Megabytes, Megawatts, and Megaphones – A Fellows Reflection on CMSP

As the days come to a close on my WCGA Sea Grant fellowship, I am a little teary eyed looking back on two exciting and intense years with the Oregon Governor’s Natural Resource Office and the Oregon Dept. of Land Conservation and Development, Coastal Management Program. It’s been a long strange trip with many curves and bumps in the road, to be sure, but through my ring side seats for Oregon’s marine spatial planning process, I ultimately learned what I came here to learn; the circuitous process by which science and information translates to policy and decision making.


The author enjoying the Monterey Bay aboard the majestic 16′ Hobie Cat “La Pescadita”

I arrived in Oregon fresh out of graduate school at Cal State Monterey Bay, where I studied seafloor mapping and benthic ecology. Working at the scale of grains of sand was really interesting and I learned a lot about how fish and invertebrates use soft sediments, but I wanted to look at a bigger landscape; policy development and ocean planning. I caught glimpses of the mythic world of policy through the California Marine Life Protection Act, but I wanted to experience the whole complicated thing, and the WCGA fellowship seemed to be the perfect way to do it.  

I was really fortunate to arrive in Oregon when I did. They were just beginning a marine spatial planning process for wave energy and were looking for recruits (i.e. fresh blood) to help record and synthesize public comment and help with GIS work. I was stoked! It meant I got to go to every stakeholder meeting on the coast and see how all these competing interests were being addressed. Hearing all their stories helped me realize that, regardless of their background, everyone was coming to the table with a passion to see the ocean protected and healthy (They just wanted to go about it in different ways.) 

A huge part of the marine spatial planning process was the use of decision support tools (DST) to help engage stakeholders and provide accurate spatial data to decision makers. Simply enabling stakeholders to view and analyze data in meetings provided a common foundation that everyone understood. It allowed individuals to investigate prospective areas for development and feel engaged in the process. That’s not to say that everyone agreed with the data or the plan. Oh goodness, no! But seeing the maps and hearing concerns enabled advisory groups and policy makers to refine their information to better reflect realities on the ground. This two way dialogue was critical to the successful adoption of the plan.


Oregon MarineMap: The decision support tool used it the Oregon Territorial Sea Planning process. My, it’s a busy ocean!

Recognizing the utility of these tools, and wanting to apply them at the regional scale, led me to the other big aspect of my fellowship. The creation and development of a regional framework for increasing access to ocean and coastal data to better inform regional coastal management, policy development, and ocean planning. It started as an idea, echoed by West Coast stakeholders, cobbled together from funding proposals, strengthened by a unanimous vote of need at the National Marine Spatial Planning workshop in Washington DC (see post: Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning – The future is now), and formalized at a workshop the WCGA held in December of 2011. There seemed to be no question that the need existed, but the question was how to go about developing such a system in an era of tough budget cuts. In recognition of this reality, we decided that it would be best to invest in low tech solutions to better connect and support the existing state and federal systems in place. But we needed a group to lead this effort…

The Regional Data Framework ACT was formed to guide the development of the human and technical networks, and in their voluntary efforts, I see the same passion for smart ocean management that guided stakeholders in the Oregon MSP process. The work is just beginning with many foundational steps to be laid, but I hope that in the next year we will be poised to make contributions to pressing West Coast ocean health issues such as adaptation to sea level rise, understanding patterns of ocean acidification, and tracking patterns of marine debris. The ACT just released their formal work plan guiding their work over the next 3-5 years; you should read it here and let them know what you think.

My fellowship has been tremendously rewarding; from experiencing firsthand the struggles and triumphs of working with stakeholders in a marine spatial planning process to learning about the latest GIS technologies, it provided me with all the opportunities I could ask for (and then some). Two years was a perfect amount of time to get my bearings, survey the landscape, and figure out what I wanted to accomplish with the fellowship but now I am ready to move on and apply the things I’ve learned. I am fortunate to be continuing work with the RDF ACT as they move into the next critical phase of their work, and maintain the relationships I’ve developed over the past two years. If it weren’t for the good natured group of fellows, mentors, and colleagues the fellowship would have felt overly daunting at times, many thanks to this group for their support and advice.

Oregon Coastal Managment Program: "Field work" on the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

Oregon Coastal Managment Program: “Field work” on the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

I hope that in the future the WCGA will offer similar fellowships to young people interested in how science and policy interact on the coastlines of the West Coast. It’s not always easy or pretty, but it’s a good lesson for the next generation of marine scientists and policy makers that will not be forgotten.

California’s Marine Life Protection Act

Late last summer I went backpacking with three other Sea Grant fellows through 20 miles of Desolation Wilderness just south west of Lake Tahoe in California.  Desolation Wilderness is a federally protected wilderness area full of beautiful alpine lakes, towering trees, and desolate expanses of granite.  We started on the Pacific Crest Trail from Echo Lake, meandered past Aloha Lake, and camped between La Conte and Aloha our first night.  Despite the massive blisters on my feet, the next day we headed out past Heather Lake and up to Gilmore Lake where we gladly ditched our packs and hiked up to Mt Tallac (elev 9,700’) for an incredibly picturesque view of Lake Tahoe and surrounding smaller lakes.



Photos from our backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness. All photos taken by Johanna Weston

To me, the ability to walk out into the woods and get a little lost in federally protected areas is an incredible privilege and something I might consider a right that every citizen of the US has to these pristine areas.  I’m incredibly grateful for the Wilderness Act of 1964 that established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which allows Congress to designate areas to be “administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness” by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service.  Though I may never be able to afford beautiful lakeside property, in a way, through the Wilderness Act I’ll always be a sort of co-owner of an amazing expanse of wilderness areas.  And I’m perfectly happy to hike many miles into these areas and carry what I need on my back to experience a little peace and quiet.


While reflecting on my “co-ownership” of national forests, I started to think about the oceans and whether we have a parallel system in the marine environment.  Of course there is the National Marine Sanctuary System, and I was fortunate to grow up near Monterey Bay next to the beautiful Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary established in 1992 and expanded in 2009.  The National Marine Sanctuaries Act in 1972 was a great step forward to protect coastal areas by allowing the Secretary of Commerce “to designate and protect areas of the marine environment with special national significance due to their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational, or esthetic qualities as national marine sanctuaries”.  Some states have begun to establish networks of Marine Reserves along their coasts, which goes a step or two further in protecting marine resources.


Photo of kayakers enjoying the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (taken from bluewaterventures)

In 1999, California passed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA)  to design and manage an improved network of marine protected areas off California’s coast through a process that involved stakeholder engagement and the best available science. California was divided into four regions: south coast, central coast, north central coast, and north coast.  Just a few months ago in December, the north coast reserves went in to effect and the California Marine Life Protection Act process ended its planning phase and moved into implementation.  Approving the final series of marine reserves may seem like a small thing, but to those who have been through the process from the beginning over a decade ago this is a momumentous moment in California’s own mini Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) process to establish a network of marine reserves along the entire CA coast. 


Map of the marine reserves established along the central coast of California through the MLPA process


Preservation of these terrestrial and marine ecosystems through marine santuaries, marine reserves, national forests, and national wilderness areas sets aside large swaths of land and ocean to be enjoyed by many generations into the future. The goals and objectives of the two types of protected areas are slightly different, but knowing there are places in the world  set aside for the protection of species and wildlife is reassuring.  I think the folks who created Desolation Wilderness in 1899 would be pleased that a group of three girls could venture into the wilderness over a century later with nothing but the packs on their backs to explore and enjoy this national wilderness.  Marine reserves  and National Sanctuaries similarly preserve a wealth of ecosystem services as well as areas for people to enjoy for years to come.  So, I encourage you to go out and explore these areas be it carefully walking through the intertidal to see the animals and algae living in tidepools, kayaking across the surface, SCUBA diving through the kelp forest, or just lazing on the beach.