By Gabe Giffin – Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries
For those who recall Chris Sietsema’s talk on Youtility, I hope you got a few nice pieces of information or theory that he provided. The bottom line that I pulled from his talk was: bring the user as close to the information, and they will take it from there.
While racking my brain for the best article to give my ACI constituents, I kept going back to the story that has begun to unfold in coastal funding for the area I am currently stationed. While Sietsema’s talk was about creating tools for our user base, in this story I discovered how to use simple tools (both digital and physical) to get to a goal in a very short amount of time.
Just a week after ACI Flagstaff, I took a new Public Information Officer job in our department at an refuge called Rockefeller on the Southwest coast of Louisiana. Needless to say, conference talk was abundant out of my mouth but I was wary not to be over zealous coming back from a great week with educators and outreach folks. I wanted to utilize some of the things I had learned at ACI, specifically to the coastal project I was shown on my first day at the area.
Refuge manager, Phillip “Scooter” Trosclair took me out in his boat to show me ME-18 Shoreline Stabilization Project. We skirted along the gulf coast for just a half mile before you could see a long horizontal line of rocks erecting out of the water. This straight line of rocks (also called a breakwater) ran parallel with the coastline for about 75 yards.
These breakwaters stop shoreline erosion, while creating new land and building an elevated beach ridge. I was familiar with the process of breakwaters and have seen their successful use in other parts of our state. We needed to make locals understand:
- how much land they’re losing, 50 ft a year along Rockefeller’s shoreline (one of the highest rates in the state) and
- how simple of a system breakwaters were, and how effective they could be.
If we accomplished those things, we could utilize public support to get the project passed. A simple enough plan for a simple enough problem. One issue, time limit. The vote for this project was slated for December 10, 2015, which gave me about 3 months and ten days to get the word out about the project and encourage the public to contact the voting members.
Here’s some context about coastal projects. In Louisiana, coastal projects are primarily funded through a program called CWPPRA, Coastal Wetlands Planning and Protection Restoration Act. This has been the clearinghouse for coastal projects for the last 30 years. Once a year, a handful of projects are voted on through a points scale, the highest vote count receives the most amount of money and on down from there. In order for a project to receive full funding, it must first demonstrate it can work. In the case of our coastal project, some demonstration breakwaters were placed out at Rockefeller a few years ago. They have worked well and helped nail down the correct type of rock to use on all the breakwaters.
This project had been in conception since 1999 and had never received enough votes to push the project into the funding phase. In 2014, the project seemed to be on the top of the list and ready for funding, but didn’t receive a high enough vote count to qualify for funding.
During my first 3 weeks on the job, I would visit these demonstration breakwaters by boat and on ATV in order to get video and photographs. On top of my ordinary camera gear, Rockefeller has a new tool for the outdoor world: a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). The UAV provides aerial shots, one thing that has often been difficult and costly in the outdoors. Instead of chartering a plane and expecting it to circle this area numerous times, I now have ample time with controls that allow one to get a camera into what used to be a grey area: higher than a tripod, but much lower than a plane or helicopter can go.
Aerial shots help bring scale to a project, in the case of this demonstration breakwater, the aerial allows someone to see just how much land is being saved by a simple rock wall.
Next tools up: Youtube, Facebook, local papers and public input tools.
Once we got a video put together, it was time to get it on the airwaves. Luckily, Rockefeller has its own Facebook page and website. I created a page on the website and added a comment section along with the names and contacts for all voting members on the CWPRRA board. The last few weeks leading up to the vote, we kicked the Facebook posts into high gear with a countdown to the voting day. We added other videos and photos that explained further the need for this project.
The parish (county) that Rockefeller is in has only 6,000 residents and one newspaper, so making friends with the editor was top priority when moving out here. She and I have already created a great working report and by the time of this vote, we had published stories and opinion pieces in the paper educating all residence of what was at stake.
December 10 came and we had over 50 comments from the website, many more from our Facebook page, and even a few attendees from the public that wanted to speak on behalf of the project. There was a student from the local high school, Brooklyn Frerks, that asked if we could excuse her absence in order to attend the meeting. Once we cleared her attendance with the school, Brooklyn was eager and nervous about what to share. We worked on a few talking points for her and when public comment came, the crowd fell silent to listen to the youngest person in the room talk about their fear of losing where they were from.
Shortly after the six-member panel voted, a voting member walked up to our group and explained that she switched her vote for us after hearing public arguments from some of the youngest in that community. The votes came in and Rockefeller Shoreline Stabilization Project was at the top of the list.
While it wasn’t one comment or single outreach tool, I feel it was the attitude of, “throw everything you have at it” that allowed us to find a successful outcome. This project has jump started the outreach efforts of the refuge. Soon we will be creating a “Friends of Rockefeller” group and the first people I will invite are names among contacts we built while working on this project.
There’s nothing new about the approach I took to getting this project passed. The tools have been around for some time, with exception to the UAV, really the only new thing was the mindset of Youtility I was bringing to the project.
Providing our users with information to educate themselves, then allowing their input, all on the same webpage was our best bet in getting a response. Creating Facebook posts with images showing the realities of erosion helped our users visualize the issues and “share” it with others. Having a local paper’s support sure goes a long way too.
Sietsema’s talk covered large companies that have been able to build apps for their users or make professional video content that inspires their users to act. There wasn’t a budget for this project but I knew that getting the information as close to the user, might cause them to lend their support. Speaking of budgets, have I mentioned how much funding we received? $31 million for coastal protection, Youtility for all!