From wetland ecology to citizen science, the Moore Inclusive Conservation Lab is swamped

Ecologist Dr. Alex Moore has researched habitats from salt marshes in New England to mangroves in American Samoa. Wherever they go though, they always get their feet wet — or at least their research collaborators do.

Moore is an assistant professor in the botany and forestry department and leader of the Moore Inclusive Conservation Lab. While they don’t do much field work themselves anymore, their work looks to disrupt old assumptions about how wetlands function — and about whose knowledge matters in ecological research.

What is a wetland?

Though the term is seemingly self-explanatory, Moore said the definition can vary. All wetlands though include soils and plants adapted to high levels of water.

“Beyond that,” Moore said, “there's no one answer to what a wetland is because there's so many different kinds.”

The diversity of wetlands can be seen in the Lower Mainland. Burns Bog in Delta is characterized by abundant Sphagnum peat mosses and acidic conditions. There are also human-made storm drainage ponds in your neighborhood (which are shallow open water wetlands) and estuarine marshes along the Fraser River.

But, development has stigmatized these unique ecosystems as muddy, dangerous and useless. Wetlands worldwide are shrinking dramatically — but we need their services more than ever.

Wetlands sequester tons of carbon in their soggy soils. According to the US National Ocean Service (NOAA), a healthy wetland can store three to five times more carbon as an equal area of tropical forests.

After years of draining these habitats for agriculture and development projects, now the question is how they can be restored.

From top-down...

In their work on New England salt marshes, Moore examined how food web interactions between species could impact coastal wetland health.

“Early coastal wetland research … indicated that the physical features [were] far more important in terms of regulating the health of the coastal system,” they said.

This is called “bottom-up” control, where plant-soil interactions and abiotic (nonliving) factors are the main factors in regulating the ecosystem. For a long time, nobody questioned it.

Moore studied the opposite; “top-down” effects where predators have strong impacts on the ecosystem.

So which is stronger? Top-down or bottom-up effects? Well, it depends. Some habitats will have greater top-down control while some might favour bottom up and others may have a mix of both.

“[A] combination of the two is pretty common,” Moore said. “So it does really depend on the context and that will vary from place to place.”

To bottom-up

Just as wetlands vary from place to place, so do the people that live with them. For Moore, valuing local relationships with wetlands are a crucial piece in how they conduct research.

This is also a break from tradition.

“Local communities and folks who have been on the land for much longer than we have been researching on the land have a lot of important knowledge but also have a right to be engaged in the [research] process,” Moore said.

Many environmental movements were established to protect natural environments from human interference, failing to acknowledge the important and long standing management done by local communities and Indigenous groups. Yet evidence has shown that many ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest are a result of human management.

Similar to the ecological term, some scholars have described conventional conservation approaches as being “top-down” — where governing bodies make the decisions regarding a habitat’s management and local communities must adapt accordingly. Moore questions common conservation practices just as they had bottom-up and top-down ecology.

“I don't think that folks engaged in the research are volunteers, I think that they are collaborators in the work, which means that they take equal part in the direction that things go.” One of the ways Moore does this is by asking communities what research would be valuable to them and asking communities how they would like to be compensated for their contributions.

In their research lab, Moore aims to build a team that also shares their values. The Moore Inclusive Conservation Lab website opens to the heading; “protecting nature by empowering local communities.”

“Doing good conservation work requires that you build solid relationships with community organizations, and community partners, and those kinds of things can take some time,” Moore said. “Invest in building those connections and those relationships will go a long way.