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For EPA's Anne Kuhn, the LCC helps connect the dots for big-picture conservation

EPA scientist Anne Kuhn says the North Atlantic LCC is “a real solution” for agencies and organization working to address large-scale conservation challenges that demand cooperation, especially in the context of climate change.

Throughout the course of a career spent studying the impacts of environmental stressors on aquatic systems and species, Dr. Anne Kuhn has learned that in order to get the full story, you need to look at what’s happening both upstream and downstream.

She’s realized that the same applies when looking at how climate change will affect coastal communities.

“Rather than just a single stretch of coastline or community, we need to understand what’s happening on the watershed scale,” said Kuhn, a senior Research Physical Scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development, Atlantic Ecology Division, based in Narragansett, RI.

Connecting the dots between communities, coastal resilience, and ecosystem services has become a growing priority for Kuhn, an expert in environmental toxicology. Though she marvels at how far she’s strayed from where she started her career - determining chemical thresholds for individual marine species - her personal trajectory matches that of the field of conservation itself: less focus on discrete resources, more on how things fit into the bigger picture.

“I get excited about linking in more partners at all scales with different perspectives and focus areas that will enrich the North Atlantic LCC and expand its network.”

Really, Kuhn hasn’t strayed at all. She has simply zoomed out.

“I started out looking at estuarine toxicology issues to develop criteria for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System,” a permit program established under the Clean Water Act to address water pollution by regulating point sources.

“Then in the mid-1990s, we realized we should be looking at additional stressors - such as habitat loss - rather than just at toxicants alone,” said Kuhn. She began conducting multi-stressor experiments in the lab, using data on the impacts of toxins on individuals to model population-level effects, and then transitioned into the field to understand relationships to landscape processes, like hydrology.

“For the past five years, I’ve been focused on the watershed scale, developing simple indicators of nutrient overload to inform nutrient management in coastal systems,” she said.

While continually seeking out new opportunities to look at the bigger ecological picture in her work, Kuhn also became aware of a parallel administrative need, at EPA and other agencies. “We all have tunnel vision, we’re stuck in our silos,” she said. So when she attended a presentation by North Atlantic LCC Coordinator Andrew Milliken at the 2011 Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Conference, Kuhn thought: “This is exactly what we need.”

More than just a member of the Steering Committee, Kuhn has since become a vocal champion for the LCC. “When we hear from EPA administrators who tell us we need to find a way to work with other agencies, I say: You do know about the LCC, right?”

She has also helped expand the reach of the LCC to smaller organizations, such as the Taunton River Watershed Alliance, a partnership that is now using the road-stream crossing assessment protocols developed by the LCC-funded North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative.

Kuhn’s latest project - a coastal resilience decision support tool to be piloted in the Taunton River watershed -  reflects her dual mandate to connect the dots environmentally, and managerially, by linking decisions to upgrade or restore road-stream crossings with the avoided costs associated with future flooding.

“Communities can use that information as leverage to get projects approved,” said Kuhn. “It’s not just about fish passage; it’s about all the other benefits up the road.” 

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