Sean is broadly trained ecologist working on a wide variety of projects in a wide variety of settings. Sean originally planned to become a journalist as he thought scientists were too dispassionate, disengaged, and quiet. He now leads various research efforts, is a scientific advisor to numerous management agencies/programs, and knows that scientists can be extremely passionate, with many even insanely energetic.
Name: Sean Anderson
Habitat: Wetland Restoration
Bio: Sean is broadly trained ecologist working on a wide variety of projects in a wide variety of settings. Sean originally planned to become a journalist as he thought scientists were too dispassionate, disengaged, and quiet. He now leads various research efforts, is a scientific advisor to numerous management agencies/programs, and knows that scientists can be extremely passionate, with many even insanely energetic.
I work in various settings around the world, but currently primarily focus in California, Louisiana, and Turkey.
One of my most challenging efforts is our work in Turkey’s eastern Anatolian region where we focus upon the region between the Black Sea and Mount Ararat (our headquarters is in the Turkish town of Kars). Our efforts in eastern Turkey span alpine forest, grassland, riparian, and wetland systems.
I work on numerous species and in various communities, but my main focus has been the restoration of lacustrine and riparian wetlands.
This region of eastern Turkey is a major flyway for migratory birds moving between northern Europe and central Africa. My colleagues and I are trying to increase the wetland vegetation (diversity, vertical structure, etc.) fringing these wetlands to encourage longer bird stopovers and more reproduction. With increased bird diversity and residency, we have expanding opportunities for ecotourism. We now see increasing numbers of visitors from both across Turkey and the globe. This in turn fosters more environmental awareness and sustainable development by putting more money directly into the hands of Turkish and Kurdish villagers who see a tangible economic reward for healthy wetlands and well-functioning ecosystems.
Our major stressor is a nearly unprecedented level of overgrazing by livestock, which forms the core of the local subsistence economy. We work with a wide variety of Turkish and Kurdish villagers.
Being able to make large advances over short periods of time is wonderful. This is really a raw landscape. The young people are truly hungry for knowledge and opportunity and see the training and initial guidance we are offering as a way to improve both their land and their people.
We have created many firsts in Turkey: the first island restoration, the first Ramsar Wetland of International Importance (to our Lake Kuyucuk site) designation in the country in nearly 20 years, the first wildlife rehabilitation center in the country, the first quantification of overgrazing in this region of Asia, the first GPS collaring of wolves and brown bears in the region, and the first wildlife corridor (based on our radio tracking and documenting large carnivore movements) in the country.
Many of us work in impoverished regions or regions where education is lacking. We have that, but even accounting for these aspects, it is a very, very difficult region in which to work. While many people are wonderfully warm and welcoming, there is a deep, intense mistrust of anything different. This is coupled with a mind set that embraces ancient enmity (folks hold grudges for centuries) and pervasive cronyism/corruption. Finally, the current central government is very anti-conservation and often anti-villagers.
We have been blessed with some excellent local officials, but these individuals (competent, leaders who demand performance and are knowledgeable) are often quickly moved to the more developed, western provinces.
All of this translates into a very, very difficult environment in which to work and one where the sands are constantly shifting underneath our feet. Five steps forward, four steps back is an understatement.
1) Be a part-time advocate, never a full time one. This area is so politically and logistically challenging, it easily burns people out. You need to save part of yourself/your time for constant re-energizing with a change of pace.
2) Create realistic goals. This is difficult as we all want to push the envelope. But one has to realize that working in a landscape intensively altered for millennia will not change overnight.
3) Be true to yourself. I am the only American on our project, and for a long time I was the only professor. Many people to this day don’t believe I am a professor as I laugh and smile all the time, am pretty boisterous, don’t wear a suit or tie, work 18 hour days, and don’t treat my students/assistants as subservient. Rather than a liability, not going along with the “norm” has created an interesting space for me and our NGO which attracts young students and researchers from around the country.
4) Speak to people in a way they can understand. While we do indeed write papers for peer-reviewed journals and give presentations to academic audiences, our primary targets are local villages and local government officials. Designing an experiment only understandable or interpretable with ANOVA or MDS statistical approaches will be a hard sell to a villager with no formal education. But designing an experiment treatment that yields vegetation half a meter taller than control treatment vegetation is easily understandable by all, with or without statistics.
5) Embrace failure. I always say that I am fine with one of my restorations or project failing (although this does make some funders nervous). But failure is only acceptable if we are critically monitoring our efforts and learning from any mistakes. The real crime in our struggles to conserve our planet is not failing to achieve a target, but failing to continually improve our efforts and tools.
In our case, humans have been screwing with these ecosystems for thousands of generations and it should not be a surprise that it will take more than a couple of years or a grant cycle to see dramatic improvement. The crime is taking all these risks and best guesses but not learning from them after they fail to achieve the perfect result. Many, many projects do not emphasize or prioritize assessment and rigorous self-evaluation and always want to paint their work as successful. This harms all of us. And such failure without improvement has become way too costly in our world that is rapidly running out of time.