INTERVIEW with Heather Elmer, Environmental Educator/Trainer
Division of Wildlife
What do you do to protect and improve Ohio’s coastal region?
I coordinate the Ohio Coastal Training Program, or CTP. The goal of this national initiative is informed decision-making among local officials and other professionals to improve coastal stewardship. The Ohio CTP is a partnership of three programs, the Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Ohio Coastal Management Program and the Ohio Sea Grant College Program. The programs collaborate to conduct research, provide education and manage the natural resources of the Lake Erie coastal region. I work at Old Woman Creek, a protected coastal wetland that is part a national system of reserves in which innovative programs in research and education foster stewardship of coastal ecosystems.
Why do we need to improve coastal stewardship?
Lake Erie coastal ecosystems including wetlands, estuaries and rivers provide valuable natural services such as filtering pollutants, providing wildlife habitat and serving as buffers against flooding and erosion.
In the photo, I am surveying the Old Woman Creek estuary, a valuable coastal ecosystem that buffers against storms, provides wildlife habitat and protects Lake Erie water quality.
Coastal ecosystems need protection because population growth and residential and commercial development create pressures, making these areas vulnerable to pollution, habitat degradation, over-fishing, invasive species and increased hazards like flooding and erosion. Nearly 25 percent of Ohio’s population lives in the eight counties along the Lake Erie coast. As woodlands, meadows and wetlands are converted to pavement, it is increasingly difficult to maintain water quality and natural coastal ecosystem functions.
What local decisions affect Lake Erie?
Decisions made by township, municipal and county officials influence how Ohio communities change and grow. City council members, planning department staff and appointed boards such as zoning and planning commissions develop plans that guide community growth and adopt ordinances that govern the use of land. Once officials become aware of the need to protect coastal ecosystems, we can assist them with the technical knowledge necessary to minimize potential impacts through their local plans and regulations.
How does the CTP help?
Based on our experience, professionals and local elected officials are eager for training and information that helps them address natural resource protection challenges associated with population growth in coastal areas. In the photo to the right, a group of local government officials and land use planners attending a CTP workshop identify existing land use conditions and develop a vision for the future of their coastal communities.
In order to design relevant programs, we ask local officials about the challenges they face and what types of scientific information or technical skills they need. We can provide training on alternative community development strategies such as maximizing investment in existing urban areas, mixing land uses, restoring watersheds and minimizing impacts to critical ecosystems. Those who visit, live and work in the Lake Erie watershed benefit from the Ohio CTP because local officials are able to make better-informed decisions for their communities and Lake Erie.
What is most challenging about your job?
Once local decision-makers have identified their training needs, the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my job is to draw together the resources and wealth of expertise that exists within the Ohio CTP partners and other organizations to design programs that address these needs.