Marc Alston works for the U.S. EPA, Region 8 in Denver. He is on the Ecosystem Stewardship Team, and works in support of community-based environmental protection, with a focus on watershed protection groups.

Monday, 19 Jan 2004

DENVER, Colo.

I just had a typical conversation: Butch Clark from the Gunnison Basin group called to ask if we would do a presentation in May in Grand Junction, Colo., on watershed protection and restoration tools. This will be one of a series of water education seminars. His request is for an overview of the array of EPA web-based watershed material, which covers stream restoration, aquatic stressors, water quality monitoring, and forming watershed groups. My task will be to coordinate with Butch’s group on choosing someone from our staff to give the presentation (not likely me, but maybe).

Region 8 includes land stretching from the Upper Missouri River …

What do I know about you, my readers? I assume I am “preaching to the choir” on the need for environmental protection. It is the mission of both the EPA and Grist to encourage you to care about your environment, and to be actively involved. So tune in for my sermon on Wednesday. I will be selling “taking care of your place” — and you will get a report card you can use to assess your involvement.

I have worked for the EPA in several programs (drinking water, Superfund, brownfields, and now watershed protection) since 1970. In the 70s, it was often necessary to explain what “EPA” stood for. That is rarely necessary now. There has been a tremendous and positive change in awareness and understanding of environmental issues, and support for working on those issues. But to achieve added advances in environmental quality, two major factors must be confronted: 1) while support for environmental protection has increased, that support wavers when other values (money, time, convenience) come into play; and 2) the more you clean up, the more complex and expensive it gets to clean up what remains. These factors are not going away, and with them comes the controversy that surrounds many issues. It makes the EPA an interesting place to work.

… to the canyons of Utah.

The EPA has the mission of protecting public health and the environment, which it pursues by implementing and overseeing a host of environmental laws. The EPA has 16,000 employees spread over a headquarters office, five research-oriented centers, and 10 regional offices. My Region 8 office covers six states: Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. We have staff working on mine site cleanups, review of state air-quality programs, green building design, Endangered Species Act, wetlands planning and protection, enforcement of stormwater violations, forest project NEPA reviews, pesticide impacts on public health, assessment of watershed habitats, and too many others to list. Our roles vary and include technical support, education, community involvement, regulatory compliance, enforcement, and oversight of state agencies. This means I cannot begin to “represent” the EPA or cover the scope of what it does in this diary. Go to www.epa.gov and have at it.

There are positive and negative aspects of working for the EPA. There is always a lot going on; we are visible and in the news, and often both loved and hated for our efforts on the same issue. If you don’t like being in the middle or criticized or accused of playing “God,” you don’t want to work here. (I have only been threatened once, but have often contended with roomfuls of angry citizens.) If you want a streamlined decision-making process and satisfaction from quick, on-the-ground results, look elsewhere. The upside in EPA Region 8 is that there is a range of meaningful, complex, and interesting issues to work on. The majority of the staff is dedicated, competent, fun, and passionate about improving the environment. It is impossible to agree with every decision that is made at the EPA. I long ago ceased to feel accountable for all that the EPA works on.

Politics have a role in the EPA’s doings. It comes with the territory. You will not hear about the political side of working for the EPA during these five days, though. Sorry — I hope you understand — but it is not appropriate for Grist diary entries.

My assignments revolve around support for watershed protection efforts, and particularly support of local watershed protection groups. My main duties are to support watershed protection activities in the Cherry Creek, Colo., watershed; support the Colorado Watershed Assembly in meeting needs of watershed groups across Colorado; oversee a large study of watershed restoration and volunteer projects by the Coalition for the Upper South Platte; coordinate EPA watershed activities for the Town of Rico, Colo.; and coach leaders of watershed groups on their leadership skills. As I am in the bureaucracy, my job revolves around the phone, email, and meetings — so I work in support of others and vicariously feel effective and satisfied.

The five other members of the Ecosystem Stewardship Team do similar things, in different places. Their skill sets are typically more technical than mine, whereas I am focused more on watershed organizational and leadership needs. We have recently added to our technical assessment and GIS skills.

My coaching of watershed group leaders has evolved from concentrating on the organizational needs of watershed groups. I came to realize that the sustainability of groups is related to the strength of their leadership. Leadership of a watershed group demands technical, facilitation, organizational, fundraising, and leadership skills. Last year, I proposed to support group leaders through “coaching” them to strengthen their organizations and their leadership skills. Coaching in this context means helping the “client” in identifying and pursuing their own goals. I am now working with several group leaders, with regular sessions by phone — five this past week. This helps me to keep in touch with the needs of groups, and feel valuable. My managers have been incredibly supportive of this activity.

One thing that really keeps me going is watershed group events. I attended the Montana Watershed Symposium in balmy Great Falls in December with 250 others. I had the opportunity to get to know several local group leaders, and there were several speakers who elaborated on the watershed movement’s historical and natural resource significance. As Dan Kemmis said, “something is going on” with the watershed movement. I am inspired by the good work going on, and thankful I get to support it.