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Deborah Brosnan

Personal Perspective

President of Sustainable Ecosystems Institute
Tsunami Reef Action Fund

Founder and President of Sustainable Ecosystems Institute (SEI), Dr. Brosnan is passionate about science and the oceans. She is a scientist on the front lines, as a strong advocate for the use of science in ecological decisions, and as a catalyst for scientists to participate in the global forum. She founded SEI as the conduit for scientists to outreach to all stakeholders and to help find science-based solutions to ecological problems. She believes strongly that scientists must fulfill a new social contract, and assume a greater leadership role in conservation and natural resource issues.

This letter was written to the Editor of the Daily Planet in January 2006,
prior to the February vote directing the Town Council to proceed with acquisition efforts.

The Value of a Wetland System

A few days ago a friend of mine said. “How do you think I should vote on the Valley Floor?” I can’t tell you how to vote. But I can share a perspective and urge you to carefully evaluate the environmental consequences because they directly impact lives.

In 2001 we at SEI conducted a biological survey of the Telluride area. Scientists were excited by what they found. They concluded that the Valley Floor is a unique ecosystem in Southern Colorado. In spite of human activities, it has retained biological integrity. Its wetlands and riparian areas provide important habitats and resources. At least five new moth species and a new genus were discovered, as well as several new county records for moths, butterflies, and other invertebrates. This was important news for science and for the community. Scientists made several recommendations and urged an integrative and cooperative approach to planning and resolving resource conflicts that maintained a strong focus the integrity of the ecosystem.

I’d like to share with you another consideration:

For the past year, I’ve traveled through the tsunami ravaged towns of SE Asia, and lately I’ve visited the hurricane damaged Gulf Coast of the US. My mission is to assess the consequences of the ecological damage to people’s lives and their ability to recover from disaster. It’s a heartbreaking job. As a scientist, I’ve learned several tough lessons that apply everywhere including Telluride:- Intact and healthy ecosystems save lives, property, and economies. We are tied to our environment and when we damage it we leave ourselves and our communities weakened and vulnerable.

In SE Asia and the US Gulf States, healthy reefs and wetlands broke the force of the waves, lessened storm surge, and minimized flooding. Where ecosystems were fragmented and damaged, the loss of life and property was greater. This is scientific fact. In Sri Lanka I stood in a place where the reefs had been destroyed for use in construction. It was here that a 30 foot tsunami swept a mile and a half inland and killed 1,700 people on a train. Nothing remained. Yet a mile down the road where the coast was protected as a reserve, the tsunami was only 8 foot tall. No lives were lost, and little property was damaged. Why was there such a difference? Scientists have confirmed that the intact reefs in the reserve broke the force of the waves and protected the land. Sadly, the train full of people was parked next to a damaged ecosystem that could not buffer the wave, and so thousands perished. In Louisiana, I flew over the coast and saw how the loss of wetlands contributed to hurricane damage, and how the state’s recovery is made harder by this loss. Louisiana has lost 19,000 sq miles of wetlands since 1930 and loses about 24 sq miles of wetlands a year. Yet a mere 2.7 sq miles of wetlands can reduce storm surge by a foot. Wetlands provide several important ecosystem services to communities as well as flood protection. A single acre of wetland, saturated to a depth of one foot, retains about 330,000 gallons of water, which is enough water to flood 13 average-sized homes thigh-deep. The loss of wetlands is now recognized as a threat to our own safety and way of life. Many communities scrambling to restore them are finding that the restoration costs are higher than maintaining them in the first place- over $33 million to restore one wetland in Aceh Indonesia alone. In Asia with its monsoons and in the US Gulf States with the rapidly approaching hurricane season, communities are recognizing the urgency of restoring their ecosystems, but sadly now they have too much to do.

Did people and governments set out to deliberately make themselves and their livelihoods more vulnerable? Of course not. When a decision was made to carve a canal through a marsh in Louisiana it surely didn’t seem like major compromise at the time. Many of us might have agreed with the decision. But when that canal funneled the storm surge through levees and into homes, leaving whole neighborhoods uninhabitable, and an economy in tatters, then the true cost became apparent. “The ecosystem has been fragmented and is on the verge of collapse.” local scientists and managers kept repeating to me in Louisiana. I believe them. The south is a hurricane coast and for hundreds of years the marshes and wetlands protected communities against storms, but they can’t do this effectively any longer.

It is easy for us to assume that we are immune to these disasters and their consequences, and to confidently assure ourselves that Telluride isn’t Asia, or Louisiana. But last March a colleague from Louisiana talked with me about the poor environmental approach of Asian communities that suffered more because they had damaged their marshes and coasts. We never thought it would happen here. Today her family are hurricane refugees. Telluride and New Orleans are alike. Both places are facing hard decisions for their future, and these decisions involve the environment. Both places attract people who love nature, heritage, and the outdoors. The mountains and high elevation wetlands of Telluride and the bayous of Louisiana contribute greatly to their respective economies and quality of life. They are worth our attention.

When it comes to the Valley Floor, I can only ask you to look hard at whether you value its services and urge you to adequately protect it as an intact ecosystem that can provide the necessary services to the community. Habitat loss, fragmentation, and the disruption of ecosystem services come with a huge personal and economic price tag. Ignoring environmental consequences leaves us as vulnerable to our local events as the town in Sri Lanka that lost everything. And if that seems far fetched today in Colorado, remember that less than a year ago it seemed just as far fetched to me and to that biologist from Louisiana, who this season couldn’t go home for Christmas.

Deborah Brosnan
SEI and Tsunami Reef Action Fund




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Valley Floor Preservation Partners • PO Box 202 • Telluride, CO 81435