On Assignment in Astoria: Most Affected? (week of September 11)

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The past few days have been spent on the coast in the Astoria and Ilwaco areas interviewing some of the LCSG stakeholders who if not most effected, are at minimum in the closest proximity to the actual dredging activities.  This concept of level of effect is interesting.  How does one judge who is most effected? By length of commitment, by proximity, by livelihood, by money, by life itself? My interviews here with four very different individuals have brought this question to the fore for me.

My first interview (a whopping 2+ hour “interview” where I barely was able to ask two of my pre-written interview questions!) was with a retired crabber who serves as the representative for the crab fisherman’s community not only on the Lower Columbia Solutions Group, but also on half a dozen other economic, natural resource management, and business communities boards along the coast.  Calling Dale simply a vocal citizen or advocate would be a momentous understatement. One of the major catalyzing issues to the early sediment management discussions was the occurrence of ocean floor mounding in areas of dredge disposal that was causing wave amplification and thus increasing the risks for fisherman. Dale points out that he has lost 27 friends and colleagues prematurely to “Davy Jones’ Locker,” an unknown number of those can likely be attributed at least in part to this mound induced wave amplification.

Of course, crab fishing on the Oregon and Washington coast is not acting in a vacuum where the only variable weighing upon it is dredging and disposal activities. Additionally, there have been major changes in the political environment most prominently the court decision that secured 50% of the crab catch to Native tribes, an effect of this is that Anglo crab fisherman are taking increasing risks to bring in the same catch as they did ten years ago.  And now that the Corps is working to avoid mounding and working towards beach nourishment (also extremely important to local fisherman as many have housing and business investments on those same eroding beaches), crab fisherman also have an interest in seeing these new shallow water disposal techniques not endanger the crabs that represent their very livelihood.  For Dale and his colleagues, dredging activities can literally mean the difference between life or death.

From Dale at the Port of Ilwaco, I traveled back across the 4-mile bridge that traverses the Columbia River to Astoria where I met with Pat, an extension services manager who was tasked as one of the original conveners of the LCSG more than a decade ago and who has spent much of his career in a participant or convener role of multistakeholder collaborative efforts.  Pat provided a drastically different perspective on the LCSG from that of the majority of the stakeholders I’ve talked with thus, suggesting even that the LCSG has run its course—a conversation surely for a different blog post.  An interesting point he made in terms of affected parties is to claim that the Port of Portland (and the other inland, upstream smaller ports) are really the most affected parties in this situation, even though they aren’t remotely involved.  He considers them the most affected because of the billions of dollars of commerce that comes into those ports thanks exclusively to the dredging activities that keep the channel deep enough for the large ships to come upriver. If we as a nation didn’t deem keeping those channels of commerce open, then there would be no wasted millions of cubic yards of sand each year, no concerns over mound creation and increased fisherman hazards, no concerns over that sand being dumped much like a tsuanami on crabs and other marina fauna, and who knows, with sand naturally allowed to stay in the river it might even makes its way to the mouth and there may not be as severe of erosion and sand starvation. Despite the central role the Port’s needs play, they have not ponied up any money or representation in recent years. I don’t know that I agree with Pat’s appraisal of this situation as representative of the ultimate failure of this group, however, it does cause pause as we survey the success and obstacles facing the future of sustainable, beneficial sediment management at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Finally, a trip to the NOAA offices to visit Curtis brought back to center the role of the natural world. This project has opened an unexpected door for research of the benthic environment and especially the going-on’s of crab down there. Amazingly, we just don’t know that much about crabs, despite the fact they represent the largest sector of the fishing economy in the state of Washington.   With cameras, acoustic tags, and many other new experimental designs we are learning much about the life of crabs. Early evidence suggests that crabs may not be overly effected by the more dynamic near shore disposal techniques, however, the jury is very much still out.  Whether or not neutral or negative (or maybe even positive) effects are shown in the end, one could easily argue that these little crabs are the most affected as they physically get scooped up by the dredges and have the sand unceremoniously dumped atop them under forces similar to a tsunami for humans.

Small coastal ports, crab fisherman, economy-driving inland ports, the beaches, the crabs themselves… who is the most affected? Who knows?! Maybe it doesn’t matter. Probably it doesn’t matter. There is no reason to figure out who the Most Oppressed People Ever (MOPEs) are, there is reason to work to end oppression. In this situation, it doesn’t matter who is quantifiably most affected, what matters is a huge and diverse group of people, animals, and landscapes are drastically affected and we should work to figure out how the situation can best serve all of them.

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Performance Evaluation: Being Brave (week of September 10)

Although we completed it towards the end of my summer term, Lauren and I went over my mid-project evaluation/check-in this week–considering that this internship will be continuing possibly for the remainder of the school year, it might just be accurate as mid-internship.  For ratings, she gave me 5s in all categories except a 4 in punctuality. This was mainly because of the mix-up in meeting start times for our team brainstorm, which she acknowledges was not my fault, nevertheless, punctuality is something I can admit to needing to work on (and care more about in general).

She originally also had given me a 4 in demonstrating understanding of organizational mission and goals, but after observing me complete an interview she changed that to a 5. She was impressed at how much I have managed to soak up in such a little time and what a seemingly comprehensive understanding I have of the complexities and inter-workings of personalities within this project.  I honestly feel like I have only touched the tip of the iceberg, but in talking with Lauren, Steve, and Jim I do understand that I have been granted a very unique window into this project as the first person to really sit down and listen with completely open ears to each individual one at a time since probably the case assessment was done years ago.

Her final comment really touched me. She complimented me on how “brave” I have been to just go out and do these interviews with complete strangers and in far flung locations. I never think of myself as brave, I’m such an introvert in the classical social, mingling scenes, but this isn’t the first time I’ve been labeled as such. I suppose it is one of my greatest strengths I bring to a project. I have no fear of power, given appropriate circumstances, I have no problem talking to any big wig in any big fancy, metal screening building. I grew up an only child with more adults than kids for friends till I was half way through primary school. I forget that not everyone fears the playground, but relishes the opportunity to talk to the principal over lunch. I still need to figure out the playground (or the networking happy hour), but I can’t forget that I bring a different type of bravery to the table.

Four Pairs of Pants and Professionalism (week of September 9)

This trip to Astoria has forced me to confront head on some of the obstacles of being a young professional with multiple sclerosis.  Compared to my other trip to Washington, this one has required me and given me the opportunity to do more field work in terms of actually visiting the beaches and areas in question.  It has been awesome to have a job that involves hiking and beach going, but it has also brought up the reality of my life as a disabled person.

One of the difficulties has been carrying equipment on my own. Many of the beaches and locales I’ve been asked to get b roll footage of are areas that I could really benefit from using my two canes. Unfortunately, two canes, a camera pelican case, and a big tripod requires at least one additional arm than the average human possess.  Overall, I’ve made it work, but being on assignment on my own is a bit cumbersome.

The real difficulty has been my bladder. I have had four full bladder accidents in public on this trip. Horribly embarrassing episodes that left me desperately clawing through my luggage for yet another pair of pants and madly searching for the nearest discrete restroom to sneak away to.  Luckily these incidents have happened in between my interviews, so it hasn’t been obvious to anyone but me that my outfit has changed from one person to the next.

I’m proud of myself for soldering on and not letting the more humiliating aspects of my disease stop me from getting my job done and pursuing my passion. But I hate that I have to deal with such nonsense and I hate the potential limitations it places on my future ambitions.

On the Road — Washington’s Side of the Story (week of August 30)

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The last few days have been spent traveling to Seattle, Olympia, and out to an adorable little town with a great pizza joint called Montesano.  I feel like I’ve traversed the full spectrum from the 20+ story EPA building in the heart of downtown Seattle to the government-styled campus of the Washington Department of Ecology to the casual cubicles with aging taxodermied walls of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  I think I’m hooked on this interviewing gig! Getting to travel and meet people, hear their stories, piece together the way collaboration has worked for them is absolutely fascinating even if it means an insanely frustrating amount of time stuck in traffic!

A few elements have made these interviews particularly interesting. First, some of these individuals are the longest serving, most involved individuals that are still on the project. My “early stages of the project” date has been moved back by almost a decade into the early nineties. Hearing these dates thrown out is such a testament to being mindful of the diversity of time perspectives, I may not be working with Native or other cultures that have traditionally long history perspectives, but nevertheless, it is true, the individual issue of the day never starts with the first meeting on that issue.  The agencies at play have been playing nice or not so nice with each other since their inceptions, the river has been dredged since the 1940s, the dams were built even earlier in the twentieth century, the beaches have been eroding ever since then, the clams and the crabs have called these waters home for millennia, and the Anglo man has been using the river to every economic advantage he can manage since the days of Lewis and Clark. Of course this issue didn’t start with the first official meeting of the LCSG dedicated to regional sediment management back in 2005. This can go back as far as the individual’s memory, or even farther if they have internalized the stories of before their own memories started.

A second interesting element is that much of this history has not been good for these people. Combine that with the fact that the Regional Sediment Plan has not been able to be implemented at all in Washington waters as it has in Oregon waters and it becomes clear that these individuals may feel some frustration with this project both historically and currently.  Despite the regaling of some unfortunate incidents and pretty back-stabby misunderstandings, I was amazed to hear the level of optimism among everyone. This way of doing things builds trust in such a way that individuals are able to overcome their personal frustrations to continue working on this grander vision that they know cannot be accomplished without working together.

Finally, I discovered one more use for this project.  I met with a number of individuals that are about to retire, as well as one new employee who is charged with taking this project forward for his agency.  Beyond encouraging courage for their larger respective agencies to use this method on other projects and even beyond encouraging the courage of those who have been steadfastly working on this project, we need to encourage the courage and frankly be able to easily bring up to speed all the inevitable new people that will be taking this project to its next steps in the near future.  Some of the history may best be forgotten, but if too much of it is forgotten I worry that the level of appreciation, trust, and dedication I’ve witnessed by the project veterans will dissipate and I worry that without that sense of pride this project may not weather the inevitable storms in its future as well as it could.  That new employee, after sitting in on my interview with his superior and soon-to-be predecessor, thanked me immensely for getting to hear a story he hadn’t heard in almost a year of being on this project.

My First Interviews (week of August 25)

Picked up the camera equipment at OSU and began our first round of interviews for the Lower Columbia Solutions Group Regional Sediment Management Plan documentary.  We started our interviews at likely the most formal of our agencies—the United States Army Corps of Engineers.  The Corps’ logo depicts a castle and indeed our first task was to get past the guards. Photos, background checks, and a series of phone calls later we were at last issued a visitor badge and allowed entrance into this modern day castle.

Although we would meet Corps employees whose rather stiff manner matched the climate of the guarded castle, our first interviewee was far from the impersonal, aloof engineer my stereotypes may have prepared me for. He was forthright and transparent, willingly diving into the contentious backwaters of a decade plus project he had seen from more or less the beginning.  A few important lessons came from this first interview.

The first of which was the way he talked about the value of learning how to listen.  It was astounding to hear a high-ranked engineer spouting on and on about how learning how to listen is really what sets this project apart.  Certainly we had heard this message from our professors and as us students learned to practice active, empathetic listening we noticed in ourselves a profound difference. Nevertheless, I doubt that many of my cohort mates really put that much stock into our abilities to just help people listen as being the key to easing the intricate, delicate, and entrenched conflicts that plague our world.

Likewise, we learned from him about the Corps’ early efforts to teach their engineers collaboration. Again as if a set-up to show me the value of my past curriculum, he began to spout off the collaborative learning method from none other than Greg Walker.  He noted how “back in the day” the label “collaborator” was akin to “traitor,” and how today it is quite literally a prominent listing on position descriptions. Although I still find the Corps relatively top-down, I’m amazed to hear about the progress they have made in the past decade to integrate collaborative governance approaches as a fundamental mode of operation. It gives me some hope to see that one of the most military of civilian agencies is adopting a mentality I believe will create solutions without the need for violence, threats, and other militaristically-styled actions.

All and all, I feel like our first interviews went well and I feel surprisingly confident in my abilities as an interviewer. Approached with curiosity, it is easy to ask the questions that let the story tell itself. Todd was right, people like to talk. Now the trick may be as I learn more of the story and form opinions of my own, being mindful to keep this early curiosity and this currently natural sense of neutrality. This may not be mediation with two people on either side of the table, but this is facilitative filmmaking and the skills required are not all that different.

Setting up Interviews (week of August 15)

It’s official! We are moving forward with setting up interviews. We realized that we could twist and tweak our set of interview questions around forever, but eventually we just need to sit down and start talking to people.  I’m sure that as we do just that, we will find that half of our questions are stupid, a quarter are poorly worded, and the remainder are really all we need to get the story. But until we take the brave step of talking to people we will never know which question is which.  We have first set of interviews set up with the Army Corps in Portland and then I leave for three days traveling around Washington to visit with the EPA, the DOE, the WDFW, and as many other environmentally-minded acronyms as I can fit in. Here goes nothing…

The Teleconference (week of August 1)

Today I was officially introduced to many of the members of the Regional Sediment Management Plan—I guess this means I’m actually going to be doing something despite this incredibly slow start! I’m excited to report that many in the group expressed excitement themselves at the prospect of having their story told. Perhaps this is because of a desire to have a product that will encourage funding and support, but I think it is also rooted in a shared sentiment that this story needs to be told and that they are proud to be a part of this story.

Despite the fact this group is out of the tedious years of planning and is now actually taking action, there was a clear sense of frustration on many fronts. First and foremost, financially. It was deeply disappointing (but should not have been surprising) for me to hear how difficult it has been for the project to receive funding from their federal agency counterparts.  Here a group of more than a dozen agencies have been able to work together, agree on a plan, and still the far away officials in Washington D.C. have little understanding of this monumental achievement and little impetus to make it happen by greasing the bureaucratic wheels that squeak with inefficiency.

A second frustration heard from the local fishing communities exposed yet another level of complication to this already labyrinthine situation. Part of the RSMP calls for a disposal site off of the Washington Coast that should help to rejuvenate the eroding Benson Beach, North Jetty, and Long Beach areas. However, it appears that in the couple of years since the RSMP was signed certain conditions have changed for the crab fisherman which has caused them to dramatically remove their support for disposal in these areas. The main variable that has changed is a court ruling that ensures 50% of the crab catch goes to the Native Tribes in the area. This has put pressure of Anglo fisherman to fish in less productive, harder to fish areas such as off the North Shore in order to maintain their typical catch levels which does after all directly equate to their livelihood. Apparently the Washington crab fleet has lost 35% of its traditional income because of this court decision and as the crab fisherman representative explains, this loss of income has dramatically increased “the insanity factor” for crab fisherman who now fish in more dangerous areas and on more dangerous days.

Finally, a frustration with politics was clear. Some in the group feel that now is the time to act in terms of garnering support from our elected officials. In contrast, others in the group are prohibited by agency rules to lobby for funding of projects and must be seen at all times as not playing politics.  This difference in agency cultures and avenues for pursuing projects adds a layer of virtually unresolvable conflict that demonstrates both how impressive it is that this group has held together for this long and also the great difficult the group faces with staying on a single path for the foreseeable future.