By KARINA LUTZ/ecoRI News contributor
KINGSTON, R.I. — Hundreds of unsung heroes of environmental protections will gather March 14 at the University of Rhode Island for the 12th annual Land & Water Conservation Summit. Many of the attendees will be the people, mostly volunteers, who run land trusts, watershed associations and conservation commissions. The Summit is organized by a pair of the state’s most low-key but crackerjack organizers, Meg Kerr and Rupert Friday.
It’s often said that opposites attract, and teams are made of people with complimentary skills. Kerr and Friday, however, share similar skills and style. Both are soft-spoken, non-confrontational, and enjoy bringing together and empowering advocates and officials who might otherwise work in relative isolation.
“The tool that we have is bringing people together in a collaborative way to think about and solve problems,” Kerr said.
Kerr, director of the Rhode Island office of Clean Water Action, for years organized grassroots watershed protectors for the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) of the Graduate School of Oceanography at URI, then through the Rhode Island Rivers Council and, more recently, for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program. Similarly, Friday has been supporting private land preservation efforts through the Rhode Island Land Trust Council.
The two met 15 years ago when Friday moved to Rhode Island from Annapolis, Md., where he had been working for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, that watershed’s equivalent of Save The Bay.
Kerr was already working at CRC when Friday joined the staff. Kerr was starting up the organization’s River Rescue program, which focused on the Ocean State’s urban rivers: the Pawtuxet, Blackstone, Ten Mile and Moshassuck. She coordinated the volunteers monitoring the rivers’ water quality, as she did previously for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Management.
Government and academic institutions were eager to gather the data volunteers were collecting on urban water quality, and Kerr enabled that to happen in Rhode Island.
Kerr then landed a seat on the new Rhode Island Rivers Council. “It’s a tricky model,” she said of the organization created by the state but originally funded by a private foundation and then by legislative grants.
The newly created council took the holistic “watershed approach” — protecting water bodies by looking at all the impacts, rather than the tired town-by-town approach, where arbitrary, legislatively created town boundaries fragment the best efforts to protect water quality. Kerr’s grassroots organizing and collaboration skills were honed.
By then, Jan Reitsma had brought his experience with watershed protection in Massachusetts to his leadership at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), asking all DEM departments to look at watersheds holistically.
At the time, there were several successful watershed organizations working in Rhode Island, such as the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association and the Pawtuxet River Authority. In Providence, Jane Sherman had created the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, drawing public attention to the blight of urban communities around the neglected river.
“It was really her spark that got it started,” Kerr said, referring to Sherman.
The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, one of 28 Environmental Protection Agency-funded estuary programs, also took a holistic protection approach to the Narragansett Bay watershed. As the watershed program manager for this program, Kerr used “stakeholder” collaboration to convene all the players with a stake or impact in the watershed to help educate each other and coordinate efforts. Kerr also engaged some 80 groups in collecting and collating data on the status and trends of the watershed’s health in annual Watershed Counts reports.
Meanwhile, Friday was working to build the capacity of the state’s many land trusts through the fledgling Rhode Island Land Trust Council. He and Kerr soon realized that there was a lot of overlap, not just in the members and volunteers of their organizations — for example, one volunteer on a land trust board might also be collecting water quality samples for a watershed association — but the two groups’ needs overlapped as well.
They realized they were sometimes providing the same services, such as each organization holding its own workshop on the same topic. “We realized it was redundant,” Friday said. “People didn’t want any more meetings.”
The Land & Water Conservation Summit was born. Kerr and Friday continue to co-direct the popular event.
Regarding the collaborative process, Kerr said, “It’s often very messy.” Yet she and Friday seem to float above the fray, staying aware of and supporting everyone’s best effort. The two keep their feet firmly down to earth — and their heads above water.