NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Buoys Serve as Latest Gardening Tool for Restoring Eelgrass in San Francisco Bay

Bright red buoys floating on a bay.

“Seed buoys” are dotting the waters of San Francisco Bay. Below the water, they are attached to mesh bags filled with shoots of eelgrass, which spread seeds that will eventually sprout and restore habitat on the bay’s bottom. (NOAA)

Many of us likely have spent some time planting seeds in our yards to grow vegetables or flowers. But how do scientists plant seeds to help restore plants in our bays and coastal waters? If you look out on the waters of San Francisco Bay right now, you can see the answer.

Floating on the surface of the bay is a series of “seed buoys.” Each buoy is connected to a mesh bag containing shoots of the underwater plant eelgrass (Zostera marina). These shoots, which are flowering, were harvested by biologists and will soon be releasing ripening seeds. These buoys will move with the tides, distributing seeds that, by next spring, will develop into new eelgrass seedlings on the bay bottom. The seed buoy is a relatively easy, low-tech way of growing this underwater grass. The traditional method of planting eelgrass—by hand in the bay’s floor using scuba divers—can be dangerous, expensive, and labor intensive.

Mesh bags holding flowering eelgrass plants.

Anchored to various locations on the sea floor, seed buoys perform like flowering eelgrass plants, dispersing seeds as the water current moves these mesh bags. Buoys are placed where underwater soil conditions are optimal for the seeds to germinate into young plants. (NOAA)

By seeding and transplanting eelgrass in this area where none currently exists, we hope to create vibrant eelgrass beds that provide cover and food for fish, juvenile Dungeness crabs, and birds. Eelgrass beds provide important habitat in California’s San Francisco Bay, serving as nurseries for young fish and foraging areas for many species of fish, invertebrates, and birds. They also improve water quality by reducing turbidity, or cloudiness, of the water.

This work is part of a restoration project which has the ultimate goal of compensating for past oil spill impacts in San Francisco Bay as a result of the 2007 M/V Cosco Busan oil spill. It aims to create 70 new acres of eelgrass habitat at several sites throughout San Francisco Bay over nine years. This project is funded by the legal settlement resulting from the cargo ship Cosco Busan striking one of the towers of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and releasing 53,000 gallons of heavy oil into the surrounding waters.

A result of the work of the Cosco Busan Oil Spill Trustee Council, the eelgrass restoration project also is carried out in cooperation with San Francisco State University and Merkel and Associates, Inc.

For more information, you can read about:


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A River Reborn: Restoring Salmon Habitat along Seattle’s Duwamish River

Industrial river with part of a boat in the view.

Cutting through south Seattle, the Duwamish River is still very much an industrial river. (NOAA)

Just south of Seattle, the airplane manufacturer Boeing Company has created one of the largest habitat restoration projects on the Lower Duwamish River. Boeing worked with NOAA and our partners under a Natural Resource Damage Assessment to restore habitat for fish, shorebirds, and wildlife harmed by historical industrial activities on this heavily used urban river. We documented and celebrated this work in a short video.

What Kind of Restoration?

In this video, you can learn about the restoration techniques used in the project and how they will benefit the communities of people, fish, and wildlife of the Duwamish River. The restoration project included activities such as:

  • Reshaping the shoreline and adding 170,000 native plants and large woody debris, which provide areas where young salmon can seek refuge from predators in the river.
  • Creating 2 acres of wetlands to create a resting area for migrating salmon.
  • Transforming more than a half mile of former industrial waterfront back into natural shoreline.

Watch the video:

Why Does this River Need Restoring?

In 1913, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers excavated and straightened the Duwamish River to expand Seattle’s commercial navigation, removing more than 20 million cubic yards of mud and sand and opening the area to heavy industry. But development on this waterway stretches back to the 1870s.

Ninety-seven percent of the original habitat for salmon—including marsh, mudflats, and toppled trees along multiple meandering channels— was lost when they transformed a 9-mile estuary into a 5-mile industrial channel.

As damaged and polluted as the Lower Duwamish Waterway is today, the habitat here is crucial to ensuring the survival and recovery of threatened fish species, including the Puget Sound Chinook and Puget Sound Steelhead. These young fish have to spend time in this part of the Duwamish River, which is a Superfund Site, as they transition from the river’s freshwater to the saltwater of the Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean. Creating more welcoming habitat for these fish gives them places to find food and escape from predators.

Fortunately, this restored waterfront outside of a former Boeing plant will be maintained for all time, and further cleanup and restoration of the river is in various stages as well.

UPDATE 6/17/2014: On June 17, 2014, Boeing hosted a celebration on the newly restored banks of the Lower Duwamish River to recognize the partners who helped make the restoration a reality. Speakers at the event included NOAA, Boeing, the Muckleshoot Tribe, and a local community group. This also gave us the opportunity to share the video “A River Reborn,” which was well received.


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After an Oil Spill, Why Does NOAA Count Recreational Fishing Trips People Never Take?

Families fish off the edge of a seawall.

A perhaps less obvious impact of an oil spill is that people become unable to enjoy the benefits of the affected natural areas. For example, this could be recreational fishing, boating, swimming, or hiking. (NOAA)

From oil-coated birds to oil-covered marshes, the impacts of oil spills can be extremely visual. Our job here at NOAA is to document not only these easy-to-see damages to natural areas and the birds, fish, and wildlife that live there. We also do this for the many impacts of oil spills which may not be as obvious.

For example, after spilled oil washes on shore, people often can no longer swim, picnic, or play at that beach. Or you may see fewer or no recreational fishers on a nearby pier.

Restoring Nature’s Benefits to People

After a spill, these public lands, waters, and wildlife become cut off from people. At NOAA, we have the responsibility to make sure those lost trips to the beach for fishing or swimming are documented—and made up for—along with the oil spill’s direct harm to nature.

Why do we collect the number of fishing trips or days of swimming that don’t occur during a spill? It’s simple. Our job is to work with the organization or person responsible for the oil spill to make sure projects are completed that compensate the public for the time during the spill they could not enjoy nature’s benefits. If people did not fish recreationally in the wake of a spill because a fishery was closed or inaccessible, opportunities for them to fish—and the quality of their fishing experience—after the spill need to be increased. These opportunities may come in the form of building more boat ramps or new public access points to the water or creating healthier waters for fish.

Working with our partners, NOAA develops restoration plans that recommend possible projects that increase opportunities for and public access to activities such as fishing, swimming, or hiking. We then seek public input to make sure these projects are supported by the affected community. The funding for these finalized restoration projects comes from those responsible for the spill.

What Does This Look Like in Practice?

On April 7, 2000, a leak was detected in a 12-inch underground pipeline that supplies oil to the Potomac Electric Power Company’s (PEPCO) Chalk Point generating station in Aquasco, Md. Approximately 140,000 gallons of fuel oil leaked into Swanson Creek, a small tributary of the Patuxent River. About 40 miles of vulnerable downstream creeks and shorelines were coated in oil as a result.

We and our partners assessed the impacts to recreational fishing, boating, and shoreline use (such as swimming, picnicking, and wildlife viewing). We found that 10 acres of beaches were lightly, moderately, or heavily oiled and 125,000 trips on the river were affected. In order to compensate the public for these lost days of enjoying the river, we worked with our partners to implement the following projects:

  • Two new canoe and kayak paddle-in campsites on the Patuxent River.
  • Boat ramp and fishing pier improvements at Forest Landing.
  • Boat launch improvements to an existing fishing pier at Nan’s Cove.
  • Recreational improvements at Maxwell Hall Natural Resource Management Area.
  • An Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-accessible kayak and canoe launch at Greenwell State Park.

For more detail, you can learn how NOAA economists count and calculate the amount of restoration needed after pollution is released and also watch a short video lesson in economics and value from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.


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A Video Update on California Kelp Restoration from Thank You Ocean

Giant kelp.

The goal of removing the excess urchins is to allow young kelp plants to establish themselves and grow into a diverse, healthy kelp forest. (NOAA Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

“Imagine a barren underwater ‘desert’ turned back into a lush, healthy habitat in mere months!”

A recent video podcast produced by the Thank You Ocean Report welcomed NOAA scientist David Witting to discuss a project to restore kelp forests off the coast of southern California.

To bring back the decimated kelp forests, volunteer divers, commercial urchin divers, researchers, and local nonprofit groups are removing urchins to keep them from eating every newly settled kelp plant. This is one of the projects aimed at restoring fish habitat in southern California and was funded by the NOAA Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

So, take a few minutes, kick up your feet (or flippers), and enjoy this early success story about NOAA and our partners’ efforts to restore the forests of the sea:


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Emergency Restoration Is in a Basketful of Coral

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matthew Parry also contributed to this post.

Basket of loose corals collected from the area damaged by the VogeTrader's grounding, where divers are removing rubble.

Basket of loose corals collected from the area damaged by the VogeTrader’s grounding, where divers are removing rubble. (NOAA)

In 30 feet of water, just outside the entrance to Hawaii’s Kalaeloa Harbor, emergency coral restoration is just getting underway. NOAA and our partners are working with the owners of the cargo vessel M/V VogeTrader to repair corals that were injured when the vessel accidentally lodged itself onto the reef one morning in 2010.

The 734-foot bulk carrier M/V VogeTrader after it ran aground near Oahu, on February 5, 2010. The milky color in the water beneath the ship is the pulverized coral.

The 734-foot bulk carrier M/V VogeTrader after it ran aground near Oahu, on February 5, 2010. The milky color in the water beneath the ship is the pulverized coral. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The grounding—and the response activities taken to haul the vessel off the reef and prevent it from spilling any of its fuel—crushed, broke, dislodged, and buried various species of corals. A few of the types of marine life affected include the common coral species Montipora capitata (rice coral), Porites lobata (lobe coral), Pocillopora meandrina (cauliflower coral); sponges; and other bottom-dwelling invertebrates. We’re pursuing emergency restoration [PDF] to prevent unnecessary future injuries that might occur if actions are further delayed.

Beginning on October 30, 2013, teams of divers began working to reattach broken coral and remove rubble to prevent loose pieces from moving with wave action and causing further damage to the reef.

This restoration project requires a series of trips, over several months, to the grounding location near the coast of Oahu. NOAA and our partners undertook the first of many of these missions during a recent two-day effort. Leaving from Kalaeloa/Barber’s Point Harbor, the first day was spent conducting acoustic mapping surveys to determine exactly where the rubble was located and the size of the affected area.

On the second day divers were back to find and move any live corals and coral fragments out of the area where rubble is going to be removed. We recovered the corals by hand, placing them in baskets before transporting them a short distance to areas outside the work zone. The corals will be safe there until after the rubble is removed and they can be transported back into the cleared area for reattachment.

Stay tuned as we post updates and photos of the progress. In the meantime, you can learn more about the underwater techniques and technologies we use for these types of projects.

Dr. Matthew Parry got his Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Hawaii in 2003. He came to work for the NOAA Restoration Center in Honolulu as part of the Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program in 2007. He continues to work at NOAA as a Fishery Biologist specializing in Natural Resource Damage Assessment


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NOAA Lifts 14 Metric Tons of Fishing Nets and Plastics from Hawaiian Coral Reefs

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Matthew Parry also contributed to this post.

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

Lost or discarded fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. Here, a diver removes them from a reef near Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

The sea life around Hawaii’s remote Midway Atoll is swimming easier after NOAA recently removed 14 metric tons of debris from its waters (a metric ton equals about 2,204 pounds). The removal team, consisting of members of the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Division, spent 19 days collecting debris both from along the shoreline and in the water around Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As usual, the bulk of the items recovered were abandoned fishing gear and plastics.

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

During the 2013 cruise, the NOAA team discovered and hauled away a 23-foot-long boat that was confirmed to have been washed away from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (NOAA)

Notably, the team also removed a 23-foot-long derelict vessel weighing close to three-quarters of a metric ton. This vessel was confirmed as having been lost from Japan during the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. (Learn more about marine debris from the tsunami.)

This current round of marine debris removal efforts began in 2011 when a plan was put in place to help restore the environment injured after the research ship M/V Casitas ran aground on the coral reefs of Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 2005. This atoll is located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in what is now the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Our office, along with our partners, undertook a Natural Resource Damage Assessment for this ship grounding. This process resulted in a legal settlement which provided NOAA with funds to conduct marine debris removal projects over several summers, starting in 2011. The 2011 efforts removed 15 metric tons of marine debris while the 2012 cruise brought in 52 metric tons. Since 2011, NOAA has collected a total of 81 metric tons or 178,000 pounds of debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

The 2013 NOAA team collected 14 metric tons of fishing gear, plastic, and other debris from the shoreline and waters around Midway Atoll. (NOAA)

Marine debris, particularly discarded and lost fishing gear, is a substantial source of coral damage in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Fishing nets frequently get lodged on corals and smother or break the corals underneath them. NOAA and our partners determined that removing nets from coral reefs in this area would prevent similar injuries to corals as those that occurred during the M/V Casitas grounding and subsequent response.

Learn more about efforts to restore coral reefs after this ship grounding [PDF].


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A Trip to the Arctic, Where Shrinking Ice Is Creating Bigger Concerns

Barrow, Alaska, monument made of whale bones dedicated to lost sailors

In Barrow, Alaska, stands a monument constructed of bowhead whale bones and dedicated to lost sailors. (NOAA).

It was my first trip to Barrow, Alaska, and I was excited at the possibility of seeing a polar bear for the first time outside of a zoo. Unfortunately I did not get a glimpse of a bear, but as I am telling my friends back in Seattle, perhaps a bear saw me.

In early November, I returned to the Arctic, this time to the northern hub of Barrow (get out your map of Alaska and go straight to the top). Although this was a new destination for me, I came to Barrow with the same intentions when first visiting the Arctic in the city of Kotzebue, Alaska, this spring: to discuss oil spill response and restoration issues with the residents of the North Slope Borough.

As a result of climate change, the Arctic environment is changing rapidly, and the retreat of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean opens new doors for human activity in the region by creating new paths to places previously inaccessible. The all-but-certain increases in ship traffic and offshore oil and gas exploration are setting up a situation where the likelihood of oil spills increases drastically. It was under these circumstances that I found myself sitting in the locally famous Pepe’s North of the Border Mexican restaurant in Barrow on a night in November. I was chatting with my fellow NOAA colleagues and University of New Hampshire Coastal Response Research Center staff about the workshop starting the next morning.

The goals of this two-day workshop revolved around community involvement in responding to oil spills and in assessing and restoring resulting damages to natural resources. The workshop also included discussions about how to integrate local community and traditional knowledge into our new Arctic planning and response tool, the Environmental Response Management Application (Arctic ERMA®). Most importantly, the workshop was an opportunity to enhance relationships between local communities and government agencies.

Directional sign in Barrow, Alaska.

A sign in town points out the remoteness of Barrow, Alaska, from the rest of the world. (NOAA)

During the course of the meeting, community members from Barrow expressed their concerns about oil spill response capabilities and how a spill would affect their subsistence lifestyle.  As this was only the second time my feet had ever walked above the Arctic Circle, I was humbled to hear whaling captains and other residents speak about the remarkably unique natural resources of the Arctic.

During meeting breaks I spoke with several residents who commented on a video playing in the lobby of the meeting center. The video showed numerous local walrus and whale hunts. The residents pointed out features of the ice and how they always had to be prepared at a moment’s notice to deal with the changing ice conditions.

How can we restore environments injured by spilled oil in an amazing setting like this—vast, remote, and mostly undeveloped? While there are no easy answers, we must work together now so we are better prepared if an oil spill occurs and we need to restore the environment.

For NOAA and other government personnel to figure out how much an oil spill has hurt Arctic marine environments and then fix them, we will require the help of local residents who hold generations of knowledge about the landscape. Workshops like these can be an introduction to each other, but we really look forward to sustaining these relationships.

Want to hear more about the challenge of Arctic oil spill response and restoration from the perspectives of Arctic residents? Recently a workshop report from our spring meeting in Kotzebue [PDF] has been released. Staff from our office also just returned from Kotzebue where they attended a meeting about a great new project to map subsistence use of natural resources (e.g., hunting, fishing, etc.) in the Northwest Arctic Borough.

UPDATED 3/29/2013: The workshop report and presentations from the Barrow workshop are now available.


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Healthy Habitat, Healthy Economy: Restoration Creates American Jobs

During high school and my first year of college, I landed a job working at a kayak tourism shop near Seattle, Wash. My job depended on having healthy beaches and parks we could take our customers to enjoy. Several of the areas we brought kayakers to were former industrial sites, which were now restored.

  Heavy equipment was used to remove dredge and landfill material from this site of marsh restoration.

Heavy equipment removes dredge and landfill material from this site of marsh restoration in Lincoln Park, N.J. According to a recent study, NOAA has created 33 jobs for every $1 million spent to restore habitat through “labor intensive” projects.

We often had lunch on a restored beach that had been damaged by an old wood-treatment facility. I got to see close up how those same heavy machines that injured habitat could also be used to reverse environmental damage, creating jobs both now and in the future. That beach restoration project ensured a job for workers who wore hardhats, and it also helped ensure jobs for those of us who wore life jackets to work.

Re-creating coastal habitats that were lost due to human impact doesn’t just benefit wildlife. It also supports fisheries, tourism, and coastal resiliency for years down the road. A recent study by the nonprofit Ecotrust [PDF, 1.6 MB] found that from 2001-2010 $411.4 million invested in restoration work in Oregon generated as much as $977.5 million in economic output.

And labor-intensive restoration—like building oyster reefs in coastal Alabama—creates more than 30 jobs per million dollars invested. (That’s more than twice as many jobs as the oil and gas and road construction industries combined.) Want to see more studies like this from around the nation? We’ve got you covered.

Restoration projects create jobs for construction workers, landscapers, heavy equipment operators, and technical experts such as engineers and wildlife biologists. These same restoration projects also create demand for local businesses, such as plant nurseries and rock quarries.

The Office of Response and Restoration is just one piston of the NOAA engine for coastal restoration. Restoration projects being led by NOAA are occurring all across this county. Visit NOAA’s Restoration Atlas to locate one near you.

Watch this video to learn even more about how the restoration economy is helping to keep people in jobs:


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Building Relationships out on the Ice in Kotzebue, Alaska

Overlook of shoreline of Kotzebue, Alaska.

Overlook of Kotzebue, Alaska. Credit: Elspeth Hilton.

I could read reports and attend meetings until I’m blue in the face, but until I made my first trip above the Arctic Circle to the village of Kotzebue, located on Alaska’s northwest coast, I couldn’t fully appreciate the challenges of dealing with an oil spill in Arctic conditions. Last week, however, I finally was able to see some of those challenges first hand.

The purpose of this trip up north was to attend a workshop on involving the community not only when responding to oil spills but also when measuring and restoring the resulting damage to natural resources. Due to the prospect of increased ship traffic and offshore oil drilling in Arctic regions, the risk of an oil spill in Arctic waters is growing.

As a result, Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough sponsored this workshop to discuss oil spill response and restoration issues. NOAA attended along with several other state and federal agencies, and the Coastal Response and Research Center facilitated the meeting. The workshop also included discussions about how to integrate local community knowledge into the newly released Arctic Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), an online mapping tool that integrates different types of environmental information for decision makers during disasters.

A classic building on the Kotzebue waterfront.

A classic building on the Kotzebue waterfront. Credit: Elspeth Hilton.

Located 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Kotzebue is a hub of travel for this area of Alaska, allowing participants from eleven villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough to attend this workshop. During the course of the meeting, community members from Kotzebue and surrounding villages expressed concerns about oil spill response capabilities and how a spill would affect their subsistence lifestyle.

These initial discussions are extremely useful in NOAA’s efforts to broaden our understanding of how people are so closely tied to and dependent on natural resources in the Arctic—and how we would be able to evaluate those connections in case an oil spill interfered with them. The most important goal of the workshop that we were able to achieve was to enhance relationships and the knowledge exchange between local Alaskan communities and government agencies.

I’m not sure of the best way to explain how important this is, but I’ll give it a shot. When we first arrived in Kotzebue, we spent a good amount of time looking out over the vast sea ice; it was the first time I had ever seen this thick layer of ice frozen over the Arctic Ocean. We saw snowmobilers and skiers speed across it, and we observed numerous small groups ice fishing on it. Two days later, the first layer of snow on the ice had firmed up, enabling us to walk out onto it without sinking up to our knees in snow.

The big question was, How safe was the ice? (Because this was my first trip to the Arctic and I only know Seattle’s mild winters, I was justifiably apprehensive about it.) We could see some cracks in the ice, but two days ago it was being heavily used. Even though there was no one out on the ice at the time, eventually we figured that it was safe.

The author venturing out onto the ice.

I finally venture out onto the ice in Kotzebue. Credit: Elspeth Hilton.

Very timidly, we walked out onto the sea ice, but no issues arose except cold fingers. What we needed and desired, however, was guidance from the locals who knew the ice. Those who live in this amazing corner of the world know the status of the ice and would have been able to direct us if there were any safety problems.

I think this experience, although on a very small scale, can be compared to the objectives of this workshop.  One of the central goals was to start building relationships between those who know the local environments with those emergency responders and restoration experts who will need their guidance and expertise if an oil spill does occur.


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From Community Rescuers to Co-Workers: Reflections on World Oceans Day

Within my first couple of hours on the job at NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, I realized how much my life had already crossed paths with this organization. I grew up in Eagle Harbor, located in Puget Sound, Washington, and my house looked straight across at an old creosote plant that polluted my piece of the ocean.

A ferry in Eagle Harbor, Washington

A ferry pulls into Eagle Harbor, Wash., which was essentially my backyard growing up. Credit: Joe Inslee.

Little did I know then that I would someday work for the office that evaluated the marine environmental damage from activities conducted at this very plant. The office also restored beaches in the harbor that I still use when I return home.

After high school, I headed north to Bellingham, Wash., where the memory of a tragic pipeline explosion was fresh in the minds and hearts of the community. As a result of a pipeline leak, over 200,000 gallons of gasoline flowed into a creek that ran through downtown Bellingham. After igniting, the explosion severely damaged the creek’s ecosystem and tragically killed three community members.

Very early in my new job at NOAA, I was amazed to learn how closely my office was involved in dealing with that incident. My co-workers acted quickly to provide scientific support to response agencies and are still involved in returning the creek environment to its pre-spill state through such actions as restoring salmon habitat and improving public access to the creek.

Why do these experiences and realizations carry such significance to me as I sit in my cube in D.C. years later? Quite simply, they are my ultimate motivators.  I know first-hand how the multiple communities I have lived in have benefited from my co-workers’ efforts. I completely understand how environmental restoration projects can help a community recover from environmental damage.

It can be easy for us who sit in cubicle-land to slowly become removed from the natural resources we are charged to protect and restore. Fortunately, my personal connections with this office help me maintain this connection today and every other day.

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