Interview by Emily Koai, LRWP Spring 2020 Raritan Scholar
Johnny Quispe, born and raised in New Jersey’s Hackensack Watershed (Hudson County), started his B.S. at Rutgers – New Brunswick in 2009, then returned in 2014 to pursue a masters in Ecology. Johnny is now working on his doctorate in the lab of Jean Marie Hartman, an associate professor of Landscape Architecture. Through Professor Hartman, Johnny met Heather Fenyk, Board President of the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, and began collaborating with the LRWP on Raritan River-focused research. Johnny joined the LRWP Board in 2019 with the goal of expanding on his passion for advocacy for the river through community outreach. His current outreach involves work in South River and Sayreville on the South River Ecosystems Project, which has evolved through support from a diversity of stakeholders. Johnny recently secured a $249,000 National Fish and Wildlife Federation grant for project preliminary design and site assessment for the South River Ecosystem Restoration & Flood Resiliency Enhancement Project. Johnny seeks to guide this project through design to ultimately improve public access to the Raritan.
EK: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
JQ: I first came to Rutgers in 2009 and wanted to pursue environmental policy. In addition to learning about local, municipal and federal policies, I started interning at a local non-profit, Edison Wetlands Association (EWA). That advocacy experience really helped me see policy play out on the ground. I attended a Coastal Estuarine Research Federation conference which opened my eyes to how sea level rise is going to impact wetlands. I decided early on to focus my studies on the Raritan and Raritan Bay, looking at the impacts that sea level and a changing climate has on, not only coastal ecosystems, but coastal communities.
I returned to Rutgers in 2014 to work under Jean Marie Hartman, starting a masters in ecology, the study of an organism and its interactions with its environment or with other organisms. I saw this as another way of looking at the world. Jean Marie really let my imagination fly. She gave me the opportunity to work on several projects with her, on all ranges of things. That’s when the connection between the importance of wetlands and what I had been advocating for in my internship really came together.
EK: Your research explores the relationship between sea level rise (SLR) and coastal wetlands and its impacts on the vulnerabilities of coastal areas. Is there anything specifically about the subject that you wanted to communicate to a wider audience?
JQ: There are many ways in which we can perceive risk. Sometimes we look at things one-dimensionally. When we look at coastal ecosystems we use different lenses: an environmental lens, a natural resource lens, and sometimes in terms of zoning. So how can we look at development and create positive opportunities for communities to build themselves up? How do we identify and prioritize these locations and bring more attention to these areas?
Sea level rise is not created equal. There are areas that are more at risk than others. This is subject to change as we continue to make decisions which can accelerate this change in sea level. As a society, we can start making significant changes. Some of these impacts may take a little longer to become realized, so we need communities, municipalities, the state, and federal government to all start thinking with a longer-term lens.
This means that planning boards and town councils should take a long range view of zoning: not just 10 or 20 years. 30 years is often seen as the lifetime of a structure, but you see even that expanding. How are we preparing for 2050 and beyond?
Everyone else’s risk is still kind of the same if municipalities put resources into their own municipal boundaries. Sometimes that is shortsighted. Taking a watershed or regional view to partner with other municipalities and the state, you can design projects that have more lasting impacts. There has to be cross pollination between our municipalities, and lead efforts by the state, to take a step up and organize at the larger, landscape scale.
EK: How have you directly encouraged policy-makers, municipalities, and individuals on the path of enhancing their own roles?
JQ: Experts at all levels need to listen to people. We need to listen to what the needs are. That is where you’ll find all the information you need about a location. I think, as well intentioned as researchers, government officials, and others may be, sometimes they make change without consulting the people that change is going to affect. Understandably, this leaves a sour feeling with the community.
Having buy in from stakeholders is important. I meet with community members, stakeholders, folks from different nonprofits in the area, and people from different settings. I think everyone has a stake in it, so they want to be part of the process. If you eliminate the possibility for groups to be part of planning, they ultimately feel that they’re being subjected to the change. Sharing these ideas in public meetings that are accessible and allowing participation is important.
As we continue to see these impacts in coastal communities across the US, these are the kind of processes that are going to have to happen. Otherwise we have unsolicited buybacks and changes being made without much buy-in from the community. You’re going to have a lot of pushback and a lot of people who are unhappy.
EK: Is there anything you think is key to trying to get the whole process to come together?
JQ: I think researchers or officials looking to make changes really need to embed themselves in the community—to be part of that community, otherwise you’re just going to be seen as the third party coming in and telling the community what’s best for them.
I’ve been working in the Lower Raritan since 2009, and have established relationships that have blossomed into my current projects. My time working in a local non-profit really allowed me to meet all the non-profit stakeholders and people who have been fighting to make the Raritan a better place for the last 20-30 years.
I think what everyone needs to do is find a champion—someone who they can align themselves with to help them push some of these ideas forward. If you’re not part of the community, who is part of the community, and how can you work with that person to really get the facts and get the message out there? That’s what’s really key. My hope is to identify champions along the east coast who can really get these kinds of projects started. I see myself more as a bridge-builder—someone who is bringing people together, really letting some ideas simmer and take them and try as much as I can, with the help of others, to bring those to fruition.