Wovoka’s Scientific Advisor and Blue Carbon Expert Hilary Stevens On The Challenges of Mangrove Restoration

May 30, 2024

About Hilary

Hilary Stevens has established herself as a leading expert in coastal resilience, dedicating over 22 years to enhancing environmental sustainability and community engagement. As the current Coastal Resilience Senior Manager at Restore America’s Estuaries, Stevens leads the Blue Carbon National Working Group.

From 2001 to 2003, Hilary served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Palompon, Leyte, Philippines where she worked with local government units to protect mangroves, educate local school children about environmental issues, and encourage eco-tourism.

Hilary boasts a diverse expertise in legislative education, community practice enhancement, and coastal resilience. Over the years, she has made substantial contributions to shaping estuary protection policies and practices, impacting efforts nationally and globally.

Her work at RAE

In an interview with Wovoka, Stevens started by sharing an overview of the interesting work that she has been doing at Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE). 

“Being Coastal Resilience Senior Manager is an enjoyable opportunity for me. Given the small size of our organization, my role is quite broad, requiring me to wear multiple hats and take on various responsibilities. Primarily, I lead the blue carbon program, which involves coordinating several projects across the U.S. Since we are actively working on developing methodologies for the conservation and restoration of tidal ecosystems, I collaborate a lot with researchers deployed in our sites and expand our networks both regionally and nationally.”

RAE is a national alliance of coastal conservation groups in the United States with a mission to protect and restore bays and estuaries. Its impact goes beyond the technical aspects of the work — the organization is an influential voice in advocating for science-based coastal restoration and policy to support coastal communities.

“We sit at the nexus of science, policy, finance, and program management aspects of conservation work. Our team operates at the intersection of these areas — managing programs and securing funding from foundations and federal agencies to support restoration projects and enhance understanding of their carbon implications.
My role requires me to be able to communicate with people in different spaces. That means I work with our biogeochemists in the field and also with folks in the policy space at the Capitol Hill. I take the collective wisdom of the team and bring it to policymakers to help them understand why blue carbon should be a national agenda.”

As a blue carbon specialist and subject matter expert working on legislative work, Stevens recognizes the immense value of integrating diverse disciplines to enrich dialogues that serve as the foundation for building important regulatory frameworks and mechanisms. 

“I talk with lawyers a lot about certain policy issues. Being a subject matter expert has significantly shaped how other people in the space perceive me. I would say that my geology background has enabled me to effectively communicate with various researchers, as I can grasp the science as well as understand the concerns of scientists working in the field. This perspective helps me in directing the blue carbon program closer towards its mission.”
A photo of Hilary taken in 2001. She joined a team in Bohol doing reef health surveys while snorkeling.

Advancing the blue carbon agenda

It was 15 years ago when Stevens first started hearing about blue carbon while she was supporting a coastal development project in West Africa and exploring how it could relate to the REDD+ initiative.

As there was already a growing consensus that tidal ecosystems are a powerhouse of carbon sequestration, it immediately caught her interest and eventually propelled her to find out how to best conserve these ecosystems. 

“Since my first involvement in blue carbon work, the scientific community has gained a more detailed understanding of how carbon cycles through these systems. Our most recent initiative was developing methodologies to bring tidal ecosystems restoration to the carbon markets. Science evolved, but also necessarily, should the policy and finance aspects if we want to scale up our impacts. Now, blue carbon has become more well-known among folks like corporations and lawmakers who are normally not in this space.”

For Stevens, the importance of protecting blue carbon ecosystems like mangrove forests is easy to understand because of its huge ecological and social benefits. 

“The fact that mangroves can mitigate climate change impacts is one reason why conservation is an important work to do. But aside from that, mangroves also benefit the community that live near them since mangroves stabilize the shoreline, reducing the risk of erosion, minimizing the wave energy that may damage any human asset, and serving as natural flood control. 
Mangroves are also a nursery for all the juvenile fishes that live on the reefs. So you get a lot of different shellfish and fish species that spend their early days living in the mangroves until they are big enough to head out. If you want thriving marine systems, you need to have mangroves where they can grow safely. Stable fisheries and food security need mangroves.”

However, it is another avenue of her work to drive public interest and get political capital to get the buy-in of different stakeholders. Stevens shared that the challenge lies in braiding together different trains of thought so they can layout what type of support their organization needs and make a case as to why their work is worth supporting.

“Coastal restoration is hard to do and it is very expensive. The regulatory systems are there for a good reason but they make the work slow and challenging. If we can drive political will and reform outdated permitting systems in favor of restoration, it would be easier to bring revenue streams and generate a source of capital to fund this work.”

Restoration in the context of the voluntary carbon market

In the voluntary carbon market space, the take off of tidal ecosystem restoration projects face another layer of challenge. There are valid concerns regarding the permanence and additionality especially for REDD+ projects. 

“Permanence is an important issue and it is an extremely difficult achievement to do anything in the coastal zone and have it last 100 years with a prospect of sea level rise and stronger storm surges in the future. We know that mangroves are inherently a bit more tolerant of saline conditions and it can handle some amount of inundation, but the present environmental conditions will change but we don’t know how much.” 

At present, there is an ongoing dialogue between skeptics of the carbon market and groups trying to implement carbon removal projects. Skeptics are looking at the risk of greenwashing and of yet undeveloped systems being taken advantage of so they are calling for tight guardrails in the mechanisms for generating carbon credits.

On the other side are project developers who are already working in a difficult environment and calling for a middle ground where they can demonstrate the validity of their work without making it extra difficult and expensive.

“There is an inherent tension between project implementors who are hoping to reduce the challenges of getting into the market and the skeptics who are calling for a more robust structure in the market. And then there are groups sitting in the middle of this tension working to come up with a system that is not so onerous that it cannot be implemented but can stand the criticism of the skeptics.”

“Mangrove conservation is always a win.”

A photo of mangroves along the Indonesian shoreline where Hilary worked to rehabilitate old shrimp ponds.

Despite the uncertainty that a warmer world poses for the longevity of mangrove conservation projects, Stevens pointed out that taking action to protect these ecosystems the right way is always a step in the right direction. 

“With all the scrutiny against the carbon market, it is important to reiterate that mangrove conservation is always a win from the environmental perspective. When the next typhoon hits, a coast that has undergone restoration will be better off for it. It is always an improvement. So we will all benefit if mangrove conservation initiatives would get access to financing mechanisms whether it is capital generated through carbon credits or government or private funds.”
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