Interview with Erin Seekamp
Professor, College of Natural Resources North Carolina State University
How did you find your way to the field of climate resilience?
I started thinking about the interactions between people in the environment when I was studying for my undergraduate degree at James Madison University in Virginia. I became interested in understanding the relationship between people and nature when I worked at Yosemite National Park in 1996 – that's when I experienced my first natural disasters. While I was there, there was a really large flood event and a large rockslide, as well. This made me really start to think about how we design places, following disasters as well, and how we integrate people's values into decision-making processes about how these lands are protected. I ended up working on my master's degree at Virginia Tech looking at the role of values in national forest planning, which continued into my doctorate degree at the University of Idaho. For my doctorate I was really interested in how information and group discussion influence people's opinions about management options, how people process information, and how others influence people's perceptions of whether to discount policy information or other types of scientific information.
What are the best strategies for helping people get involved in these conversations prior to experiencing a natural disaster?
Getting people involved is part of my current job as a professor. I hold an appointment with Cooperative Extension Service, and part of that is outreach engagement and making sure that the research I'm conducting is informed by the needs of communities. I work with rural communities, trying to understand what their resilience planning needs are – they're typically underserved communities. I work in nature-based tourism destinations, and they have a different set of needs when it comes to resilience in terms of their economies. I also work with resource management agencies like the National Park Service to help them build their capacity to inform heritage planning and how to adapt heritage resources to climate threats.
Is that helping tourists understand how to respect heritage sites and the natural environment part of your work?
Yes, communication strategies for visitors are a real challenge. People are on vacation, so being able to capture their attention in a meaningful way to help build that respect is really important. I intercept visitors and ask their opinions of the types of resources that pull them to these places. I've done work in the Outer Banks in North Carolina looking at how visitors would change their visitation patterns based on different types of coastal hazards: Whether there would be beach nourishment projects where they're staying, whether they wouldn't be able to drive the full length of the Outer Banks, whether they would have to take ferries instead of bridges to get out there, or whether the taxes that are placed on visitors to support projects are discouraging. On the North Shore in Minnesota, we found that people are willing to pay additional money into a fund that would support climate adaptation planning. I haven't asked that same question on the Outer Banks, but I would imagine that people would feel similarly, because the greatest thing was driving their future decisions was their ability to drive the length of the Outer Banks, so that would be a deterrent for them if they couldn't do it. It's about being able to move around that landscape and experience the natural and cultural heritage that's embodied there. I’m also doing some work in the communities of Orcacoke and Hatteras right now, looking at how people engaged in the tourism economy there are making recovery decisions following Hurricane Dorian of 2019. We have to, at the same time, address how COVID is having a coupled effect on those recovery decisions, and it's compounding the complexity of decision-making. COVID has created a real boon in the tourism economies there, where they haven't had a slow season. The idea is just to build back fast in order to recover the money that's coming now, rather than build back smarter to ensure longevity and sustainability in their tourism economies.
What kind of protections can a nature-based destination put in place to prevent damage from visitors?
One is through education or signage, and building awareness of the fragility of the environment around heritage resources. Another option is making sites more durable, which is not always a great option when trying to preserve the feeling of a place. Another option is be to limit the number of visitors. Is park visitation sustainable, and what are the outcomes if it isn't curbed in some way? This option requires bringing community members together to discuss what the benefits and costs are to it. A lot of tourism-dependent economies are predominantly based on the service industry, which has fairly low-paying jobs for the majority of workers. Can you blame them if demand is so high that people are taking any property that's available and trying to use it as a rental type of service? These decisions need to be from the community, themselves. There are challenges when you have protected areas within a community or adjacent to a community, because you have managers who are trying to follow policies and mandates that they've been instructed to follow. Although integrating community perceptions into that process is something that they need to consider, it's not always done. Giving up that authority for decision-making is hard, but trying to figure out how we can have shared governance with the people who are most closely associated with places is more important. We need to make sure that we're thinking about people who have been displaced from those lands and whose heritage is encumbered within those spaces.
What is the best way to engage with people who have been displaced and to involve them in decision-making processes?
You have to be willing to invest deeply in building relationships, creating trust, and ensuring that you are coming with an open mind, because ways of knowing may even be different. The work that I've been doing with the National Park Service trying to think about climate adaptation planning has helped me recognize how biased my perceptions have been because of my Western science training, and how open I need to be if I consider myself somebody who is dedicated to ensuring that people's values and preferences are integrated into resource management. It takes a lot of self-learning on my behalf, a lot of deep conversations about terminology and what the values laid within those terminology are so that we're at least speaking on the same page. It brings some emotional pain to have some of these conversations. When people have been displaced, they may not have even accessed these areas lately that you're asking for them to provide some input into; they may not even know what's on the landscape. We need to recognize that intellectual property rights are challenged and Indigenous ways of knowing are definitely intellectual property. We need to be respectful in how that information is communicated or conveyed in any kind of public materials publicly available materials. One of my goals is that the work that I'm doing is building capacity within those communities so that somebody like myself isn't the one that's navigating those relationships between Indigenous communities, and federal land managers.
Have you worked with communities that had places they weren't able to save?
I haven't worked with communities on any issue quite like that, but I can provide two examples of that sort of scenario. One is a small, predominantly African American community in eastern North Carolina, in a very low-lying area. The people are dealing with repeated flood events and real poverty with fixed incomes, so trying to keep up with flood insurance regulations is a problem. The people don't really have a voice, because the community isn’t a tourism draw. The state and the federal government aren’t necessarily trying to protect them, and the county that they're in doesn't really have a tax base to be able to help them implement protections. But, a community is just about every aspect of life, whether it's social, or physical well being emotional support, and so they don't leave. They don't want to leave, because they don't think that they can survive without their community members. But they feel youth aren't returning, and so they’re seeing an aging population. It's likely that in the fairly near future, the whole community must move. We need to think about how people are connected to the place where they're from. In relocating them, we need to think about how we can ensure that aspects of their heritage are continued through those relocation processes. Another fear that communities have is as their homes are condemned, some developer will build houses on sticks for tourism development, because there are several wildlife preserves that surround their community. They fear that they'll get moved out, but then the land itself will be redeveloped.
I’ve been doing work in Cape Lookout on the National Seashore for a number of years, which has two separate historic districts. There are not occupied buildings any longer; the leases people had have since run out following the acquisition of the lands by first the state of North Carolina and then the federal government with the National Seashore. People used to live in these houses, or they were descendants of people who did, and the managers assumed that the community members would want the buildings saved at all costs. So relocate them, elevate them, save them. What our work found out was that people recognize the vulnerability of that place, and of the barrier islands; they consider themselves to be the first climate migrants. They were forced off of those islands, because they are vulnerable and can't sustain large populations of people very readily without a lot of economic investment. Surprisingly, they've accepted that change is coming, but they do want the buildings preserved in place as long as possible, as they last knew it to be. One of the real challenges is that Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Dorian created a lot of damage. The superintendent has been working closely with the communities to try to restore as many of them as possible, and not just decommission and remove them from the landscape. The question he doesn't know is: For how long do we continue to use recovery money or private donations to keep these buildings that aren't occupied any longer, but that have a deep seated heritage with US colonial maritime history?
Is there a project that you're especially proud of?
I wrote an opinion piece with a collaborator from ICCROM, which is the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property. They do capacity building and training for World Heritage site managers, and I spent six months with them as a research fellow. During the conversations that I had with folks there, I started thinking about the need to change the preservation paradigm to one of transformation and empowering people to ensure that the future is what they want it to be. There are some things that have universal value that we should protect, but we can't protect everything. Right now there is an option for World Heritage sites that are at risk and impact from climate change to be listed on the World Heritage in Danger list, and that has a lot of negative political connotations. Countries are reticent to allow any of their properties to be placed on that list. Interestingly enough, the United States is the one exception, because people think it will garner more support for more resources to get them off of that list. But many others are fearful of the loss of tourism revenue and the negative impression on their culture, and the fact that they're so proud of it. What I argue for in this paper is that we need a new list called World Heritage Sites and Climatic Transformation that allows different types of preservation and adaptation approaches to be applied to them.