Seeking common ground

What’s the best way to convince the planning board in a small coastal community to support salt marsh restoration based on the latest scientific data?

a. Plot the relationship between dimensionless wave power and dimensionless erosion rate on a white board, and declare: “It’s linear!”

b. Slap the latest issues of the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, Advances in Water Resources, and Nature Climate Change, dramatically on the meeting room table, and tap your watch impatiently.

c. Hand out t-shirts that say: “I testify for thin-layer deposition”

d. Bake a giant cake in the shape of a saltmarsh sparrow and pour a bucket of seawater on top of it.

Stumped? The correct answer is absolutely none of the above, especially d. Never waste cake. Never!

Scientists looking for answers to questions about how climate change will affect coastal systems like the Plum Island Estuary, or Great Marsh, are starting to think about how their findings can translate to decisions in local communities. Photo credit: USFWS

Make no mistake: If not for the painstaking scientific research investigating how climate change will affect coastal systems like tidal estuaries, we would be up a salt marsh creek without a paddle, so to speak. But translating this research into practical guidance for stakeholders is equally important to ensure that local decisions with the potential to affect vulnerable resources reflect the best available information.

“We don’t even know what thin-layer deposition is,” said Julia Godtfredsen, Conservation Agent for the city of Newburyport, Mass. “We need to know how research translates to community benefits.”

Connecting the dots between protecting the marsh and meeting stakeholders’ informational needs was the goal behind a recent workshop at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, where scientists and stakeholders came together for a day to look for common ground in the 20,000-acre Great Marsh, which includes the Plum Island Estuary.

Facilitate by the Refuge, its conservation partners, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), the Great Marsh Resiliency Modeling Workshop provided an opportunity for representatives from local communities, nongovernmental organizations, and state agencies to ask practical questions of researchers investigating how climate change will impact coastal systems.

Yes, there was jargon. Yes, there were scatterplots. But more importantly, there was dialogue.

Dialogue about the missing link between long-term land-use planning and long-term effects on the marsh. Dialogue about decision-making realities in communities governed largely by volunteers who serve on conservation commissions, planning boards, and town meetings. Dialogue about the challenges scientists face to determine how natural systems will respond to artificially accelerated changes.

And throughout all of the dialogue, an undercurrent of collective dedication to protecting the Great Marsh on behalf of the benefits it offers as a natural system, and the benefits it offers as a resource to the communities along its perimeter.

Chair of the Essex Board of Selectmen Lisa O'Donnell attended a workshop at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge to learn about the connections between salt marsh science and community needs. Photo credit: Bridget Macdonald.

Chair of the Essex Board of Selectmen Lisa O’Donnell attended a workshop at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge to learn about the connections between salt marsh science and community needs. Photo credit: Bridget Macdonald.

While many of those benefits — carbon sequestration, nitrogen assimilation, fisheries production – should count in both categories, the marsh represents something more for residents of Ipswich, Newbury, Newburyport, Essex, Salisbury, and Rowley, Mass.

“It’s our backyard,” explained Lisa O’Donnell, Chair of the Essex Board of Selectmen. “It defines us.”

The workshop made it clear that if the Great Marsh is to continue to define these communities, managers need access to the best available information to make decisions that can help sustain the entire system in the face of climate change.

“Given the consequences of no action, we need to balance uncertainty about climate change with the need to act now,” said Nancy Pau, a biologist at the Refuge, who organized the event with North Atlantic LCC Coastal Resilience Coordinator Megan Tyrrell.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge biologist Nancy Pau and North Atlantic LCC Coastal Resilience Coordinator Megan Tyrrell lead a discussion about getting good science into the hands of local decision makers. Photo credit: Bridget Macdonald

So what can we say about the future of the Great Marsh with enough confidence to support action today?

In the short term, the Great Marsh will likely be buffered from rapid conversion to open water due to its relatively good condition and high tidal range, which reflects the difference in height and spread of water between low and high tide. Marshes with high ranges are able to accommodate sea level increases and tend to be more stable.

In the long term, the marsh’s natural rate of growth from the buildup of sediments, called accretion, won’t be able to keep pace with sea-level rise because of a lack of new material inputs.

In the meantime, the composition of the marsh vegetation will change as high-marsh vegetation converts to low-marsh vegetation in response to more frequent tidal inundation.

True, the long-term prospects seem a little discouraging, but North Atlantic LCC coordinator Andrew Milliken reasoned that the fate of the estuary should not be seen as a foregone conclusion.

“We should be doing the best we can to help the existing marsh systems persist now so we make sure we have a bridge to the future, while simultaneously planning for those future marsh locations at higher elevations,” he said.

What’s more, Milliken added, “You have an intact marsh and barrier beach system here. Maybe people in your communities already know that, but they might not be aware of the relative quality of this marsh, ” which happens to be the largest contiguous marsh in New England, and one of the largest on the Atlantic Coast.

“That’s an important message, and it should be accompanied by the message that this system is at risk,” Milliken said. “But now we have information that can help us target decisions and actions to protect the benefits provided by this marsh in the face of change.”

While there is still work to be done to translate the research to applicable formats, the Great Marsh symposium substantially narrowed the gap between that research and the citizens, policy makers, and citizen policy makers that can use it to inform decisions by simply people together in the same room. No cake was harmed in the process.

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