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Sustainable Resource Management
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Sustainable Development e-News

Special Feature

In Her Own Words

A Conversation With Elizabeth Estill

Deputy Chief and Lower Mississippi Restoration Coordinator

 USDA Forest Service

Collaborating to Restore the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley

WASHINGTON, 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 Forest Service. 

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 Basin.  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 Mississippi Alluvial 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 States.  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 degradation?

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?

Probably the first challenge is to develop a strategic vision with all key players at the table.  From that we can better target activities and measure results—something the people and agencies that fund the work need to be able to see and be inspired by.  A 34-member river-focused group, funded by a charitable foundation, is beginning to start that planning process, and, of course, I intend to be involved up to my eyeballs!

Further, ecosystem restoration in the LMAV is only possible with widespread, voluntary participation of private landowners.  Our Memphis meeting did much to identify some of the necessary ingredients to make that happen.

Another challenge is that right now conservation programs and incentives are targeted at individuals; there isn’t really a mechanism to encourage adjacent landowners to work together.  We have to figure out how to make it practical and attractive for those landowners to agree to work together on a particular plan and how to get communities involved in attracting industry to use the new products that may emerge from restored ecosystems and create jobs and economic vitality at the local scale.  Again, at our April workshop, we developed a demonstration concept targeted at resolving this challenge.

We also discussed ways to improve information about LMAV condition, needs, and opportunities.  Science can only be effectively used if it is better integrated, focused, and responsive to management questions.  This is a challenge that the Forest Service will be working on with a number of universities, NGOs and other federal agencies.

Yet another challenge is to meet expectations that may arise from this FS coordination effort.  A slight setback to FS credibility resulted from the Forest Service beginning a large-scale watershed restoration project in this area seven years ago.  Expectations were raised but the funding didn’t materialize.  So there’s kind of a bad taste.  People are afraid that we’ll start some big “tree-planting” program, and then not deliver.

One of the things I am stressing is that what I am working on is not a Forest Service project.  It is a cooperative conservation project—the FS role is to facilitate, to bring people together, to add value and build on existing opportunities, and to help create a focus and some synergy between groups and projects.

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 diminishing others.

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 more effective.


Many of the nonprofit and government agency leaders
have commended the Forest Service for its willingness
to help get these important restoration activities
coordinated. So I’m very optimistic!


There is much agencywide interest in having the Forest Service better link science and practice—as exemplified, for example, in landmark efforts related to the university-based Green Lands, Blue Waters venture. How well does such interest resonate in the LMAV?

First, quite a lot of Forest Service science is being used already.  The Stoneville, Miss., Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research and the National Agroforestry Center are both major players.  The U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the  Environmental Protection Agency, many universities, and others are also developing science and technology especially for solving the environmental problems of this area.

But, it would be much more useful if we could integrate our science findings and translate that science more effectively to the ordinary person. 

To that end, I will be sponsoring a science synthesis workshop early next year.  I’ve been working with Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, and the Southern Research Station to host a “working” science workshop that will encapsulate and disseminate information from a scientific standpoint—and not just science about how to plant trees, what species, etc., but also the economic side of things—what it takes to make these practices profitable for landowners to use.

I’ve met with all the Southern Research Station project leaders, with the regional leadership team in the Southern Region, and am convinced that Forest Service people will help out wherever possible.  This is the right thing to do and there’s a lot of enthusiasm out there.  Many of the nonprofit and government agency leaders have commended the Forest Service for its willingness to help get these important restoration activities coordinated.  So I’m very optimistic!

How are your actions in the LMAV relevant to the “Partnership Office” you established in the Washington Office?

The FS Partnership Office is a wonderful resource for the Forest Service and those who want to work with us for a variety of reasons.  As we all learn to work more collaboratively, and as partnering becomes a natural way of life in the agency, including easy instruments to use, partner friendly business practices, etc., perhaps we won’t need to have a special staff.  But right now, that group can help any of us trying to build relationships find the right tools to get the job done.

Your work in the Mississippi River Basin, as well as in the Gulf States, relates to (a) issues in the Wider Caribbean Region and to (b) partnerships such as the White Water to Blue Water Partnership Initiative launched at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).  Since WSSD, there has been increasing interest in the impact of land-based activities on fresh and marine water.  And you represented the Forest Service at the Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City in March 2006. 

How would you characterize the global dimensions of your efforts in the basin?

Part of the reason the United States is very concerned about improving the water quality of the Mississippi River is the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  The United States is the richest, most powerful country in the world, yet our land management practices have contributed to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that adversely affects our own economy and is also impacting fishermen and others from other nations.  There is international finger-pointing.  Whether we want to be or not, we are the poster nation for the world on environmental cleanup.  Nations watch us.  So, of course, this dead zone is a black eye internationally—another reason we need to make whatever investments are needed to clean up our problems in the Mississippi watershed.

But it is also a great opportunity for us.  Other nations are interested in learning about how restoration on this scale can take place.  There is international interest in whether the coordination model we are developing in the LMAV, cooperative conservation, will work and how small scale-efforts can contribute. 

At the World Water Forum, held in March in Mexico City, the Forest Service provided a training session on how to link science to practice through community action.  I spoke about ingredients necessary to make large watershed restoration work, in general.  Part of what I recounted was from my own experience, and much came from a couple of studies the FS Policy Analysis Staff commissioned and from other published accounts of large-scale restoration projects in the United States.  I also talked about how the lessons I had learned were helping develop the LMAV restoration focus.  Tom Jacobs, of the Mid-America Regional Council, spoke from a community standpoint and noted how one city, several counties, and multiple landowners had worked together to create “green infrastructure” to significantly improve a smaller watershed.  Rich Straight, of the National Agroforestry Center, talked about techniques that could be used by individuals that could make a big difference in riparian restoration. 

In addition to team-teaching and individual learning, we participated in an international discussion of the “White Water to Blue Water” initiative and were pleased to see the support and interest that program is receiving from other countries and NGOs.

I’m also hoping to adopt an international conservation governance model, called LandCare, that is being successfully used in Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and South Africa and has just been incorporated into the United States.  LandCare, among other things, involves corporations and provides incentives for adjacent landowners to work together in solving environmental problems.  I’m optimistic that one of the demonstrations we will develop in the LMAV, to help us work at scales that cross ownerships and are economically and ecologically significant, will be based on LandCare.

Finally, Elizabeth, what are some of the reasons for public optimism in how watershed and marine ecosystem-based management foster environmental, social and economic benefits in and around the basin?

Everybody has a stake in quality environment and in all the services that a quality environment provides: clean water, wildlife, hunting and fishing, greenhouse gas reduction, economic opportunities, to mention a few.  Everybody benefits from fixing an environmental problem—the whole country benefits, the whole world benefits.  And the people I am working with know that.  We’re dedicated to making a difference.

What will success look like?  Locally, people will be pleased with what they have accomplished.  They will be proud of their environment and the services they provide. On a national level, our demonstrations of adaptive management, integrated science, conservation governance, ecosystem service valuation and marketing will be noted and learned from.  Internationally, people will not be pointing fingers at us and saying: “Look at that degraded ecosystem.  You once had 22 million acres of wetland forest.  What’s left?   How can you talk to us about what we are doing in the Amazon, for example, when you’ve done that?”  Rather they will point to a fully functioning ecosystem that has provided for an improved standard of living for its human component; an ecosystem that was restored collaboratively with good science, good programs, and community support. 

I am optimistic because there are so many different organizations and so many individuals who are committed to making a difference.  When I ask for participation, the response I frequently get is, “not only will I be happy to participate in that meeting or in that project, but I want to help you plan it.”  It’s very encouraging that people believe that by working together, and by working smartly, we can make a big difference.  I know we can.  

Elizabeth Estill served as Deputy Chief for Programs, Legislation, and Communications from 2001 to 2005 in the Washington Office of the USDA Forest Service, where she provided oversight for the agency’s legislative affairs, policy analysis, strategic planning and resource assessment, and communications staff.  She now facilitates and coordinates restoration projects in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley.  Prior to her Washington, D.C., appointment, Estill was Regional Forester in the agency’s Southern Region, which included 13 states and Puerto Rico, Regional Forester for the Rocky Mountain Region, Associate Deputy Chief of the National Forest Systems, and National Director of Recreation, Cultural Resources and Wilderness Management.  And prior to joining the FS, Estill served 14 years at the Tennessee Valley Authority, in land use planning, policy development, strategic planning, and as the Director of Land Between the Lakes.   

Estill brought partnerships into the mainstream of FS business.  She developed the first recreation challenge cost share program for the FS and was instrumental in bringing partners to the table with the FS Recreation Strategy.  She led interagency ecosystem partnerships in both the Rocky Mountain and Southern Regions of the FS.  She spearheaded the Southern Forest Resource Assessment to ensure that the federal and state agencies in the South were operating from the same data and science in making policy decisions.  She worked to develop the concepts around enabling partnership legislation and sponsored the FS’s first National Partnership Office.

Estill holds a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences and a master’s in ecology, both from the University of Tennessee.  She was a Loeb Fellow in advanced environmental studies at Harvard University.

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