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NRLI: Finding Inclusive Solutions to Seemingly Intractable Problems

nature, farming, agriculture, florida
Learning about Agriculture and Water Quality in Marianna, FL.

The Natural Resources Leadership Institute is housed within the School of Forest Resources and Conservation and the IFAS Center for Leadership.

Situated just outside Marianna in Florida’s Panhandle, Cindale Farms is a dairy comprised of just 600 cattle. I met the dairy’s owners Brad and Meg Austin during one of the most memorable sessions of the 2016 Florida Natural Resources Leadership Institute (NRLI) program, during a field trip to examine the issues that arise when agriculture impacts the water quality of the surrounding waterways and river basins.

My preconceived ideas about agriculture and the environment were challenged when I met the Austin family. As we toured their dairy, it was clear that this family invests countless hours to provide high quality milk in a manner that also seeks to protect the surrounding landscape. The love for their land, cattle and dairy was beaming from this family, and you couldn’t help but admire their work ethic and dedication.

As it turns out, regulating issues like water quality and basin management action plans (BMAPs) are far more complex than I originally thought. Understanding and navigating these complexities is at the heart of NRLI’s mission. I was drawn to this program because of my passion for environmental conservation, particularly in my home state of Florida, and my sincere belief that effective communication offers us the greatest opportunity to tackle Florida’s natural resource challenges – challenges NRLI fellows are primed to address.

dairy farm, agriculture, cows
Visiting a dairy farm in Marianna, FL.

Although it’s best known for palm trees and Disney World, Florida is home to so much more: sensitive wetlands, pine forests, ecological greenways and wildlife corridors, an aquifer that supplies 70 percent of our drinking water, approximately 1,000 freshwater springs, and a vast coastline of over 1,350 miles. In a state that’s consistently growing, time-consuming and expensive disputes often emerge over issues such as endangered species, land use, coastal and marine resources, and water quality and quantity.

So how does a state with so many conflicting natural resource issues navigate solutions? The University of Florida’s IFAS Extension founded the NRLI in 1998 to bring together professionals from sectors that impact or are impacted by natural resource issues and provide them with the training required to find inclusive solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

NRLI Director Jon Dain explains that a specialized set of skills and approaches are needed for effective collaboration on challenging issues — skills that are not taught in most schools and universities. NRLI teaches those skills and approaches. He continues, “If we are going to manage, use and protect Florida’s natural resources over the long term, it will require buy-in from a lot of people [and] a lot of collaboration.”

sea level rise, florida, nature, beach
Discussing sea level rise in St. Augustine, FL.

My cohort had opportunities to meet and hear real stories from diverse sets of stakeholders who know the issues because they are alumni or colleagues of alumni. NRLI classes are made up of participants from state and federal agencies, agriculture, industry, nonprofits and community groups, local government, and academic institutions. Every case we examine is seen and discussed from diverse perspectives.

Fellows in Training

Over the course of eight months, NRLI fellows take monthly trips to different parts of the state for intensive three-day sessions that focus on specific, contentious natural resource issues. These sessions are expertly designed by the project team and NRLI alumni to give fellows a comprehensive understanding of the natural resource conflict and the stakeholders involved. Sessions include:

  • A briefing by a qualified expert on the natural resource issue under study;
  • An on-the-ground tour of the issue site;
  • Experiential training in skills, concepts, tools and strategies related to collaborative decision-making, conflict management, communication and negotiation;
  • Engagement with stakeholders from diverse institutions/organizations and perspectives; and
  • Facilitated discussion among fellows on lessons learned and questions raised or answered at the venue.

To ensure that the skills learned in NRLI go beyond the classroom, practicums are built into the program. Fellows are required to develop a project to apply the skills and concepts learned in NRLI to actual conflict, decision-making or leadership situations within specific organizations and communities.

florida, port, travel
Touring Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Dain shared an example of an NRLI participant who utilized the skills learned in the program in his job:

An alum from a statewide agency recently used the skills he gained from NRLI to strengthen his organization’s ability to carry out their natural resource management mission. Multiple divisions within this agency are responsible (through research, administration, public outreach, law enforcement, habitat management, etc.) for addressing issues related to the particular habitat the alum works with. This alum recognized that misunderstandings, both across and within divisions, were inhibiting the effectiveness of everyone’s efforts. In particular, field staff did not fully understand the demands on, and interests of, those in the central office, while those in the central office did not fully understand the demands on, and interests of, those in field.

This alum had the leadership skills and tools to bring everyone together and address the problems. He set up a process that helped people talk openly about the issues they were facing, then helped them develop solutions. These include regular regional meetings in which all divisions participate, 360-degree annual evaluations in which field staff provide feedback to leadership, a formal “work swap” program where employees spend one day in the field each year with someone from each of the other divisions, and a program that allows those in the central office to visit field offices more often, and staff from field offices to spend a day or two working with leadership in Tallahassee.

NRLI Forever

“It sounds cliché, but solutions require ‘figuring it out’ together — public and private, large and small, academic and advocacy, left and right. And everyone in between. A colleague once noted that this is ‘common sense, but not common practice,’” Dain explains.

Dain won’t necessarily admit it, but he and the rest of the NRLI project team are truly what make this program so exceptional. Every session is carefully crafted and thoughtfully organized. From the eye-opening field trips and stakeholder panel discussions to the leadership exercises and professional training, the project team did it all with tremendous attention to detail.

Another great reward of being part of NRLI is the stellar group of fellows with whom I had the opportunity to learn during the program. I don’t think we could have anticipated just how much we’d learn and grow together. Each person provided a crucial perspective from their corner of the state and their industry, including those fellows from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services who helped explain water quality regulations in Marianna. These voices truly enriched our experience and enhanced our understanding of the complex natural resource issues our state is facing from the individuals who know them best.

Dain concludes, “The fellows really get to know and trust each other. That is how NRLI works, it exposes you to important issues, useful tools and concepts, and a group of people who practice and understand natural resource management in many different ways.”

maddie southardMaddie Southard is a dedicated environmental advocate with a passion for land and water conservation initiatives. She has a master’s degree in Communication Studies from the University of South Florida, where she studied effective environmental communication strategies and rhetorical analyses of sustainable marketing techniques. As a fourth generation Floridian, Maddie’s love for nature stems from a childhood spent along the Gulf Coast. She has worked in communications for the Florida Wildlife Corridor, an organization advocating for a statewide network of lands and waters that supports wildlife protection. Whenever she has the opportunity, Maddie enjoys traveling to explore ecological landscapes across the country and beyond.