News Stories

UNCW Students Help Army Corps Keep Watchful Eye on NC Wetlands

Published Oct. 5, 2006

It’s late in the afternoon when most Wilmington District employees are getting ready to head home.  But trudging into the headquarters building with soiled clothes and pants legs wrapped at the ankles to ward off chiggers and possible snake bites is UNCW student Liz Hair.  She’s a regulatory division co-op who’s just returned from one of six counties where she either signs jurisdictional determination of wetlands or verifies that areas are wetlands.

   “I learned about wetlands in school, their importance and why we have to protect them,” the Fayetteville native said.  “And I’ve always wanted to do something that was going to have some sort of what I consider a good effect on the environment.  You’ve heard of ‘no wetlands, no seafood’ or you can look at the importance of wetlands to help clean water to reduce pollution.  And I really like being outdoors.”

   Hair belongs to one of two co-op positions in the Wilmington District Regulatory Field Office.  She got her start as a volunteer, logging numerous hours with hopes of moving into a co-op position.  Now a paid staff member she not only helps provide the latest in cutting edge technology she brings from academia, but she works with the regulatory staff with technical duties and GIS work. 

   “Our program is pretty much OJT, but we also have formal training,” said Keith Harris who directs the Wilmington Regulatory Field Office’s co-op program.  “We’ve been very fortunate to give training to them so that they can use their expertise and do everything that our regular staff does.  We start them out small then give them more responsibility because they have the willingness and desire to do the job.  We grade their work in a generic format and they get credit for that in school.”

    Harris said the Wilmington District has a good relationship with UNCW’s internship program. At least once a year a regulatory staff member who was hired through the co-op program goes to the university and lectures in environmental studies classes to explain the co-op program and what the Corps’ role is in regulating wetlands.  The students who apply for the positions, he said, are people who want to work for the regulatory program and who like the hands-on training the Corps provides.      

   “I’ve had as many as 60 to 70 people apply for a single co-op position.  In fact, that’s how we developed our volunteer program because there are so many students who want to get into the program.”

   Emily Burton, another co-op with an undergraduate degree in geography who’s pursuing certification in environmental studies, was at first in awe of the organization that’s often perceived as only renourishing beaches or building and constructing.  She soon saw the green side of the Corps and readily accepted the co-op position. 

   “I got a lot of congratulations by getting the position,” she stated.  “There are other agencies that provide positions, but they’re unpaid.  I have worked for non-profits before, helping out ‘the little guy’ by doing work in my community.  But I soon learned that working for the government offered the same thing, and I feel like I’m helping out my community by helping to preserve the environment.”

   What drives Hair and Burton is that strong commitment of wetlands preservation.  What both are finding is that there are things they’re learning on the job that aren’t written in their text books.  And that’s balancing wetlands preservation and development.   

   “There is a Catch 22 with seeing beautiful wetlands systems, you’re surveying them knowing they will be impacted by development,” Burton said.  “But it’s good to know that there are laws in place like the Clean Water Act that help minimize those impacts.”

   Members of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulatory are called “the face of the Corps” because of their presence in and around the Nation’s wetlands.  Burton and Hair soon discovered that diplomacy and a little bit of psychology go a long way when dealing with people who sometimes don’t understand federal rules and regulations. 

   “We’re not always sitting behind a desk,” Hair said.  “We’re out interacting with the public and we really attempt to educate the public about the regulatory program. And the key to wetlands education is to explain that what a person does upstream in a wetlands area will affect everything else downstream.  Then people begin to understand that.”