Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peat’s Sake: Exploring Ways to Bring Sound Science into Wetland Management and Public Policy

For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

I just returned from the Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) annual conference which was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico this year. Quite a different world from where our home office is located in Windham, Maine. The Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) has a Memorandum of Cooperation with SWS, so I have participated in their conferences for the last three years. I puertorico061517have to say I was not unhappy with this year’s location. Leaving the cold, cloudy, rainy Maine spring climate for 90 degree, sunny weather was a more than welcome change.  But truly, Puerto Rico is like a whole other world compared to the northeast not only from a weather perspective, but also from a cultural, culinary and ecological perspective. I knew that I was going to have to work a little harder to communicate with the locals just to get around, as not only our native language, but also our customs are very different. 

My situation fit in very well with the communications-focused, conference symposium that I developed with my co-worker Brenda Zollitsch, PhD, who co-chaired the all-day symposium with me and our colleague Dr. Megan Lang from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  Our symposium was entitled, “How Can I Make My Work Matter? Exploring Ways to Bring Sound Science into Wetland Management and Public Policy.” As many others have come to recognize, we believe that as scientists, wetland program managers, and policy wonks, we have to find better ways to communicate scientific findings and the implications of those findings in order to gain broader support for incorporating sound science into decision-making.  In a world where the idea of “alternate facts” actually has traction, the legitimacy of sound science is at risk.


There is no one way to pursue this goal, however, and the path that each of us chooses is a personal choice. Many who work in local, state or federal government have professional restrictions that impede their ability to take on an advocacy role, and some simply believe that the role of the scientist is to remain politically neutral. Others have chosen to use their scientific expertise to bolster advocacy efforts. The March for Science certainly highlighted the “scientist as scientists” versus “scientists as advocates” divide. Personally, I believe both tactics are important avenues for communicating science to a broader non-technical audience.

With this perspective in mind, the symposium was designed to explore the multiple ways of bringing sound science into wetland management and public policy. The day was split into three sessions, each with individual presentations that were followed by 40 minutes total for questions and answers, and a panel discussion. The Q&A and panel discussion periods were designed to stimulate and provide a space for in-depth explorations and sharing of lessons learned so that participants and speakers were able to hold constructive and informal conversations in a participatory way.

aswmcommunications061517For the first session, we set the stage with a presentation by Brenda about a recent project we have both been working on that was designed to help wetland professionals improve communications planning, better target messaging and capitalize on opportunities to initiate behavior change through targeted wetland communication strategies and products. During this presentation, Brenda shared a suite of case studies, identified common elements that have been shown to influence outreach success, and presented key recommendations for developing effective communications efforts.

Next we heard from David Behar, Climate Program Director at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. David spoke about the benefits of the “co-production” of actionable science for decision making.  In such an endeavor, managers, policy makers, scientists, and other stakeholders first identify specific decisions to be informed by science, and then jointly define the scope and context of the problem, research questions, methods, and outputs, make scientific inferences, and develop strategies for the appropriate use of science. And in the third and final presentation for the first session, Megan Lang (Chief Scientist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) National Wetland Inventory Program and Team Lead for the US FWS Wetland Status and Trends Project) spoke about how the National Wetlands Inventory geospatial dataset and Wetlands Status and Trends reports have been used to support the development of wetland management approaches and policies at multiple organizational levels.

mcdavit061517In our second session, we focused on addressing science gaps to inform management and public policy. Our first speaker was Michael McDavit, Chief of the Program Development and Jurisdiction Branch in the EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds. Mike spoke about the 2011 National Wetland Condition Assessment and how it’s publicly available data can be utilized to provide sound scientific support to management decisions and policies. Our second speaker in this session was Brian Topping, an Environmental Protection Specialist in the regulatory program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency headquarters. Brian spoke about how compensation program performance evaluations can be used to guide researchers, inform management policies and fill information gaps with the goal of improving ecological outcomes for compensatory mitigation projects. And then our third speaker in this session was Dr. Robert Brooks, Professor of Geography and Ecology, and Founder and Director of Riparia at the Pennsylvania State University. Rob’s presentation examined outcomes from three case studies that involved public entities as collaborators at some point in their projects. How each case study entity translated and communicated complex science into message and tools appropriate for informing public policy decisions was discussed. 

marla061517And last but not least, the third session focused on effective ways to advocate for wetland protection using sound science. Dr. Astrid Caldas, a Senior Climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists shared lessons learned from case studies in Louisiana and Florida where scientific information was communicated effectively with local stakeholders and led to acceptable and equitable outcomes that moved policies in positive directions. The last speaker of the day was myself, and in my presentation, I shared strategies and tactics for effectively translating scientific findings to non-technical audiences, including the general public, the media, and elected officials.

Overall I believe the symposium was a success and that everyone, speakers and participants alike, walked away with new knowledge and ideas for ways to improve the understanding, acceptance and use of sound science for management and public policy decisions. What was made very clear was that regardless of who you are, where you come from or what your professional circumstances are, there are a wide variety of communication approaches that can be utilized to get sound science incorporated into management and public policy. So For Peat’s Sake, I hope you’ll take some time to think about how you communicate science and how you might do so more effectively – the future of our wetlands depends on it.

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