In Her Own Words
A Conversation With Elizabeth Estill
Deputy Chief and Lower
Mississippi Restoration Coordinator
Collaborating to Restore the Lower Mississippi
D.C.—A well-orchestrated multiorganizational effort, facilitated by the Forest
Service, is making inroads into one of the most degraded ecosystems in the
nation. Natural and anthropogenic
stresses on the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley (LMAV) call for a concerted,
systematic response to save, restore, and connect critical ecological
components in the region. Participants
expect their efforts to result in economic and social stability, as well as to improve
habitat, reduce the risk of flooding, improve water quality, and other ecosystem
services. The LMAV is an area marked by
absentee landownership and rural communities skeptical of government programs,
even those whose goals are to restore and reinvigorate their watersheds and
landscapes, to enhance their economies, and to improve their well-being.
A Forest Service-facilitated workshop held in April in Memphis
laid some of the initial groundwork for expediting restoration of the valley’s
ecosystems (Themes and Actions, LMAV
Stakeholder Meeting, April 6-7 and Lower
Mississippi Alluvial Valley Regional Stakeholder Workshop: Synthesis of
Information). A similar workshop,
planned for January 2007, will focus on synthesizing scientific findings on the
economics and mechanics of watershed restoration. It is being coordinated by Elizabeth Estill, a
former Regional Forester of the Southern Region and a Deputy Chief of the
In the conversation that follows, Estill parses the
conditions that resulted in the LMAV being perhaps the most ecologically
degraded region in the United States
and highlights wide-ranging strategies for addressing them head-on.
Q: You are responsible for a massive
project to restore areas in the Mississippi River
What does that project entail?
It’s a cooperative conservation project targeted to improve
conditions and ecosystem services in the Mississippi River
watershed. Its focus is on the Lower
Valley [LMAV], that stretches
across six states, north to Illinois
and south to the Gulf of Mexico. The area once contained about 22 million
acres of forested wetlands and bottomland hardwoods, but now contains less than
5 million acres in highly degraded patches.
It is one of the most—if not the most—ecologically degraded ecosystems in the North
America. It is associated with
endangered species, with a lot of water-quality problems, and with catastrophic
flooding. It is also an economically
depressed area with the lowest per capita income in the United
The hydrology has been altered and the natural systems are a real mess—mostly
from human tinkering.
Did the government—either state or federal—do anything to rein in the
Alteration of the Mississippi Delta dates way back. Pre-Columbian natives experimented with cut-and-burn
agriculture. Hunters used fire to help
thin the woodlands and find game. After
the French settled in the area in the early 1700s, the area’s natural resources
sustained domestic livestock like hogs and cattle. When cotton become the nation’s most valuable
export around 1820, lots of land was converted to agriculture. But it was when the ad hoc system of
landowner built floodworks gave way to a massive
federal flood control system of levee construction (after the Civil War) that
we saw the timber barons logging over 100,000 acres a year. More forests came down in the 1960s and ’70s,
when soybean prices went up. A lot of
that land was marginal for agriculture at best.
The problems today are a combination of the hydrology being
altered and the land use being changed. In
some respects, government programs exacerbated the situation, but at the time,
they seemed to be working in the peoples’ best interest. There is now an array
of government programs targeted toward conservation, but they have not been a conservation
or restoration panacea.
Of course, that does not mean that the solution is to put
everything back the way it was. We need
the productive farmlands and we certainly need flood control. But we’ve learned so much over the years and
we know there are ways to facilitate food and fiber production, at the same
time we protect critical parts of ecosystems that can provide additional
natural and economic benefits.
The challenges are huge: 90 percent of the land is in
private ownership and 70% of that ownership is absentee. Efficient and effective solutions will likely
involve multiple ownerships; incentives at local, state, and federal levels; new
markets for ecosystem services; and community capacity-building.
Are such ecological challenges unique to that region?
When you consider that the LMAV was once the largest
forested wetland in North America and now there are only
fragments of that system left, and there are all these hydrological changes,
yes, it is pretty unique. But there are
ecological challenges in many other places, too.
What specifically do you do and where are you located?
While my desk is in the Forest Inventory and Analysis group’s
space, in Knoxville, Tenn.,
I am working throughout the LMAV. My job
is to make sure that the Forest Service is adding value to ongoing restoration
activities and that our programs and research are integrated with those
efforts. Beyond that, I am building a
collaboratively developed national vision for conservation in the LMAV and putting
together the partnerships to implement it—ranging from research and technology
development to incentive programs to “boots-on-the-ground” implementation.
The Forest Service will be involved in much, but not all, of
the work we do. There are people from dozens,
if not hundreds, of organizations and agencies trying to restore the LMAV right
now—and they are not all natural resource people. There are a lot of folks involved in social
and economic development; they see ecosystem restoration as a way to make
communities stronger. We have scientists
trying to figure out how to make restoration work. Much conservation funding comes from units
within the Department of Agriculture like the Farm Service Agency and the
Natural Resource Conservation Service. They
are putting money into Farm Bill conservation programs, creating incentives for
farmers to plant trees or to get into agroforestry.
My role is evolving into that of a convener or a facilitator
of the key players. One of the first
things that I have done is to get engaged in existing efforts like the LMAV
Joint Venture, which the Fish and Wildlife Service has been spearheading. It involves lots of people and focuses on
habitat. EPA has the lead in resolving
the hypoxia situation in the Gulf of Mexico. Conservation organizations like The Nature
Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited are working on habitat development and
conservation and development districts are exploring ecotourism.
There is much going on, but not much coordination. We are all beginning to recognize that there
would be efficiency in working together and all of our programs would be far
more effective. I am being invited to participate
in ongoing initiatives that may not have had Forest Service presence
previously, and we’re beginning to make headway!
In April, in Memphis,
the FS hosted a workshop of many of the key players and stakeholders—including the profits, the
nonprofits, and government agencies. Over 80 individuals from 41 federal, state
and tribal agencies, private businesses and nongovernmental organizations participated.
We discussed what was working well and
why, how things needed to be tweaked to make them work better, and what we
should do together to take restoration to the next level. The workshop also provided networking
opportunities—I saw several partnerships develop right on the spot!
Four major themes emerged, and five actions were
identified. The next step will be to
find champions for each and begin the work of implementing them.
Another workshop is in the planning stages to help focus
science and technology delivery in a similar way.
Participants at the Lower Mississippi
Alluvial Valley Regional
Stakeholder Workshop, April 6-7, 2006, in Memphis, Tenn.
What are the challenges of your work?
If you were to identify some strong predictors of sustainable solutions
in the basin, what would they be?
Healthy ecosystems go hand in hand with healthy communities. In the LMAV, which has nearly three million
people, per capita income is about two-thirds that of others in the United
States; poverty is 1.7 times greater than any
other place in the country. An indicator
that things are working well will be that peoples’ economic and social
conditions are improving. Sustainable ecosystems
will contribute to that.
I expect that after we have a jointly developed vision in
place that encompasses all the biophysical measures each organization is now
using, we will be able to identify three or four highly focused, broad scale,
and pertinent measures of success.
In what ways do social, economic, and
environmental forces, separately, present challenges to our agency’s
sustainable management of natural resources in the basin?
First of all, the FS does not manage natural resources in the
LMAV except on very small NFS units. Ninety
percent of the land is in private ownership, we neither have any direct control
over what the private landowner does nor do we have buckets of money to give away
as incentives to conservation. Our
sister organizations in USDA do have more significant conservation resources,
but this is a region that has traditionally been skeptical of government
assistance programs. The high poverty
rate and absentee ownership also contribute to difficult working conditions.
What are the interagency or interorganizational challenges of which we should be aware?
The LMAV consists of 115 county governments, six state
governments, several Indian tribes, dozens of federal players and scores of
nonprofit agencies. That gives you a
sense of the complexity of the players working on restoration activities. Each organization has a unique set of goals
to accomplish through unique restoration programs and activities. The challenge will not be to find common
ground, but to commonly articulate the vision of what it should look like and
what it will take to make that happen.
How much impact does work across boundaries
and sectors—agriculture, forests, communities—have or
can have on the level of your accomplishments in and around the Lower Mississippi Valley?
People usually think about rural environments when they
think of the LMAV or they think of big urban centers like Memphis
and New Orleans. But there is much more going on. Casino development and tourism are rapidly
changing the face of some of the rural areas. Innovation and community planning
are making a positive difference in some areas, and abject poverty is
One of the requirements of my coordination role is getting
some agreement on what and where conservation lands are most important—and
helping create program focus. We probably don’t need to do nearly as much
restoration as we are independently trying to accomplish, and we could get
better results in water quality and in habitat for certain species if we had
good ecological information and if we better targeted our efforts. We want to keep good farms and help find ways
for marginal farmlands to become income producers for their owners and
workers—perhaps through the creation of bottomland hardwoods and ecosystem
service markets. With agroforestry, there’s a huge potential for restoring
riparian corridors. The bottom line is
to be able to show the landowner what is in it for him or her—to get landowners
to want to play the restoration game.
Now, talking about landowners willing to play with us, do we have any
incentives for them? Why should they
come on board?
Some, of course, will want to restore bottomland hardwoods
because they want to be good neighbors, help conserve species, improve the resiliency
of their landholdings, or create other ecosystem services. But for many of the potential players, the
reason is simply that they are going to make a better living through
restoration activities on their lands than by continuing to do what they are currently
doing. And they have to know that the
money is there, for a fact, before they participate.
And so, it’s a challenge for all of us to figure out how to
make it economically feasible for landowners.
There are a lot of opportunities on the horizon for that—ecotourism,
including hunting and fishing, carbon markets for sequestration, biofuels and biochemicals that
can make it more practical to get involved in restoration activities.
There are Farm Bill programs that already do pay for
landowners to get into conservation, and at our Memphis
workshop we discussed what worked, why, and ways these programs could become
Many of the nonprofit and
government agency leaders
the Forest Service for its willingness
get these important restoration activities
coordinated. So I’m very optimistic!