Finding your a-ha moment

This week’s blog is brought to you by our friend and colleague, Becky Allee, senior scientist with the Office for Coastal Management-Gulf region, and fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Growing up in a large city meant concrete and asphalt. Sidewalks and cement bayous. The zoo seemed like block after block of concrete enclosures.

As a child I occasionally had an opportunity to visit the beach. That was back in the days of DDT and few pelicans. We would sleep in a large canvas tent and the smell of that tent was my association to the beach, not the sound of the waves or the sand beneath my feet. I had no concept of ecosystems, living resources, or ecosystem services. I never camped in the woods until I was an adult. Never spent time on the water; never on a lake; never in a river. I rode my bike along the cement bayous, oblivious to the damage that had been done when those natural waterways were converted to my bike paths. I was not a steward of the natural environment because I had no understanding of what nature truly was.

As an adult my familiarity and understanding of ecosystems grew slowly. As an undergraduate biology major, I learned ecology but not really the functioning of ecosystems or the services they provide. The term “ecosystem services” had not evolved at that point. Graduate school is where I began to develop an appreciation for all that nature had to offer. My graduate research afforded me the opportunity to spend countless hours on the lakes and camping…in the woods! I became an aficionado of lake and stream ecology. And I slowly came to understand how the intricacies of ecosystems kept nature in balance. I became observant.

I became aware of how the riparian zone along a stream helped stabilize the banks. I learned the importance of woody debris within the streams. I noted how development along a lakeshore could significantly alter water quality.

Ecosystem services are typically defined by what ecosystems provide to benefit humans. But I would argue that ecosystem services are also important for the benefits provided to other parts of the ecosystem – the critters that live therein; the structure of habitats; the quality of the water.

Paddling around the Gulf. Photo courtesy of Becky Allee.

The cement bayous of Houston have been, at least in part, converted back toward their natural state. Riparian buffers are being reestablished or retained intact. Habitats are being restored. DDT was banned and the pelicans have returned to the beaches and are thriving. Even the zoo now mimics natural habitats – no more concrete enclosures. These actions improve the “services” that one part of an ecosystem provides to another. Perhaps I am anthropomorphizing the concept of ecosystem services, but it makes sense to me.

Educating the public about ecosystem services is a valiant endeavor. As we work toward reversing the damages done in years past, the public has more exposure to natural ecosystems. Our children, even those growing up in concrete cities, have opportunities to get in touch with nature. We provide opportunities for teachers to go to sea and share their experiences with their students. We’ve developed mobile applications to help educate the public no matter where they are.

All of these efforts work toward a common goal: Educating the public about the significant services ecosystems provide each and every day. It is imperative that people develop this understanding. As such, we must continue our efforts to engage with the public and lead them to their own “a-ha” moment. Doing so will give our citizens a sense of ownership for our natural resources and, if we do our job well, will promote the active commitment to stewardship that comes from having a personal relationship with, and thorough understanding of, the natural world.

Brown pelican. Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

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