Lakeshore Property and Conservation: A Quick Dip in the Lakes of the Northern Red Cedar
University of Wisconsin--Stout
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I spent much of this summer driving around with my research partner, Lucia, listening to NPR and sharing our favorite playlists as we shuffled around the Red Cedar Watershed on our way to interviews. As someone who takes a keen interest in the experiences of others, I joined the LAKES REU to partake in qualitative research, which is a fancy way of saying research that focuses on narratives expressing ideas, opinions, and motivations rather than numbers we attach to those kinds of things. For our research, Lucia and I interviewed 23 stakeholders across the watershed: 9 farmers and 14 other property owners. For my research project, I focused on lakeshore property owners and other stakeholders on the lake. In our interviews with these folks, we asked about their history in the area, regular use and common maintenance practices, sense of community, sources of information, the impact of water quality, and wetland restoration. We designed the interview guide with the hopes of learning more about how the private property around the watershed's lakes is being used and maintained in terms of land use and water quality. In our initial search for interviewees, we contacted via email the president of every lake association and lake district in both Barron and Dunn Counties with a brief introduction and an attached document detailing our credentials and the purpose of our research. We encouraged everyone we contacted to pass our information on to their constituents or other parties who may be interested in being interviewed. Once the interviews were scheduled, Lucia and I would meet our interviewee at a location of their choice, most often their own home (or lake property); we would then record the interview with permission, transcribe it using online software, and code it for themes. Coding basically entails selecting a section of text and attaching a particular "code word" that easily identifies the theme it represents, making it easier to find for later analysis. Because Lucia and I were present at every interview, transcribed most of the interviews ourselves, and coded as well, we were very familiar with the material by the time we reported our respective results. During this process, I identified several themes that I wanted to explore and expand upon with my results. The first is the importance of a tangible sense of community in terms of water quality maintenance. The stronger the sense of community, the greater the participation in lake initiatives, providing more positive outcomes—both in terms of neighbor relationships and lake programs. Furthermore, the better people knew their neighbors, the more likely they were to care for water quality, which in turn meant that they were more likely to be actively involved in lake policy and programs, thus creating a positive feedback loop between community and participation. The second is the difference between the efficacy of lake districts and lake associations. While lake association membership centers around voluntary participation, is dues-based, and has no regulatory teeth, lake districts are units of government that are mandatory, funded by tax dollars, and have the capacity to push some regulation. Because lake districts are funded via tax money, they had more money to invest in water quality whether that be algae blooms or invasive species. The third is the geography of water quality: as our interviews progressed from south to north the profile of interviewee priority shifted from the problems caused by cyanobacteria (the blue-green, stinky algal blooms) to those caused by invasive species. As a result, a majority of their resources in the north targeted invasives. Throughout this process, we also identified the common maintenance trends that were practiced by property owners, as well as thoughts on wetland restoration. Every lakeshore resident we spoke to mowed their lawn, which has the potential to increase the amount of nutrients entering the waterways if grass clippings are not managed properly and/or if they mow to the water edge. Many interviewees also fertilized their lawns or applied some sort of herbicide to control weeds, which enters the lakes and streams in the watershed via runoff. In terms of wetland restoration, which centers around the growth of emergent aquatic vegetation, many interviewees were aware of the ecological benefits of wetlands but were unaware of how they had been denigrated in their own lakes, or how they would go about restoring them. Reducing the number of mows per summer and managing grass clippings appropriately, limiting the amount of fertilizer and herbicide applied to lawns, and allowing 35+ foot buffer strips and emergent native vegetation to grow are best management practices for lakeshore property. In addition to the complex dynamics of the ecology and geography of the Red Cedar Watershed, I learned a lot about myself this summer and the kind of academic I aspire to be. In our conversations with farmers, I learned how important it is to be a researcher who listens with tact, thoughtfulness, and compassion. I interviewed these people to learn more about the story they have to share--not to judge, critique, or insert my own opinion. As it turns out, it actually is possible to disagree with a person's politics and the choices they make with their vote and still listen respectfully with compassion. I am grateful to all the folks who were kind enough to sit down with us this summer to share their experiences, we could not have done this research without them. I learned so much more from the conversations I had with farmers and others this summer than I could have ever expected, and I hope they enjoyed talking with us even a fraction as much as I enjoyed petting their dogs. It's been a great summer, thanks for reading!
Environmental Studies at University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill