March 17, 2014

Ecosystem services: up close and personal with Prof. Ryan

Professor Erin Ryan reflects on a field trip with students to the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge: “I like to give my students the opportunity to explore the different ecosystem services offered by the bottomland/wetland environment up close and personally, in a way you can’t do from a textbook.”

Last week, my Natural Resources Law class enjoyed our annual field component in a visit to the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge during out wetlands unit.  This was the tenth time I have taken my Natural Resources Law class on a field trip like this one, and every year it is my favorite day of the course.  I like to give my students the opportunity to explore the different ecosystem services offered by the bottomland/wetland environment up close and personally, in a way you can’t do from a textbook.  We obviously talk a lot about all this in the abstract in the classroom, but I think it’s invaluable to get out of the abstract and into the real world to really understand the resource and the issues.


I also like students to be able to talk with experts from various professional disciplines about the challenges of resource management amidst the competing criteria of local, regional, state, and federal laws.  This year, our group of twenty students were joined by five experts from multiple professional and disciplinary perspectives: Kim Strassburg, Manager of Visitor Services at the Refuge; Peter Schmidt, Refuge Wildlife Biologist;  Steve Burke, a Beaverton attorney (and L&C alum) who has litigated Refuge-related wetland issues on behalf of the Friends of the Tualatin River; Paul Whitney, a hydrologist involved in local watershed issues on behalf of the Tualatin Riverkeepers; and Sam Jackson, an environmental engineer (and former USFS colleague of mine) who has worked in both state government and private consulting.


The Refuge staff began our visit with an introduction to the Refuge and its central management goals and challenges.  Then we hiked through the different parts of the Refuge that are open to the public, including the Tualatin River channel running through the grounds, an experimental oak savannah, and an enhanced seasonal wetland that the Refuge manages for migratory bird habitat.  During our walk, we stopped frequently to explore points of intersection with the issues we’ve been studying in class, including the mechanics of public land management for ecosystem services protection, the challenges of species preservation in the urban-wildlands interface, and issues of cooperation and conflict between private, local, state, and federal management interests. 


One of the interesting points we discussed was the Refuge’s management of an expansive artificial  wetland to mitigate the loss of naturally-occurring local wetland habitat for development.  The Refuge created the artificial marsh by seasonally diverting water from Chicken Creek, a tributary to the Tualatin River.  Students were interested to learn about the complexities involved not only in acquiring the water rights for diversions from Chicken Creek, but also how carefully the Refuge must then manage the discharge from these wetlands to neighboring lands.


After touring the grounds for about two hours, we assembled in the Visitor Center teaching space for multi-perspective discussion and Q&A with our professional experts.   We asked the students what they had found to be most interesting or informative on the field trip, and they frequently cited the surprising points of tension and overlap between the agendas of the various interest groups all working together to protect the resource.  Some were also surprised to discover how carefully the Refuge deploys the legal resources of federal supremacy, preferring negotiated solutions with state and local neighbors whenever possible.  Everyone mentioned how valuable it was to hear about the challenges of resource management from so many different perspectives. 


I hope the students have as much fun on the field trip as I do.  One student from last year’s class described the field component of the course as a “professional development safari,” and a highlight of his law school experience.  I love the way he described it, because it’s true for me as well!  After all these years, it’s still a highlight of my experience in the course too.