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Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership - 2012-08-15

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Science for sound policy

Guest post by Tim Spruill, former co-chair of APNEP's Science and Technical Advisory Committee
August 15, 2012

The author windsurfing in Stumpy Point Bay (courtesy of Tim Spruill)

The author windsurfing in Stumpy Point Bay (courtesy of Tim Spruill)

After serving the last four years as a co-chair of the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee, I believe more strongly than ever that organizations like APNEP are necessary to ensure the wise use of our natural resources. By bringing together people from all walks of life, APNEP can provide an effective framework to establish sound public policy. Such efforts are necessary to protect and preserve resources that are increasingly strained as human populations and other environmental stressors increase.

From my vantage point overlooking Stumpy Point Bay, there are no indications of any problems. A steady light breeze blows from the north amid a backdrop of hardwoods and pine swamps, part of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The sweeping vista is accompanied by silence and what appears to be a complete lack of human influence. Red wolves range here, along with black bears, otters, black swamp snakes, spotted turtles, bald eagles, ospreys, and other creatures typical of pre-European wilderness.

Stumpy Point was a small farming village before the Civil War, but by the turn of the 20th century fishing became the town’s lifeblood. It is now a small island of 200 souls surrounded by a sea of flora and fauna. Few people, few problems.

Evening on the Pamlico Sound (courtesy of Tim Spruill)

Evening on the Pamlico Sound (courtesy of Tim Spruill)

Yet taking a broader view, there are no shortage of problems in the Albemarle-Pamlico basin. Problems are a human concept, defined here as a threat to our well-being, happiness and survival. Whether something is perceived as a problem depends on one’s political, educational and cultural inclinations. Typically, when one group develops or damages a resource valued by another group, problems ensue.

If problems are proportional to the population in the 28,000 square mile Albemarle-Pamlico region, then there are plenty of them, with more to come.

Along the Outer Banks, humans now dominate the landscape with houses, buildings, marinas, wastewater treatment plants, schools and shopping centers. Fifty years ago, there were almost none.

Outer Banks homes damaged by Hurricane Irene

Outer Banks homes damaged by Hurricane Irene

Across the watershed, Raleigh, Durham, Virginia Beach, Greenville and other urban areas generate concentrated sources of pollution as well as human demands for more jobs, energy and housing.

In the region’s more rural areas, forests have been removed and soil plowed to prepare the land for food production for the world’s increasing population.

All of these human activities impact the natural landscape by altering or eliminating habitats, adding pollutants to the environment, and removing potentially renewable resources. Global warming, sea-level rise, and offshore drilling for oil and natural gas offer additional concerns.

Some of us are primarily concerned with providing long-term quality of life for future generations, while others emphasize providing jobs and economic benefits in the short term. In reality, we all are looking for that balance. Therein lies the problem.

At their core, most environmental disputes are about the end-point where the degradation associated with economic development begins to interfere with our happiness and well-being. Commercial, residential, agricultural and industrial development degrades water quality, damages fisheries, reduces forests and agricultural land, adds impervious surfaces and alters the aesthetic and functional qualities of the environment. The point at which we limit development and pollution is the major source of contention in most environmental disputes.

American black bear in the Aligator River National Wildlife Refuge (courtesy of Tim Spruill)

American black bear in the Aligator River National Wildlife Refuge (courtesy of Tim Spruill)

As a scientist, I regret that science alone cannot provide definitive answers to these questions. The answers are largely political and depend upon human judgment and values. What are we willing to give up in terms of environmental degradation in return for modern comfort, economic well-being, and convenience?

However, natural scientists can measure changes and describe effects of various land-use practices. Using historic and modeled data, we can also help predict likely environmental outcomes. Social scientists can complement these efforts by establishing what most people are willing to live with.

The expertise of social and natural scientists will be required to develop sound environmental and economic policies for the Albemarle-Pamlico region. APNEP’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee is now poised to fulfill this important role better than ever before.

STAC meeting in Greenville, NC

STAC meeting in Greenville, NC

During the last four years, the Science and Technical Advisory Committee, or STAC, progressed from a conceptual framework to actively monitoring changes in the ecosystem. Through periodic environmental assessments, that information will routinely be conveyed to managers and other stakeholders for timely and appropriate responses. These basic steps are the foundation of APNEP’s ecosystem-based approach, implemented with the support of APNEP’s staff, other advisory committees, and organizational partners.

All members of the STAC should be proud of these accomplishments. In the future, the STAC will have additional opportunities to inform the public by identifying emerging issues, continually educating decision-makers through the development of white papers and articles, hosting public discussions and workshops, and improving future ecosystem assessments.

Although it is unlikely that environmental problems will disappear, APNEP and its partners have never had a better opportunity to help establish a framework for rational solutions to those problems.

The author fishing for striped bass (courtesy of Tim Spruill)

The author fishing for striped bass (courtesy of Tim Spruill) 

Tim Spruill served as a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey for more than 30 years. He is a member and former co-chair of APNEP’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee.

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