Ria Berns (MS/MPP ’12)
Deputy Program Manager, Water Resources Program
Washington State Department of Ecology
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?
I was so honored to be named a Doris Duke Fellow and to be part of such a great cohort of individuals, with diverse interests and backgrounds, who were already environmental leaders in their own right. I enjoyed the trip to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife training facility and the opportunity to meet so many other interesting students from partner DDCF graduate school programs. I also remember a wonderful breakfast that Steve Yaffee and Julia Wondolleck hosted for DDCF fellows in 2012, I think, as part of a SEAS birthday-type celebration. The school had brought together many graduates across multiple disciplines to speak to current students about their professional paths. It was a great celebration and many of these visiting graduates were also Doris Duke Fellows. It was great to make so many connections and see the various professional paths the fellows had taken after graduation.
I also want to highlight how important the financial award was to my post-graduate professional options. Because I graduated from SEAS with limited debt, thanks in large part to the Doris Duke Conservation fellowship, I had the option to focus my career search in the public sector, where I thought I would be most impactful.
Can you tell us about your SEAS experience? How did it help you advance in the conservation field?
SEAS provided me with an opportunity to dive into subjects I was passionate about, ranging from water resource management, facilitation and negotiation methods and strategies, and conservation ecology. The courses I took with Steve Yaffee, Julia Wondolleck, and Jonathan Buckley were the most memorable. I also appreciated the flexibility to pursue interdisciplinary coursework across the university. I apply the tools I learned in Steve and Julia’s classes every day in my work in water resource management. While many think of Washington State as “wet and rainy,” we have the same water scarcity issues facing most of the West. And, we have some of the most protective laws in the west, which require carefully managing this shared resource to ensure sufficient water to protect instream and out-of-stream water needs. My job is to balance those interests, within the bounds of the law, and my training at SEAS has allowed me to make meaningful contributions to water resource management in the state.
What kind of changes have you observed in land conservation in the U.S. over the course of your career?
In Washington State, where I live and work, there is support at the state level for smart growth management, which promotes denser urban cores, clearly delineated suburban growth boundaries, and an emphasis on keeping rural areas with a rural character. While some in the state argue that the laws are not protective enough of these distinctions, Washington has promoted dense urban growth with smart zoning laws. Over the past 10 years or so, water availability has become a tool that many environmental organizations and growth-minded advocates are using to stem new growth. It’s become a very effective political and legal lever. As the state agency managing water resources, we are often put between a rock and a hard place, but I am proud to be from a state that established strong conservation laws, whether they relate to water or growth management, that still stand the test of time 70-plus years later.
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.