Ryan Atwell

Ryan Atwell, PhD, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Iowa State University

2009-2010 S&T Policy Fellow; Energy, Environment, Agriculture & Natural Resources Program; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Environmental Markets

Ryan Atwell

Economic Incentives for Ecosystem Conservation

Prior to accepting an S&T Policy Fellowship, Ryan Atwell was teaching biology at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He loved academia and teaching, yet felt “stuck within a culture of poor communications with the outside world.” He craved an experience where he’d learn how to communicate science on different levels and to apply science to solve problems. A fellowship in the Energy, Environment, Agriculture & Natural Resources Program proved the perfect “trial by fire” opportunity.

In the right place at the right time, Ryan took advantage of the rare occasion to join a newly created unit at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — the Office of Environmental Markets (OEM). As one of a five-member team, he added both extra intellectual and human energy for the broad variety of tasks involved in a new initiative, ranging from forming the OEM’s budget to arranging new furniture. Ryan soon found that his PhD research on environmental market approaches using traditional conservation programs for measurable outcomes in water quality and wildlife habitats on agricultural lands would also prove valuable at OEM.

Tasked with the unique role of creating and developing standards within environmental markets in U.S. ecosystems, OEM facilitates market-based approaches to agriculture, forest, and rangeland conservation. Ryan put his expertise to use on the environmental markets strategic plan for the Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, which called for water quality improvements and protection of wildlife habitats in the Bay region. The EPA developed more stringent water quality requirements and it was the OEM’s responsibility to create a program that would help farmers operate within the  new environmental standards and meet goals for water quality improvement. Ryan was instrumental in developing and writing strategic plans and briefings and coordinating interagency dialogue.

Working in a new office afforded perks as well as challenges. Ryan explained, “There are new political appointees who come aboard with fresh ideas who want change to happen quickly and have no patience for bureaucracy. And there are senior government employees who really understand the system and know what is possible and what isn’t, and how long lasting change can take. Then there are some individuals who just want a new initiative to go away completely. Despite some frustrating situations, I feel I was able to be a part of positive change.”

The opportunity at the USDA provided firsthand knowledge of how federal policies and programs are implemented, as well as the powerful influence of state level initiatives in shaping the federal system. Following the fellowship year, Ryan returned to Minnesota, where he is consulting on environmental markets in the upper Mississippi River Basin.

Among the best aspects of the fellowship experience, he noted, were the benefits of multiple mentors, and the fact that “I can now legitimately say I have experience as a scientist and as a practitioner in solving environmental problems.”