A Fellowship For the Future

Knauss Fellowship paves pathway for conservation leaders

Building the next generation of conservation leaders, one fellow at a time, is the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship Program. Supported by the National Sea Grant College Program, this fellowship provides graduate students a unique opportunity to those passionate about ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources, and eager to learn firsthand how policy decisions are made and affect those resources. The fellows have the opportunity to work side by side with career professional from one of the dozens of federal agencies who work in this space.

One agency in particular who has hosted many Knauss Fellows over the years is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; their mission is to conserve, protect and enhance fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Coastal Programs are Service Programs who works to support the Service mission, and who work closely with communities to carry out voluntary habitat conservation across the country. The Marine Program works on many of the same issues as the Coastal Program, due to the interconnectedness of coastal and marine environments. They also coordinate with the 183 coastal and marine refuges within the National Wildlife Refuge System while working closely with NOAA’s Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Center to manage the Marine National Monuments. For the past three years, Knauss Fellows have supported these Programs by working on a plethora of projects, with a diverse set of partners, on scales from local to international, and in areas rural to urban.

The strength of these Programs lies heavily in their partnerships. The Habitat Network (HabNet) Coalition is a national alliance of over 50 conservation organizations, who all share the common goal of conserving coastal habitats across the nation. Collaborative habitat conservation and supporting resilient coastal communities is at the forefront of the HabNet mission. Much like a spider web with countless interconnected strands, this conservation network works together to support one another. Spider silk is roughly five times stronger than steel after accounting for size, and this strength truly represents the strength of this interconnected network.

In February of 2018, Jessica Collier began working as a Knauss Fellow for the Service’s Coastal and Marine Programs. She collaborated working with many partners, including Restore Americas Estuaries (RAE) who manages HabNet and hosts the biennial National Coastal and Estuarine Summit. At the Summit, coastal professionals and partners come together to exchange information and ideas about coastal resource conservation and management. Jessica put together a panel of at RAE’s 2018 Summit to talk about the benefits of investing in our coasts through storytelling. The panel included a Service biologist from the Great Lakes, a Chesapeake Bay business owner, and a coastal steward from the Hawaiian community of Ha’ena. Dan Ehresman, Executive Director of the Northcoast Regional Land Trust, shared a story close to his heart and home in Humboldt Bay, CA. He spoke of an incredible partnership who worked to restore tidal wetlands on a Freshwater Farms Reserve that held community ties including a local farm stand. Not only did this project benefit salmon recovery, it created access for members of the community to engage with nature and each other. Through the power of storytelling and engaging local communities, the Coastal Program is building a larger conservation spider web. 

Jessica incorporated the power of storytelling in several of the projects she worked on. She published a story on Medium about the American Eel, a species with a fascinating life history and that brings a number of ecological benefits to the ecosystems in which they exist. Most notably they play a critical role in the life cycle of freshwater mussels – enabling their survival in freshwater environments. Jessica assisted with a study aimed to better understand eel migrations that was carried out to inform the construction of a passageway for eels to traverse a dam in the Potomac River. In her story, she highlighted the benefits wildlife bring to a community and ecosystem, as well as the need for habitat conservation.

“The Knauss Fellowship was an invaluable opportunity to focus on communication and outreach, policy and strategic plan development, and to understand high-level directives for conservation.” – Jessica Collier/USFWS

The following year Alicia Wilson jumped right in as the 2019 Knauss Fellow. Alicia worked closely with MPA Center at the National Atmospheric Oceanic Administration, to help coordinate the North American Marine Protected Areas Network (NAMPAN); a group of marine and coastal managers collaborating to share resources and address common challenges among MPAs. Much like HabNet, NAMPAN serves as a platform to facilitate cooperation across North America and among federal, tribal, state, territorial, and local partners. Alicia spent some time in Hawaii during her fellowship, and was able to participate at the NAMPAN meeting in Honolulu; where various perspectives were shared on the challenges, best practices, and strategic development necessary to build stronger partnerships and increase the effectiveness of conservation efforts.

Her work in the Aloha State didn’t stop there – she also met with the Moloka`i Land Trust Director, to gather economic data on the restoration of the Mokio Preserve, building on the economic storytelling work started by Jessica. Having a good estimate of nature’s value can assist communities in making more informed decisions and advocate for the protection of these important resources for the future generations.  

Alicia continued reaching across the conservation spider web to address climate related issues. These issues can be felt across the globe, as the oceans intrude into coastal communities as sea level rises. Alicia raised awareness of climate change by collecting details about projects done on National Wildlife Refuges, across the nation. She put together a document serving as a tool for coastal practitioners to share valuable lessons learned, challenges and success stories to help others make informed design decisions.

“The Coastal Program and my yearlong Fellowship taught me the value of partnerships. It’s all about relationships and building collaborative partnerships to achieve conservation initiatives and community planning.” Alicia Wilson/Army Corps of Engineers

The most recent Fellow, Amanda Lawrence, has not let COVID-19 interfere with her conservation work. RAE’s annual Summit was held virtually this year, and Amanda was able to organize a panel of diverse speakers to share their experiences and lessons learned on monitoring biological outcomes. Bringing this knowledge to the forefront and from multiple perspectives, is critical for conservation practitioners to make informed decisions. Bringing this panel to the Summit has great benefit in strengthening and widening the conservation spider web, and the broader conservation community.

One issue facing the Marine Program is that of marine debris. Everyone has encountered the impacts on some level whether it’s seeing images of Green sea turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, or hearing the horror stories of the ghost fishing gear entanglements of Right whales. Amanda has worked to address this global issue by developing a marine debris survey for the National Wildlife Refuge System targeting the 183 refuges with coastal and/or marine areas. As data is collected, more can be gleaned about the broad marine debris impacts, and the resources used to address these impacts on a national scale. Ultimately what is learned can be used to inform a coordinated approach to address marine debris, and open doors for future funding opportunities.

Marine debris is an issue that is not restricted by state lines or national boundaries, yet remains of increasing global concern that should be addressed from a large-scale perspective. This and other global challenges are at the forefront of NAMPAN discussions. Amanda has had the opportunity to attend and contribute to both a national and international NAMPAN meeting. Experiencing international strategic planning and learning about environmental issues from first-hand perspectives was just one of many highlights of Amanda’s fellowship year.

NOTHING could replace this year of learning, and there was no place better to have this experience than with the Service. The importance of fostering relationships with partners and power it can bring to conservation, was my greatest lesson learned” – Amanda Lawrence/2020 Knauss Fellow

This is just a sliver of the essential work being done by fellows, and with the conservation spider web at the forefront. Many times the portfolio of the current Knauss builds upon the work done by the previous fellow, to ultimately achieve larger conservation goals that benefit both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Programs, and the HabNet conservation partners directly. Through the support of the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, the development of a handful of future conservation leaders has taken place. They have each developed skills through their experiences supporting the Service’s Coastal and Marine Programs, and contributed in their own unique way.