Face Of This Place

Erik Meyers, Vice President

Erik Meyers has been a Vice President at The Conservation Fund for nearly a decade. Growing up in places across the midwest, far west, and east, Erik’s love of the outdoors and our nation’s natural wonders run deep. College introduced him to Washington, DC, where time on the Potomac River got him interested in environmental law. Today, he’s heavily involved with the Fund’s work in the Chesapeake Region, particularly Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. He shares thoughts on climate change and reflects on what The Conservation Fund is doing to address the multiple challenges facing coastal ecosystems.

How did you find yourself at The Conservation Fund? 
While I was the Environmental Law Institute’s general counsel and vice president, I ran several educational and policy projects and met some of the Fund’s founding staff members. The Fund’s hands-on conservation work always held strong appeal for me, so when I had an opportunity to join the Fund’s staff and work on real projects, I jumped at the chance. 

Clearly your love of the environment is abundant; what is it about the work you do every day that you love so much?
For me, one great thing about working at The Conservation Fund is being able to seize opportunities to launch innovative projects. The Fund doesn’t shy away from doing work that hasn’t been done before. We’re very action-oriented, and move quickly from planning to doing. That appeals to me.

And while the environment is a big piece, one of the strongest connections for me is on the people side. We see humans as part of the natural environment. It’s our habitat, too. We focus on how human interaction with the environment can make our lives better—not just from having wonderful places to visit or beautiful views to soak in, but actually earning a sustainable living for the long term and living effectively with nature.

You’ve been involved with the Fund’s work at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) for almost a decade. How did we get started there?
Our real estate records reveal our involvement on the Eastern Shore of Maryland dating back to the early 90’s where the Fund has protected approximately 100,000 acres of land to date.  Much of that conservation land is located in Dorchester County where Blackwater NWR is located. Immediately adjacent to the Refuge is a state Wildlife Management Area called Fishing Bay that the Fund acquired and donated to Maryland. These two areas combined are the most extensive conglomeration of salt marsh on the east coast until you hit the Everglades in Florida.

When did we realize Blackwater was in need of more than just protecting the land? 
We started looking at the challenges of sea level rise at Blackwater in 2006 when new climate change data started coming out. We began by taking a look at what the projections were for the impact of sea level rise on lowlying coastal areas like Dorchester County. One of the things the projections revealed was the adverse impact that would come from sea level rise and storm surge on top of that. With the history of major tropical storm systems and nor’easters that tear through the Chesapeake Bay area, it’s not just relative sea level rise that’s important, it’s wind- and wave-driven storm surge as well. We modeled the impact over time and were struck by the dramatic imprint on Dorchester County—dead center on Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Blackwater’s extensive coastal marshes, and even inland marsh and forest areas, could be lost over time. That knowledge was a strong motivator to come up with an answer. Realizing we’re living in a very dynamic time and if we wanted our legacy to mean anything we needed to start preparing for a very different future, a future where the water levels of the Chesapeake Bay are much higher than they are today. 

Climate change, sea level rise, storm surge—are these the major issues facing Blackwater today?
Yes. And it’s actually the accelerating pace of sea level rise, which is climate driven. There are several factors that contribute to sea level rise, not all due to climate change. Over the past 100 years, the levels have risen about a foot in the Chesapeake Bay area—twice the global rate. There are a variety of reasons for that difference: The Refuge has experienced an invasive rodent species called Nutria that has eaten out marsh areas, straight through the plants and into the roots. This accelerated the erosion and inundation of previously emergent marsh area. There is also a phenomenon that relates back to the last Ice Age of 10,000 years ago called isostatic rebound. The weight of the glacier in North America lifted the land to the south, including the Chesapeake Bay region, but now as the glacier has melted, that same land is slowly rebounding. The northern region is rising while the southern area, including around the Chesapeake Bay, is slowly sinking. Those factors coupled with the sea levels rising because of melting ice caps and glaciers around the world are leading to a much more rapid relative sea level rise at Blackwater. 

Once the studies and projection reports for Blackwater were completed, how is The Conservation Fund now proactively addressing the findings?
After the initial study, we did an in-depth assessment on the impact of sea level rise on the marshes at Blackwater. We then developed a comprehensive strategy for marsh adaptation and are implementing three pilot projects that focus on upland areas that are transitioning into salt marsh:

  1. We’re moving the dead or dying standing trees to create a larger marsh area. We want something more suitable for salt marsh birds, the target wildlife species that prefer open cordgrass areas.
  2. We’re controlling invasive plants like Phragmites, which is a huge problem in areas that undergo stress.
  3. We’re demonstrating that an alternative crop like switchgrass, one that can thrive in saturated soils, and particularly soils that are increasingly salt influenced, can grow in the extensive agricultural areas found on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We want something that could take the place of soybeans or corn, the two typical crops that are grown here. We want to provide an effective opportunity for local farmers to continue to utilize their land for agriculture for as long as possible.

Can these strategies we’re practicing at Blackwater be applied to other coastal areas to help preserve our coastlines?
Yes, although an area such as Blackwater definitely has some advantages. The Eastern Shore of Maryland is not highly developed in terms of vacation homes, but for much of the Atlantic coast you don’t find the same opportunities for salt marshes to retreat landward. There’s generally too much human development in the way and the prospects are fewer of there being significant natural land or working lands able to transition into effective, high-quality marsh.

We’re building a broad community of practice on the eastern shore and the Delmarva Peninsula whose approaches can be shared on a national basis. The techniques in trying to slow down the rate of loss broadly apply to Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts. In fact, we’re working with others and talking about what we’re finding. We’re learning from what they’re doing, too. We’re coaching, we’re pushing this forward. But we’re not operating alone. We want to compare and contrast the approaches. For example, we’ve gone after some significant funding to try and do marsh elevation at Blackwater as a model for other east coast sites. That would be a major project and would really advance what we want to do in terms of actually acting on adapting these areas to meet the challenge.

What are your hopes for the future of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge?
We know things are going to change. They’ve always been changing. The Chesapeake Bay is a dynamic place where the land and water come together to form a magnificent and unique ecosystem. What I hope for Blackwater is that we’re able to establish a glide path towards the future; a future where the iconic salt marshes persist into the next century, and salt marsh birds and migratory birds still frequent them. I hope that generations from now our children and grandchildren will still be able to experience Blackwater—perhaps not the same Blackwater we have today—but one that still inspires.

There are opportunities to create a brighter future than if we simply shrug our collective shoulders and say, “Oh well, I guess it was great while it lasted”. There are adaptive measures that we can take, and that we should be taking now, to help us create this better future for Blackwater and our coastal ecosystems.

That’s the positive message I want coming from The Conservation Fund. We have urgency for action with the genuine hope for a better future as a result.

You can read more about Erik and why he chooses to support The Conservation Fund here.

"What I hope for Blackwater is that we’re able to establish a glide path towards the future; a future where the iconic salt marshes persist into the next century, and salt marsh birds and migratory birds still frequent them. I hope that generations from now our children and grandchildren will still be able to experience Blackwater—perhaps not the same Blackwater we have today—but one that still inspires."
— Erik Meyers

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Face Of This Place
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge