The Museum’s inaugural Deborah Pratt Dawson Conservation Symposium was held on the weekend of March 14 and 15, 2015 in Manchester, Vermont. The theme was “Advancing Conservation through State-of-the-Art Technology,” and attendees were treated to a schedule of events that highlighted this contemporary topic.

Each presenter offered a glimpse into his or her organization’s use of different technologies to meet conservation goals and objectives, as well as encouragement on the general state of natural resource conservation and the number of organizations, communities, and governments that work together.

With representatives from all of our conservation organization alliances present, we also took the opportunity to meet for a closed-session discussion with Philip Eppard, chair of the information studies department, College of Computing and Information at the University at Albany, SUNY. Professor Eppard took the group through a primer of archives development and archives management as it may relate to another aspect of the museum’s conservation initiative: the establishment of a conservation research center (potentially onsite and online), where information about conservation projects can be accessed. The group discussions that followed his presentation were well considered and inspiring, and will inform our plans as an archives intern is secured to begin a records survey.

The Keynote Address from Dr. Michael Cooperman

Obviously it is a great pleasure and a thrill to be here and normally I make my presentations to students teaching classes and whatnot. And for all intensive purposes they’re a captive audience and coerced. You folks on the other hand have volunteered and in some cases maybe even paid a little money to be here. Suffice it to say, my wife thinks you’re a bunch of idiots- to listen to me, of course. I, of course, have a very different opinion, and in fact, I know differently. Anyone who has the passion for rivers, lakes, oceans, and all of the critters that live within them, must be a pretty smart person, because these waters are the true life blood of our humanity. They give us fish for food. They give us drinking water and irrigation supplies. We use them for transportation and hydro power and of course, it is where we seek much of our recreation and aesthetics. As such, I think it is time that we treat these rivers, and the critters that live within them, as a reflection of our own civilization, our own society.

It’s therefore troubling to confront the reality that the freshwater and coastal ecosystems of our nation and the world are in such dire straights. They are indeed the most imperiled ecosystems on the planet. I’m not going to bore you with all sorts of statistics of what percentage of freshwater fish, mollusks, or crustaceans are at risk of extinction and I’m not going to bore you with numbers about how many square kilometers of our ocean floors have been lost to oxygen depleted dead zones. The unfortunate reality is those numbers are high and they’re heading in the wrong direction. If you’ll pardon my French, the mayor runs down hill and what’s at the bottom of that hill? It’s our rivers, lakes, and our ocean.

Now of course, you’re here and you probably know all of this kind of stuff already and I must say it is very nice t preach to the quire, but as I intend t make clear through multiple repetitions that if we want to protect that which we love, it is all about effectively communicating these things to the people that aren’t at any of these sorts of symposiums. Now, as Dr. Heckman has already pointed out and thank you very much for the wonderful introduction. I’ve had the good fortune to work on a number of projects that have blown up into really significant conservation issues. During my PhD studies at Oregon State, I was working on a couple of lesser known fish, the lost river and the short-nosed sucker, and all of the sudden a drought hit the region and the water agencies responsible for dividing up water for endangered species conservation, irrigation, had to by law of the Endangered Species Act prioritize water delivery to protect the endangered suckers and the endangered salmon that lived down the river from us and no water went to irrigation. As you can imagine, this was not a very popular decision among some members of society.

Later, when I went on to the University of British Columbia, I happened to be doing research on sockeye salmon migration, right when sockeye salmon populations in the Frasier river, a major, major multi-million dollar a year commercial fishery, those populations crashed and we had the so-called mystery of the missing fish. Again, we had a whole lot controversy when the government agencies responsible for sockeye salmon management shut down, or greatly reduced, commercial and also the tribal first nation’s take of those sockeye salmon. And my current work in Cambodia,, very rapidly modernizing country and they’re grappling with the trade-offs that are inherent of building big, hydro powered dams for the Mecon River, but the inherent loss of fisheries’ production that they’re going to have to confront, even though those fish are the fundamental diet staple of the people of Cambodia. 75% of the protein consumed in Cambodia comes from wild harvest fish and they’re going to lose a significant part of that when they build these dams. So in all of these cases, suckers, salmon, the tropical fish of the Cambodia, there’s more than ample finger pointing and chest pounding involving government biologists and resource managers, commercial fishing interests, first nations and other social groups, academics, numerous vested citizen interest groups like irrigation counsels, and through it all I’ve come to see the true wisdom in the old adage that the squeaky wheel gets the grease and that crisis is just another word for opportunity. The reality is in all of these cases, it wasn’t until the poop hit the fan that sufficient funds were made available for the research and restoration efforts and all of the other components that go into the so-called conservation effort to correct these various crisises. So, the first lesson that I have learned from my time in applied conservation that I want to share with you is that sometimes it does pay to shake the tree. Getting people to pay attention is a great way to get the ball rolling to accomplish your goals. I’ll have some more to say on the importance of communication a little bit later on.

I’ve also learned a few other lessons along the way and I’m going to try and share of few of those with you as well. I’ve tailored my comments today to address two main topics. First, I’m going to talk about 3 strongly interrelated technical issues. Three things that I think of as the forgotten step children of the restoration project cycle. Then I’ll return to my communication theme and share some thoughts with you about what I really think matters when it comes to protecting natural systems- that is how are we going to get the non-fishy folks of our community to actually care about the same thing that we care about.

So starting with the technical points, my three interrelated points of the forgotten step children of restoration. Now, in the world of restoration, everyone here might have had that thrill- that moment when the back hoe rows off of the truck and the perch covert gets torn out or you put a shovel into the earth to plant a tree in the right burying zone or you knock a tree down and convert it into river wood. And river wood being a much nicer term than the old fashioned large woody debris because a tree in a river is habitat. It isn’t garbage. We’ll hear more about that soon.

One of the things that I find is frequently missing from these sort of conservations is an explicitly stated project goal. It might sound kind of silly, but there is some importance in having a clearly defined goal. Now in some cases, the goal is self-evident. You remove the perch covert in the hopes that you will allow fish passage and thereby open up new habitat, but in some cases the goals are not very obvious. Do you repair a degraded and dead riverbank in order to provide flood protection.? Or are you there to stop downstream erosion and improve downstream water quality by cutting off the supply of sediment? Or are you there to increase the abundance of aquatic insects that service food for the early life stages of fish? Or are you there to increase the abundance of fish? The same kinds of questions can apply to river wood projects. Are you doing it to increase fish populations by improving young of the year survival? Are you trying to increase the local abundance of adult fish? Are you trying to improve the size of the fish to improve a trophy fishery? Are you trying to improve the abundance of an entire region of the population of an at-risk fish? It might sound academic but the reality is, stating the goal of your project is the only way that you actually know if you attained your goal cause each one of these things has a different real core purpose behind it.

The same concerns can also play out on a larger scale, such as restoring a wet land, because restoring a wet land for water quality improvement can be a fundamentally different project than restoring a wet land for fisheries, habitat or for flood protection.

Now clearly and articulately asserting the goal of an effort serves two purposes. First off, it helps avoid unintended miscommunications amongst the project partners. While my good friends at Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited have readily agreed that healthy watersheds are important for their concerns, it should be obvious that we won’t always approach the projects exactly the same way. Or with the same inherent biases or intentions. When a local watershed council comprises mostly of farmers and livestock ranchers and other members that live off of the land for example come together with a conservation group like the Nature Conservancy, they might all agree right away that you need to fix a given problem, but they might not actually agree on what the goal of that fix is going to be. By stating your guidelines and goals upfront, you can avoid miscommunications and hurt feelings down the line. I’ve seen this happen and play out multiple times. So again, being clear about what you are expecting up front, is a way to avoid ill will down the road.

Stating project goals up front also serves in helping to organize the pre-treatment data collection- the second of these three often forgotten points that I want to emphasize. I think it’s important that you truly understand what you have before you start tinkering with things. Put simply, how can you be certain if you have an effect in your restoration efforts, if you don’t first know what you had at the beginning. Pretreatment dat is typically neither expensive nor time consuming to collect but it can be absolutely invaluable when determining whether you successfully achieved your goal. If you’re spending money to make more or better fish habitat, don’t you want to know if you’re getting more fish? Let me illustrate this point with an example from my own work, and it brings us to the third key technical issues that of post treatment effectiveness evaluation.

Cynthia Browning of the Battenkill Watershed Alliance gives her presentation.

While I was a post doc at the University of British Columbia, my professor and I were hired by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to do an effectiveness evaluation of stream restoration that they were doing in the Cam Lukes BC area. I was asked to go up and survey where they had fixed something like 88 different eroding river banks in four different watersheds. The goal of the project was to have more Sockeye Salmon, to improve commercial fishery. When I got there, I realized right away they had never collected any pretreatment data. So when they asked me “do we have more fish?,” my answer was simple- I have no idea. I can tell you how many fish you have now, but I don’t know how many fish you had before. Statistically, we call this having absolutely no statistical power. The point is we were in a grey area. You spent 10 million dollars and I don’t know what you accomplished. Now you fix an eroding river bank and the river bank is not eroding anymore, I can stand here and look and say you were successful there, but I don’t know if you successfully changed water quality or more precisely, water temperature. Again, the idea was to make the river channels narrower and deeper so that less of the surface area of the river was exposed to direct sunlight because we knew that sunlight and water temperatures were stressful to the fish. I said, unfortunately, you didn’t tell me what your water temperatures were before you did the work, so I can’t tell you what they are after you’ve done the work. I don’t know what the channel dimensions were before you did the work. Now I know that the rivers are at least somewhat more narrow because you just dropped wood and other things into the channel, but have you changed channel erosion and deposition processes such that you’re rebuilding a flood plane? Or did the amount that the channel narrow exactly equal the amount of the supplies you dumped into it and you really haven’t changed the process at all. They can’t answer that because they didn’t collect pretreatment data and therefore you couldn’t get post treatment effectiveness evaluation

So, my emphasis on pretreatment and post treatment evaluation, I don’t believe is a bunch of ivory tower hooey, and I’m not alone for calling it an essential part of the restoration process. Why this emphasis? Well, first off, effectiveness evaluation is the best way to learn about what worked and what didn’t work. Then you can reuse your successes and you can evolve your failures to get to the success.

I’ll add here that this falls squarely into the mission of today’s symposium. The American Museum of Fly Fishing has put itself forward as a data repository for restoration efforts is a wonderful step in the right direction of allowing a collective learning of projects that have worked, sharing techniques, and as we talked about last night- learning from our failures. So I really do applaud this effort and I really do hope that it gets its legs and survives. But also effectiveness evaluation is a great way to raise money. What funding agency wouldn’t want t jump at something when you say to them “look, we’ve already had successes, what we’re doing is working. Let us continue with a winning strategy.” If you can show them the data, you’re halfway or more to getting your money for the next round of work.

So moving on then from these three technical points, I want to get back to the idea of communication. Because what I’ve learned in my work is that science, sadly, even when done correctly, is but a small part of the conservation equation. Conservation is really a question of social policy or communal will, not a question of technical science expertise. After all, you’re not really managing fish, you’re managing fishermen, and you’re not really managing the water, you’re managing how the water is being used by people. So herein lies, what I call the ascendancy of communication, some people call it education. Getting the story of the wonderful rivers and oceans and all that it offers to people out into the public is essential. Rivers and the oceans need all the friends they can get. But I think communication is more than saying simply “wow, this stuff is cool.” In my work at Conservation International, we really focus on the idea of natural capital. Now what is natural capital? It’s the realization that healthy, intact, sustained natural systems provide human society with a whole lot of services that are worth a whole lot of money. Healthy watersheds which can include things like forest and hill slopes, hydrologically connected wetlands, and rivers that are dynamically connected to their flood plain are great for modifying flood potential. If you just leave some parts of the watershed intact, you may not have to spend your king’s ransom on engineering flood control or post flood recovery efforts- Hurricane Irene, ring a bell to anybody? It works in Vermont. It works in Cambodia. It works everywhere.

Healthy wetlands within watershed will help regulate your water flows, like a sponge, they absorb water when water is abundant, and then they slowly release it as flows go down and water becomes more scarce. So a healthy watershed can actually give you sustained water flow through the dry summer months. That’s really good for irrigated agriculture. Those flows will also keep water temperatures lower to avoid those summertime spikes. So the recreational fishery survives.

So again, natural capital is the realization that a healthy trout river or a bass pond or a striped bass fishery in your coastal zones- that’s money in the bank chyeah! Think about our own Battenkill river as an example. Manchester, Vermont is only about 3 hours away from the major metropolitan areas of New York and Boston. Imagine the economic powerhouse that the Battenkill river could be if the river gains its ascendancy as one of -if not the- best trout river on the East Coast. You’re talking about people coming from those major metropolitan areas to spend money in our restaurants, to take our hotel rooms, to shop in our stores, hire our guides, etc. A healthy trout river is good economic investment in our community.

I think that natural capital and communication of the power of rivers is an outstanding motivational force to use as a conservation method and by and large it can work in just about any location. As I’ve talked about and in conclusion, I’ve already mentioned that I think that what the museum is attempting to accomplish is a very powerful, very useful, very timely method. Clearly, we have a lot of quote unquote citizen science groups and social interest groups that are out there trying t protect the resources that we all love. Bringing that information together, to learn what works and what doesn’t work, and to help us communicate the power of these efforts, I really do applaud that and I wish it the best of success. Thank you all very much and I look forward to the rest of today’s speakers.