The Colgate Scene ON-LINE


Beth, Gus and Andy in Maine's Acadia National Park. Photo courtest of Beth Meer and Andy Beers.
Andy Beers '83 and Beth Meer '80 are a Colgate couple with a twist. They met at Cornell.

It was while working on natural resource policy degrees in graduate school, far above Cayuga's waters, that Meer and Beers made a connection that flourishes today in New York's Capital District. Meer is balancing work with the state legislature and motherhood while Beers serves as director of conservation and government programs for the Nature Conservancy.

The Conservancy is an international nonprofit conservation organization known as a land protection group but, as Beers points out, "our mission is to protect the biodiverstiy of plants, animals and natural communities by conserving the land and water they need to survive."

With programs in every state, virtually all of Latin America and an expanding influence along the Pacific Rim, the Nature Conservancy was started by scientists 40 years ago in New York. Today New York has six chapters with a regional office in the Albany area that supports the work of 100 employees statewide.

Half of Beers' efforts are devoted to conservation planning, working with staff scientists and land protection specialists on strategies to preserve habitats for endangered plants and wildlife. "We are fairly focused," says Beers. "We don't do air pollution or hazardous waste and we don't work on energy issues. By design we are not confrontational. We are very much science driven." Taking an approach that is result oriented, the Nature Conservancy thrives on cooperative effort, problem solving and substantial amounts of education and training.

Supported by an enthusiastic membership and overseen by trustees who range from environmentalists to corporate and business leaders, the Nature Conservancy is responsible for the protection of more than 8 million acres nationally and owns 1,400 nature preserves. The organization also works with private landowners and public agencies to manage land in ways that are both feasible and sensitive to ecological management issues.

The other hat worn by Beers is that of lobbyist for the Conservancy in New York State. Andy meets with the governor's staff, state legislators and various agencies. "A lot of what we do is help government, with our scientific expertise, manage its land."

The work covers a spectrum, from "broad policy issues to the nitty-gritty specifics of land acquisition," according to Beers, who feels that effective lobbying requires an understanding of how the system works and persistence. Being backed by the Conservancy's 64,000 avid members in New York (national membership is 760,000 strong) helps as well.

"A lot of my work is educational -- providing policymakers with an understanding of what's at stake while also suggesting realistic solutions," says Beers. "It can be a long and frustrating process but we can't succeed unless government at all levels also makes a commitment to protect the environment."

Emotional attachment

With a degree in international relations from Colgate and his Cornell masters, Beers spent three years with the state legislature working on the senate committee that handled hazardous waste issues. He also served as assistant commissioner of state parks during the last year of the Cuomo administration.

Beers lived in Ecology House at Colgate and traces the roots of his appreciation for the out-of-doors to family vacations in the Adiron-dacks. "I have a very deep emotional attachment to the land."

"I feel lucky to get paid," says Beers of his work with the Nature Conservancy. "I get to travel across the state seeing the incredible diversity of New York's natural landscape. To be able to work to protect these areas is exciting and very gratifying."

From French Creek in western New York to the pine barrens of eastern Long Island, from the Alpine ecosystem of the Adirondack high peaks to the limestone cliffs of the Shawangunk Ridge, all along the Hudson River valley and across Summit Lake Swamp, the Nature Conservancy is working to preserve flora and fauna -- osprey, bobcats, hognose snakes, spotted darters, dwarf wedge mussels, prairie smoke, spreading globeflower, graminoid fen, goat's rue and spicebush.

"As we pull species out of the link, it's like pulling rivets out of an airplane," says Beers. "If we live in a world where we can't make room for other species it would tell me we live in an impoverished world."

Andy Beers and Beth Meer know the richness of the natural world and they are working to ensure that their son Gus and the children of today's children can grow up in a world that is diverse and thriving.

Sludge

Beth Meer is up to her knees in sewage sludge. Well, not literally, but the figurative level is higher yet and she loves it.

As program coordinator for the Legislative Commission on Toxic Substances and Hazardous Wastes, Meer is involved with providing New York State lawmakers and agencies information to formulate laws and regulations.

"Commissions are the think tanks of the legislature," says Meer, who is surrounded by formidable stacks of regulations -- "an incredible volume of language," and for Beth Meer, whose master's thesis ran to 500 pages, that's saying something.

A biology major, Beth knew after her first day of classes at Colgate what her future would hold. "My freshman seminar was Ecology and Man with Ron Hoham. I went home and said I wanted to be an environmentalist."

Ecology has turned out to be more than a fad. Meer has worked as a park ranger out west, pounded the pavement in Washington, D.C. and was office manager for Friends of the Earth, all of which led to graduate school in natural resource policy and the weighty thesis on environmental mediation.

Meer's office in Albany's Empire Plaza, more specifically Agency Building Four, is heavy with the words that build a defense for the environment. And yet a complicated society demands detailed regulations, policies that are arduously arrived at, and it is Meer's charge to see the process through.

Policy inquiry begins with a study of applicable reports, an investigation of the economics, and an examination of comparable activities in other states and countries. Meer is particularly interested in "how we make decisions more democratic in a complex society" and to that end she has been involved in alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

Two months after the birth of her son Gus, now 18 months old (since Meer was on a six-month maternity leave, Gus attended many of the first meetings with her and, with help from grandma and dad, accompanied mom on all overnight trips. Beth continues her work on a part-time basis), Meer began an intensive, multi-party process to study biosolids. Various constituencies were interested in the reuse of sewage sludge as a soil amendment.

Since the enactment of the 1990 ban on ocean dumping, municipalities were faced with a growing problem. A heaping problem, actually. What to do with the sludge? Burn it? Landfill it? Dry it and turn the sludge into fertilizer pellets?

Raising the issues

"Sludge is fascinating," says Beth. "It raises all the issues. It is a fundamental but a forgotten topic. Flush. Thanks to the environmental movement and the Clean Water Act, thousands of sewage treatment plants have been built. But few people pay much attention to the fact that these plants produce a byproduct -- sludge -- that must be dealt with responsibly."

With funding to hire professionals the process began with round- table discussions. "The cost is in finding facilitators," says Meer. "You have to hire people who know what they are doing."

The convening process is critical and participants need to have a sense of ownership in the proceedings for ADR to work successfully. By the fall of 1994 interested parties were meeting to explore and debate the fine points of biosolids. Sludge even received the Samoan Circle treatment, a technique in which those with something to say take a chair in the center of the gathering rather than shouting comments from the back of the hall.

While participants in the large group were hearing one another out, a smaller problem-solving team began meeting last summer.

The result is a draft agreement -- as yet unsigned -- which contains detailed recommendations for regulations and more. The findings also urge the creation of an institution (financed by voluntary contributions from generators and processors of sludge) that would pursue biosolids research and fund pollution prevention.

"Developing legislation is time consuming. Passing it is even more time consuming," says Meer. "Some bills I drafted when I got here in 1990 still haven't passed but they have the potential to pass.

"I really like process. I'm fascinated with how people make decisions and I'm interested in how power is wielded. How to make it all more democratic I find endlessly fascinating. When you watch a bill enacted -- `Oh, it's law' -- it sobers you up."

Addressing the industrial, commercial and household contaminants found in sewage sludge has generated plenty of heat. The process also led Beth Meer back to campus where she spoke to science students and faculty about risk assessment.

"Science has to do with every part of environmental law," says Meer. "Science is a powerful tool to measure problems but the topic of my talk was how far can science take us in making decisions of public policy? Such decisions, by necessity, involve weighing uncertainty and making value judgments."

Beth Meer is engrossed by biosolids and she laughs at her enthusiasm ("People think Andy's job is sexy but this is sexy to me."), but she takes her work seriously, knowing full well its importance to what she holds dear.

"I love people and care about our quality of life. I love the natural environment and integrity.

It's hard to see what we've done to pollute our water and air. We'd better find a way to live in the world that is sustainable -- without fouling our nest. People talk a lot these days about the economic benefits of environmental protection, and that's valuable up to a point. I think it does come down to love."

And there are Beth Meer and Andy Beers, obligated and committed.

For information or to become a member write: The Nature Conservancy, New York Regional Office, 91 Broadway, Albany, NY 12204 (518-463-6133) or The Nature Conservancy, 1815 North Lynn St., Arlington, VA 22209.