Nic Enstice (MS ’09)
Nic Enstice (MS ’09)
Forest and Fire Program Advisor, California Department of Conservation
What did it mean to you to be named a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow? What were some of the activities and opportunities that held the greatest impact for you?
As a 2006-2008 fellow, my time as a fellow is further in my rear view than I’d like to admit, and as such, some of the specifics have blurred over time. With that time, however, comes a perspective on the key stages in one’s development, both the formal and informal experiences that form a professional foundation. The knowledge, ideas, and concepts that the other fellows and Steve Yaffee shared with me, exposed me to, or gave me confidence to acknowledge (e.g., it’s okay to admit you do not know the answer), have proved crucial to my professional development. Graduate school marked a deliberate pivot in my career, as I moved from a more laboratory-based focus to one that explored the intersection of science and policy. Each of the other fellows in my cohort had a unique background and perspective that offered me important insights into a discipline that was new to me.
Our trip to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Training Center to meet and learn from the broader cohort of fellows was a wonderful experience for me for a similar reason—gaining additional experiences and knowledge from a group genuinely dedicated to advancing society and protecting the environment. To this day, I still work frequently with a couple of fellows I met at that retreat. That immediate connection and network to colleagues across the nation was, and is, a tremendous asset.
Can you tell us about your SEAS experience? How did it help you advance in the conservation field?
As a person looking to explore the intersection of science and society, SEAS was the perfect fit for me. I was able to take a broad range of classes that exposed me to various facets of the career path I was on—from the pure science and how to understand and communicate the strengths and weaknesses of scientific methods, to climate change and the uncertainties (and certainties) it brings, to the importance of transparency and good will for successful and resilient project development and implementation. All of this took place within an atmosphere of application, not memorization and repetition, with classes that rewarded new ways of thinking and collaboration. The diversity of specialties and experiences across the faculty, students, and programs allowed me to design and complete a thesis that incorporated pure science (computer modeling), social science (public opinions), and policy, in order to explore whether there was middle ground on a divisive topic, and if there could be potential paths forward to benefit the many. In my current role, working to find ways to improve forest resiliency in the face of climate change and past management, the concepts, experiences, and insights I gained from faculty and students at SEAS continue to inform my work and approach.
What kind of changes have you observed in land conservation in the U.S. over the course of your career?
Is there a page limit to my response to this question? In the 10 or so years I have been involved in land conservation issues in California, there has been a tremendous shift in the approach to forest and ecosystem issues. Around 2010, while the connection across ecosystem services was known, as was the reality of climate change, approaches to management or decisions were often very siloed. For example, a process could consider the impact of a management decision on a specific parcel or a local group of endangered species, but it was rare to factor in the broader landscape, populations, or ownerships. Impacts and costs were considered for a specific organization or agency, but may not have factored in adjacent ownerships or issues. As such, the true impacts or benefits of decisions, or the lack thereof, were hard to assess, even qualitatively. The trends of the last 100 years were seen as reasonable predictors of the future, and as such the worst we could imagine always fell within the bounds of the past, which makes the status quo not seem so bad. Then the drought occurred. Then the drought-related tree mortality. Then the Camp, North Complex, Creek, SQF, and Dixie fires. Suddenly we were experiencing fire seasons that exceeded the worst predictions for the decade of 2090 under climate change.
We have learned since that this moment in time is unlike anything in our recorded history, and today is not necessarily an indicator of what 10 years from now may be. We have lost tens of thousands of acres of forests, had many important species killed or displaced by unnatural fire behavior, and have experienced devastation within our local and regional communities. These unfortunate realities have brought together more expansive collaboratives and stakeholder participation than ever before, along with a desire to make significant changes. There’s a recognition of the connection across ecosystem services and all California communities, that the costs are unsustainable, and that the past is not a reliable estimator of the future.
That last point absolutely complicates the data and quantification elements of the discussion—without the past to calibrate our work, how can we be sure our assumptions about the future have some basis in reality? This is being overcome through transparency and openness about strengths and weaknesses of our approaches, along with a firm commitment to adaptive management. We also recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach is the wrong path forward. Instead, providing the space for local groups and stakeholders to find their own solutions that work best for them given their local resources and challenges is our best shot.
While all of this is encouraging, fitting this new approach into the policy, funding, and oversight structures developed in the past is a significant challenge. And all of this work is based on what we know right now, which may not reflect where we’re going. Ten years ago, the scale of a major drought we still seem to be in, or of the beetle-related tree mortality we have been experiencing, or of a 900,000-acre wildfire we experienced last year, were far from anybody’s concept of the possible. What will the next 10 years bring? As a colleague has shared: “There is no new norm.” This challenge has sparked unprecedented collaboration and good will towards working to build resilience and protect our natural and human communities, but it also means we cannot be sure of what we will face or how to best meet it.
Note: Prior to 2017, the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) was known as the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). References to “SNRE” have been updated to “SEAS” to reflect the name change.