

When I say tell your story, tell that piece that really moves you, not what you think people want to hear. Your day job could be a researcher, manager, or accountant. But maybe your kid went to an education program and you’ll never forget the experience they had. Or the sunset you watched with your partner. See the opportunity to talk to someone and tell them why this place matters. Advocacy is not limited to your job title—we all advocate, whether for our kids, our parents, our pets, our health care, we all do it. 

Nik: Two common threads in these interviews: 1) almost always the person has grown up on, or going to, the coast. And 2) they think that the Reserve where they work is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I know better than to ask which Reserve is your favorite, so what’s your favorite estuarine creature? 

Rebecca: The otter! I don’t want to say that, I’ve just offended half of the System. But I love the otter. 

Nik: It’s fine, we all know [sings] “they’re the cutest.” Otter is what everybody answers, no matter whether they’re from the West Coast or not.

Rebecca: I really like herons. I have them in my backyard. 

Nik: Great! We’ll scratch otter from the transcript. What do you think about all the new talent coming into the System? What do they need to know? 

Rebecca: I am blown away by the new talent. I’ve been sitting on interview panels for years. I never really felt worthy to be on the other side of the table. I haven’t met one next gen scientist or grad student who I have not had immense respect for. I love what they’re doing, their passion, and the people they are. I say to them: don’t lose hope. Don’t give up. We’re not going anywhere, yet. This work’s going to be around long after I’m gone, and we need you.

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ReservesTalk NERRdy to Me: Rebecca Roth