Reflections on 20 years of Riparia

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - 9:16am

Reflections on 20 years of Riparia
A dialogue between Rob Brooks, director, and Denice Wardrop, associate director

Rob Brooks and Denice Wardrop

Special excerpt from the fall 2013 GEOGRAPHY newsletter commemorating 20 years of Riparia

Rob Brooks (RPB): Denice, you came to Penn State as a returning adult student to pursue your doctorate just as Riparia (then the Penn State Cooperative Wetlands Center) was formed in 1993. What was it like to join the field team that year to begin sampling our first reference wetlands?


Denice Wardrop (DHW): Three things immediately come to mind. The first is that it was the ultimate team field experience: an intensive practice in our own area of expertise, with simultaneous exposure to a wide range of other disciplines in the same context. The learning experience was intense and totally invigorating. The second thought is that I saw so many sites in such a short time, that it provided a sense of the overall condition of the wetland resource that held up to years of experience (and probabilistic sampling) we did later. The third thing is just how good Sun Chips can taste at the end of a day on the Rob Brooks Field Diet and Exercise Plan.

DHW: Staying with the early days, the reintroduction of the river otter and the fisher were a significant part of life at Riparia, and my experience seeing those animals up close and personal had a profound impact on me. What was your inspiration for having Riparia take on these unique projects?

RPB: As you know, Denice, my early graduate career focused on studies of semi-aquatic mammals, such as beaver and muskrat. I was always fascinated by these water-dependent species, including otters, and finally got a chance to work with river otters when Tom Serfass joined us as a doctoral candidate. He had started the otter reintroduction program at East Stroudsburg University (their only remaining populations in Pennsylvania were in the Poconos), so we continued the work at Penn State adding innovations. We then used our successful approach with otters to reintroduce fishers, a tree-dwelling weasel that was eliminated from Pennsylvania by unregulated trapping about 1900. Today, all evidence points toward increasing populations and expanding geographic ranges in the Commonwealth for both species. For me, and I think for many of us in Riparia, reviving a species in decline is one of the most rewarding activities one can be a part of in conservation.

"For me, and I think for many of us in Riparia,

reviving a species in decline is one of the most rewarding activities

one can be a part of in conservation."


RPB: Reminiscing about the otter and fisher projects reminds me how valuable our contacts with agencies, organizations, industries, and citizens have been through the years. We couldn’t have completed those projects and others without agency funding, help with logistics, and communicating openly and frequently with the public. You know how much energy we have put into our outreach activities. What’s your perspective on Riparia’s ever-evolving integration of research, education, and outreach?

My perspective on that is certainly shaped by my pre-academic experience as an engineer in environmental consulting, where I experienced either profound gratitude or frustration about new knowledge. The gratitude came from the power of that knowledge when it could be utilized on the ground to increase health and happiness, and frustration when its potential could not be realized because a translational step had not been taken or its potential value or application was poorly communicated. I totally embrace the concept of transformational research, as well as the power of research as an aspect of experiential learning. The continued work in trying to dissolve the hard boundaries that can unwittingly occur between research, education, and outreach has been very meaningful to me, and the experience of being a part of a center where we were all dedicated to that task has made it even more so.


"The continued work in trying to dissolve the hard boundaries

that can unwittingly occur between research, education, and outreach

has been very meaningful to me."

DHW: Our move to the Department of Geography profoundly shaped our day-to-day world, and I’d venture to say that it changed our work (after all, many of us are landscape ecologists and we found ourselves in a new context). Can you describe some immediate differences that you saw, and can you offer some thoughts on how the body of Riparia’s work might be different than it would have otherwise?

RPB: In 2003, our tenth year, the center was quite successful, and we were completing our largest project ever—the 5-year, $6 million, Atlantic Slope Consortium—which had taken on the development and testing of ecological and socio-economic indicators from the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. Without a doubt, it was our most complex, highly integrated series of projects. Very rewarding! But, we needed a change in venue within the University to optimize how we do our work since we were not getting adequate support internally at that time. Several options were considered. Ultimately, conversations with geographers interested in landscape and spatial data (Alan Taylor and Alan MacEachren, specifically) led us to the Department of Geography, and the entire Center moved in June of that year. The most dramatic shift was exposure to the broad array of subdisciplines found in geography, which trickle down to the students we teach and recruit, the seminars we attend—such as Coffee Hour—and even the potential research topics we consider. We were able to maintain strong connections with our collaborators across Penn State, especially links to Ecology, and Riparia also developed a nucleus around which the Ecosystem Geography group as grown within the department. So, a much shorter answer to your question is that much of what we do is the same, but we season it with lots of new, and sometimes exotic, flavors.

RPB: During the twentieth year of our center, we can’t miss an opportunity to look forward to our collective future. For example, next year, we get to re-sample some of our first reference wetlands for the third time over 20 years (1993–94, 2003–04, 2013–14), adding valuable information to that long-term dataset. What do you imagine we  will learn when, hopefully, someone returns to those sites yet again in 2023–24?

DHW: We have always worked at the boundary of landscape ecology and physical geography, elucidating how anthropogenic land cover change surrounding our wetland ecosystems impacts their ecological functioning. We have done much work to clarify the relative importance of surrounding land cover versus on-site factors, but the relatively short time frame of observation has not allowed us to examine the contribution of the history of a series of land cover changes. A significant portion of the Mid-Atlantic has undergone multiple changes in land cover on as short as a decadal scale. I’m hoping that we can begin to unravel the relative explanatory power of land cover legacy versus current land cover conditions in the ecological functioning of a wetland, and find a way to articulate land cover legacy in our analyses.

DHW: You are generally associated with looking forward and not back (it’s a good thing), so I’m going to take this opportunity to ask you the following: setting aside all of the wonderful accomplishments of Riparia, if you had to do it again, what would you do differently?

RPB: Great question, Denice, and fortunately an easy one to answer. I would do it more or less the same way for several reasons. Founding the center in 1993 clearly allowed all of us—faculty, staff, and students—to build upon our work synergistically. Graduate students built upon the research of those that came before. Over time, we established a strong reputation as a science-based group where the tough issues concerning wetlands, regulatory and ecological, could be answered. We presented education and outreach programs to many, many more participants because of return engagements year after year. I think our reputation for delivering creative and dependable products, whether those were well-trained graduates, informative journal articles, or useful tools for advancing science, management, and conservation, helped keep us funded and productive over two decades. The highlight and major benefit of establishing Riparia is that we have built long-term, trusting relationships with so many colleagues, many with whom we still work with today. This has benefited our science and been advantageous to our students and staff who have moved on. Look how many former students and peers contributed chapters to our new book, Mid-Atlantic Freshwater Wetlands—15, by my count. Today, you and I each have former doctoral advisees successfully working as post-doctoral scholars with U.S. EPA research laboratories, Kristen Hychka (geography) and J. B. Moon (ecology)—one on each coast! We’ve been able to follow the careers and even the lives of our students and colleagues through the years, which continues to bring us lots of joy and pride. So, although we could have tweaked the model of Riparia a little here and there, I’m more than satisfied with where we are now, in fact, I’m delighted, and looking forward with anticipation to what’s happening next.