visiting scholar byers champions wetland conservation

Elizabeth and glacier larkspur in the middle of the Ngozumba Glacier, Gokyo, Nepal.

Elizabeth A. Byers is the 2021-22 visiting scholar in the College of the Environment. She is a senior wetland scientist with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. During the last five years at WVDEP she has worked to create and implement an assessment tool that will become the law of the land in West Virginia in early 2022.  Prior to joining DEP, she worked for 11 years as a Natural Heritage Ecologist and for 20 years as a hydrologist and conservationist in the Himalayas, East African rift, Andes, Rocky Mountains, and Appalachians.  In 2020, Elizabeth published the first-ever field guide to the flora and ethnobotany of Mount Everest National Park.
You are currently the senior wetland scientist with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. What sparked your interest in wetlands, specifically, and in the condition monitoring and assessment of those places?
Who doesn’t like wild places? Wetlands are some of the best, just bursting with life. They are also the only terrestrial habitat type that is federally protected, thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Food Security Act of 1985. In 2008, the Clean Water Act was amended to require “no net loss” of wetland functions and services–not just acreage–and what an opportunity that was for conservation!

Time and time again, we’ve seen beautiful intact wetland complexes destroyed and replaced by shallow ponds choked with invasive species.  That’s no longer legal, but… first you have to have a way to demonstrate and quantify wetland functions. I’ve spent the last five years creating and implementing an assessment tool that will become the law of the land in West Virginia in early 2022. Wetlands such as peat bogs that harbor rare species, provide wildlife habitat and base flow to streams, protect us from floods, and filter our water will become very, very expensive to impact. This project is my legacy piece. It has been a tough slog at times dealing with the legislative and bureaucratic requirements, but I’ve had great colleagues and a huge sense of gratitude that I get to do something concrete to protect the places I love.

Why is wetland conservation important, in your opinion, and why should we all care?
In addition to all the cool biodiversity and water quality benefits that wetlands bring to us, they are also key stabilizing elements of their watersheds.  As climate change brings ever more erratic and severe weather, the ability of wetlands to store water helps to reduce and desynchronize flood peaks, provides baseflow to streams during droughts, and even helps to stabilize temperature extremes.

Assessing alpine vegetation in random quadrats on Mount Makalu, Nepal. What are the impacts from yaks, caterpillar fungus harvesters, and trekkers?

Tell us about your position as a principal at Appalachian Ecology — and what exactly is vegetation ecology?
Appalachian Ecology is my consulting firm, where I put any paid projects that are outside my current employment responsibilities. For example, right now I’m helping a local conservation group to figure out how to treat invasive species in the Blackwater Canyon in West Virginia. Or, I recently created range maps from herbarium specimens as part of a climate change vulnerability assessment of endangered cacti on federal lands. These are fun, short-term projects that help me explore different ideas while earning a bit of extra money.

Vegetation ecology is botany mixed with a smattering of most of the other sciences. Sometimes called “community ecology,” it is the study of natural assemblages of plant species, the environments they share, and the physical processes that impact them. It’s a great field for people who love to think about interconnections in the natural world. And it’s important because we need to understand how species relate to one another and to their environments if we want to slow the terrible extinction rate of the Anthropocene.

Alton and Elizabeth feeling the joy of walking from bare boulders into a patch of juniper-rhododendron forest with extravagant yellow Sikkim primroses on the forest floor. Kanchenjunga, Nepal. 2019.

You recently published a first-ever field guide to the flora and ethnobotany of Mount Everest National Park. Congratulations! What was the impetus for the guide?
Creating this field guide has been the most fun project ever! When I met my to-be-husband Alton on Mount Everest in 1980, I was blown away by the beauty of the flora. There were whole hillsides covered with scarlet rhododendrons and multi-colored primroses and it just took my breath away. But there are no field guides at all for this remote area. It has taken me a long time to finally fill this gap.

As I have researched and photographed over the years, the project has morphed into a cultural heritage effort as well. The older folks who know the lore and uses of plants are no longer passing this knowledge to the next generation, since the kids are all in school now.  This is a positive development in our fast-changing world, but it comes at a steep cost as we collectively lose our knowledge of the environment that is, after all, our ultimate life-support system. So, in addition to the names and botanical descriptions of plants, I’ve been collecting local lore. Now, I’ve completed the app, Wildflowers of Mount Everest, and made it free to anyone in Nepal.  

This fall I’ll be working on a book format for Nepali schools and libraries, and other education materials as well.  If kids are in school, then we can still honor the knowledge of their grandparents, even if it is taught in classrooms rather than in the yak pastures.

You are this year’s visiting scholar in the College of the Environment. What will you be working on this year and how will it impact your work and the Wesleyan community?
I have two projects I’ll be working on at the College of the Environment this fall, and I would welcome assistance from Wesleyan students on both of them. First are the educational materials for my Nepal botanical literacy project–especially educational posters to go with my book. I’d like to make posters for each of the schools in Mount Everest Park, with themes such as “Flora of the Melting Glaciers” or “Spring-Blooming Medicinal Plants.” Second, I’m currently finalizing a restoration planting web tool for West Virginia. I’d welcome help from students with the research on pollinator plant characteristics and designing templates for pollinator gardens. 

Your past positions included time spent as a Natural Heritage Ecologist. What exactly did that work entail and what was the most interesting aspect of it for you, personally?
Natural Heritage work is just plain fun: searching out rare species and remnants of pre-settlement habitats. My work took me to amazing places, such as a talus slope in the middle of a timber rattlesnake basking area (50 pregnant snakes within 10 meters of my plot center!), kayaking the Cheat River in search of the elusive sand grape that only grows in river-scoured rapids, or discovering a boggy wetland filled with thousands of blooming orchids.

You also worked as a hydrologist for many years. How did you get interested in that field of study?
Hydrologists study water, and for me that has been the water in wetlands or coming out of glaciers–sometimes in catastrophic floods. A pivotal moment for me occurred in 2016 when Alton and I were eyewitnesses to a glacial flood that we were able to capture on video. To see a geologic process unfolding before my eyes, and to feel powerless to help the people downstream, that was a lot of adrenaline. Generally, though, the work is slow, careful, repeated measurements of seepage and outflow, finding patterns, and thinking about potential hazards.

What sparked your interest in the environment?
I remember vividly canoeing out to see the “big trees” on Buck Island when I was 10 years old.  They loomed over us, and in the hush of the canopy my mother told the story of logging and fires that destroyed nearly all but these few. The Adirondack forests were the magical landscape of my childhood, so I knew that somehow the magic had come back to the forest. Later I learned about the century of conservation efforts that have preserved the Adirondack Park – but it was that story on the quiet lakeshore that first made me think about how people can destroy a place, and how they also can renew it again.