Every day a new wetland that brings with it bigger challenges, unexpected answers, and a greater understanding of its functions and values. Wetlands Workforce work-pods have been out in the field conducting the Wetlands Ecosystem Services Protocol (WESP).
WESP is a standardized method for rapidly assessing important natural functions of wetlands. It utilizes over 60 field questions and over 40 office/GIS questions as input to determine 17 functions and attributes of a wetland complex relative to other wetlands in the region. Through WESP, the functions of the ecosystem and other attributes can be rapidly assessed.
Each of the work-pod crews is receiving a week of training in the protocol before heading out for a week to calibrate wetlands in their designated region. The eco-provinces our crews are working in are the Georgia Depression, Southern Interior Mountains, Taiga, and Boreal Plains.
The crews are discovering that sometimes the wetlands are easy to get into, other times, they can be a bit of a challenge with unexpected obstacles and a very possible chance of coming out covered in mud.
Kyla Rushton, Wetlands Workforce Wetland Assessment and Field Coordinator, coordinates WESP for all the partner work-pods. She explains why this work is being done.
“Our goal with WESP here is to start calibrating three different regions so that WESP can be used as an evaluation for the good and services that wetlands provide in relation to the rest of the region, so that in the future you can do the assessment and compare it to the calibrated model for your area.”
WESP is not entirely new to British Columbia. In previous years, Neil Fletcher, B.C. Wildlife Federation’s Director of Conservation Stewardship (including the Wetlands Workforce) has started implementing WESP in the Skeena Region. This work is being done with local First Nations and the provincial government.
WESP has been applied in several areas in North America, but how did it originally come about?
The Birth of WESP
The year was 1983 when Paul Adamus put together the rudiments of WESP while working for a non-profit research group in the State of Maine. At the time, the U.S. Federal government put out a request for proposals for a rapid assessment method for assessing the functions and values of wetlands.
Paul had minimal experience with wetlands, but his interest in birds spurred his passion for them.
“Wetlands had always been an interest of mine, partly because of my interest in birds, but also, during my freshman year in college, I had a summer job that was working for the Maine Wetland Inventory. When I went out to visit all these wetlands, the only thing we were instructed to look at was their potential as wildlife habitat, but as I thought of it more and more, I realized they had a lot of other benefits and values. I felt like the State of Maine was overlooking those.”
With some help from other individuals, Paul submitted a proposal. To his astonishment, out of hundreds of submissions, his was selected to be developed.
“I knew that this was either going to launch my career or kill my career, depending on how good or bad a job I did on it.”
Evidently Paul did an excellent job executing his proposal, with the current WESP model now being implemented in several provinces and states across North America. Over his career, Paul has improved and modified the method to different areas, most notably in Juno, Alaska, where he was hired on to do one of the first wetland management plans ever done in the United States.
“In the last ten years or so, I’ve done versions of the rapid assessment tool for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland/Labrador, and Alberta. I developed two versions for Alaska and most recently in British Columbia.”
WESP has come a long way since 1983, but for Paul, it has always been about bringing the best science to decisions about wetlands.
“My goal has always been to boil all that information from those technical journals down into some models that will then give the user some idea of how important a wetland is, because people don’t have time to read through all that scientific literature.”
Paul explains that it is not about saving all the wetlands, which would mean putting a moratorium on economic growth in some particularly key areas, like cities. Rather, he advocates for using the best science so we can protect the most important wetlands in terms of all the functions that they provide.
“My hope is that if the tool gets used, the best possible outcome would be that the most important wetlands, in terms of their functions, are the ones that are saved, and the ones that get developed are the ones that have the lowest level of the most functions. I know that will never happen exactly, but even if we can slightly move in that direction as opposed to what it is right now, which is almost totally random.”
To the crews out in the field, Paul says to not stress too much about the fieldwork.
“Initially, the questions may seem hard because a lot of them have three or four sentences that you have to read very carefully. The first time, second and third time through, you really have to think carefully about the questions that you are answering, but after a few times, it goes fast. The faster it goes, the more fun it gets. If you do not mind the mosquitoes and black flies and all that, you can really see some beautiful areas.”
Calibrating WESP in B.C.
The Wetlands Workforce work-pods are calibrating the WESP model this year. This means the workforce crews are heading out and visiting a representative sample of wetlands in their designated Eco-Province. The crews evaluate and determine a score for each wetland they visit. This score reflects the quality of the wetland’s functions and values. When this work is completed there will be a range of scores for the distinct functions of wetlands in the Eco-Province. This model can then be used to support individuals involved in decision making processes. WESP can also be utilized as a supporting tool should B.C. develop stronger regulations around wetland conservation.
The WESP work has had its logistical challenges, with managing crews across vast Eco-Provinces, gathering permissions to access land, and coordinating work around hazards like wildfires. Despite these challenges, Kyla explains that the overall experience of implementing WESP has been thoroughly rewarding.
“So far, calibrating the model has been really great. We’ve had a wide variety of people in the work-pods, especially in the partner groups that bring a lot of different expertise and experience.”
The diverse skills and knowledge throughout the work-pod crews have allowed for an abundance of knowledge sharing, teaching, and learning. With work-pods spread across the most biodiverse province in Canada, the local plant knowledge and ecological understanding crews provide are beneficial in the overall calibration of WESP.
Beyond calibrating this model, a major advantage of this work is the training of over 100 individuals in the WESP protocol. The work-pods are learning in a very hands-on, intimate level about the wetlands in their backyards.
Kyla observes that this experience could foster a lasting appreciation for wetlands through the future careers of our Wetlands Workforce crews.
“I’ve noticed in the crews that I’ve worked with over each week that there is learned appreciation. We start out in a cattail marsh, and it’s nothing too exciting to the crew, but by the end of the week we find something that is really beautiful and amazing. Everyone is like, ‘wow, this is such a great wetland, it is amazing how much biodiversity is here and you can see all the ecosystems, nutrient cycling and water retention that a wetland is holding.’ If everyone by the end of this project has a little greater appreciation for what wetlands do for humanity, I think that could have even bigger effects going forward in even more diverse fields.”
Kyla’s observations ring true when we look at the Wetland Workforce crew with the Lower Kootenay Indian Band. Kiana Medicine Crane is one of the Field Technicians working on the Yaqan Nukiy wetlands project. Her career aspirations are in health care, with plans to go into nursing and eventually medical school.
Kiana did not know what to expect with her position with the Wetlands Workforce as she was not too familiar with working in wetlands, but the more she got into it, the more she learned and found it fascinating. She explains that with every new thing she learns about wetlands, the more she wants to be out in them, participating. WESP training was a major highlight for Kiana.
“The evaluation of the wetland experience, where we actually went out and did the WESP evaluation, that was really exciting to me because there were a lot more components of wetlands that you would not realize there would be. When I think of wetlands, personally, I think of a swamp or a marsh, but I do not think about what is really in there, how the ecosystems work, and what affects it and what does not affect it. All of that has been exciting to learn about, and it has gotten me really excited about coming out here and doing more.”
WESP has been a major feat for the Wetlands Workforce to implement across three large Eco-Provinces. This work will have lasting benefits for British Columbia’s Wetlands well into the future. By providing a standardized method for assessing the function and services provided by wetlands, it will help improve wetland management and decision-making tools. Not to mention, the experience the training and work have provided to our crews out in the field will surely leave an impression on their lives and their future careers.