Thursday, April 13, 2023

Robbie Fearn and
The Pine Island Sanctuary:

Catalyzing Coastal Resilience in A Community
Where Change is the Only Constant

During our Coastal Resilience trip to North Carolina’s famed Outer Banks this past fall, we were privileged to visit the Donal C. O’Brien Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center at Pine Island and meet with Center Director Robbie Fearn. Following the visit, I had a chance to speak with Fearn in greater detail about the vital work he’s leading at Pine Island and get his insights into the challenges and opportunities facing coastal resilience efforts. For Fearn, it’s absolutely essential that we look at the intersection of how both nature and humanity are shaping the landscape, and resist any attempt to see these dimensions as separate: “The cultural concept of how we live on the coast has to address both, or it’s a failure.” And as Fearn has learned in his near decade at Pine Island, you won’t get anywhere without the community’s support and participation. Read on to discover more about what’s happening at Pine Island, and three critical ways Fearn is unlocking community engagement.

Robbie Fearn at Pine Island Lodge. Photo courtesy of Audubon.

A Living Laboratory for Coastal Resilience

As a conservation center for Audubon North Carolina, Pine Island serves many purposes including habitat management and preservation, on-site educational programming, and a recreational destination. Most notably for purposes of Coastal Resilience, Pine Island is being used as a “living laboratory,” providing an opportunity for scientists and policymakers alike to explore the best ways to face the challenges ahead. As Center Director Robbie Fearn sees it, “Our focus is really figuring out how we manage this rapidly changing environment for the benefit of the wildlife that uses it most, particularly the birds, but also for the benefit of people and our society that is living here in these rapidly changing coastal environments.” Current interventions target two key goals: reducing wave energy so that marsh islands better survive storms and artificially elevating the land to ensure islands long endure.

The work carries an urgency for Fearn, who underscored: “This is where the rubber hits the road in terms of change. And if we don’t assist marshes to move up the slope and move inland, then we won’t have the marshes in the environment that all the wildlife depend upon.” One way or another, certain marshes will of course disappear. And then eventually, they’ll reappear elsewhere, as the landscape continues its ceaseless transformation. But how and when they change is something we can’t ignore, for the sake of both the natural and human worlds calling the islands home.

Marsh Wren photographed by Ramkumar Subramanian / Audubon Photography Awards
Marsh Wren photographed by Ramkumar Subramanian / Audubon Photography Awards
The question for Fearn is:
“How do we manage those landscapes so they endure long enough that new landscapes like them can take hold - whether naturally or manmade - to allow the entire ecosystem to shift?”

It’s a unique challenge, in part because it’s unfolding on a landscape that is unlike any other. The Pine Island Sanctuary, a 2,600 acre respite of natural beauty and discovery tucked between the towns of Duck and Corolla, lies in the middle of the Currituck Sound. Situated along the Atlantic Flyway, it’s a critical habitat where migrating birds can rest and restore their resources during their long journeys up and down the coast. Notably, the habitat is as unique as it is essential, thanks to centuries of shifting waters and sands constantly reshaping the Currituck Sound, with its last inlet to the ocean closing off about 200 years ago. Since then, it has developed to become the only freshwater sound in the Outer Banks System.1 The resulting ecosystem in and around the Currituck Sound is a dynamic interplay of habitats and species, which has attracted and inspired countless fishers, waterfowl hunters, kayakers, birdwatchers, biologists, and conservationists over the years.

Indeed, this unique intermingling of purposes and people lends further distinction and complexity to the Outer Banks community as a whole and Pine Island specifically. Pine Island is not only a sanctuary for birds and their habitats, it’s also located within one of America’s oldest managed waterfowl hunting grounds, dating back to a land grant from the crown to one Abraham Baum in 1714. Beyond the sanctuary, eleventh generation fishing families, nomadic surf bums, wealthy vacationers, and others rely on the islands for their livelihoods, their passions, and their retreats. Connecting with such a vast spectrum of perspectives and priorities, and even finding common ground toward addressing the challenges ahead, may just be Fearn’s superpower.

A Man Made For This Moment

Robbie Fearn spent most of his childhood in what was then a fairly sleepy Raleigh, North Carolina, where his life was defined by two pursuits: community theater and enjoying the great outdoors, both of which came to shape his pathway as an adult and eventually land him right here on Pine Island. After graduating from UNC Greensboro with a theater degree, Fearn landed a job with The Lost Colony, an iconic outdoor theater tradition that’s been running continuously every summer on the Outer Banks since 1937. Fearn spent about 15 years as part of The Lost Colony production, from “being the dead body to… assistant director.” It was during those years in the Outer Banks that Fearn met and married his wife, Pamela. Together, they developed a passion for the natural world around them, moving from volunteering to ultimately co-founding what became the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) in the mid-1990s. The transition from theater to environmental nonprofit was a natural progression for Fearn, who says “I was tired of spending all my time indoors creating imaginary worlds when what brought me joy was just being outdoors.”

Robbie Fearn. Photo courtesy of Audubon.
Robbie Fearn. Photo courtesy of Audubon.

Fearn later earned his Master of Environmental Science at Antioch University in New England and went on to serve as Director of the Cape Wildlife Center on Cape Cod and later as Executive Director of the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2013, when given a chance to return to the Outer Banks and take over as Center Director for the Pine Island Sanctuary, the personal and professional opportunity was impossible to pass up.

A World Defined By Change

Fearn defines resilience as: “the ability of our system to respond to changes over time successfully so that we’re not reducing the wonder of the environment.” Echoing the ever shifting inlets that formed the Currituck Sound over the centuries, change has been in the DNA of the Outer Banks themselves and in the spirits of the disparate stakeholders who call them home. For example, the 800 acres of upland in the Sanctuary that today are relatively mature maritime forests would have been just shrubs and open space during Fearn’s youth. The people who live here not only see and accept change as a part of life, many of them are actively attracted to and energized by the endless transformation of the Outer Banks.

Pine island aerial. Photo courtesy of Audubon.
Pine island aerial. Photo courtesy of Audubon.

So while in some corners of the world, it’s an uphill battle to persuade people that climate change is happening at all, here in the Outer Banks, the real work is in helping people recognize that change can become a problem. Helping people “understand that the rate of change is changing, and that the rate of change has become so quick that now you’re going to be losing something important to you” has been at the heart of Fearn’s work. Because without the buy-in, support, and engagement of that community, implementing the necessary changes will be dead in the water. As Fearn notes, “Community is where the decisions are made.”

Three Keys to Unlocking Community Engagement

  1. Sharing Stories. In his role as Center Director, Fearn has the opportunity to meet and form relationships with a vast spectrum of people and organizations. Legislators on both sides of the aisle, members of groups from the John Birch Society to the Coastal Federation, all have found their way to Pine Island. Building partnerships requires “stepping out of the charged environment and into a one-on-one of ‘Who are you? Who am I? What do we both care about?’” Sometimes, finding that common ground can be surprisingly simple, as Fearn can tell you: “Everybody has a bird story.” And it’s those personal stories and the shared humanity they reveal that provide the opening toward finding shared visions for the world around them.
  2. Identifying the Impact. The moment of truth in these relationships comes when Fearn is able to ask: “Well, what have you lost in the last few years that you wish you hadn’t lost? And why did that happen?” It may be a lifelong duck hunter who has detected the loss of the sandy bottom on the Sound and is able to see how rapid erosion and loss of grass habitats are causing that. It may be a resort operator who is connecting the dots between flooded out roads and a loss of tourist business, or a fifth generation fisherman seeing their stock dwindle. But ultimately, Fearn says, people see that “the rate of change being so extreme is causing them to lose something they don’t want to lose.” And that’s when understanding can lead to action.
  3. Planting Seeds. Fearn recognizes that these community conversations are time-intensive, and it can sometimes take a couple years of conversation to get there. But they’re an essential means of planting seeds: “If we can get enough people in the community to be thinking about these issues and understanding these issues, then they’re sharing them with their cohorts. And we’re creating community change in that way.”

Reaping the Benefits of Community Engagement

And indeed, those changing attitudes are becoming evident at individual and organizational levels. Whereas a decade ago many were reluctant to even discuss the issue, today elected officials, local government employees, and community leaders accept “that the rate of change is unsustainable for the way we’re living on the landscape now.” As employees and government officials recognize that they have to get ahead of the rapid change that’s unfolding, they’re putting the impact of change at the top of their list when making decisions about where and how to invest in their communities, from storm water to transportation infrastructure.

Pine Island marshes. Photo by Robert Fearn.
Pine Island marshes. Photo by Robert Fearn.

And at a broader level, stakeholders are coming together to be proactive in protecting the Outer Banks. The clearest example of this is the creation of the Currituck Sound Coalition, a group of NGOs and governments in the area coming together “to create shared goals for what we’re all going to do together and creating dialogue about the challenges facing the community.” Late last year, the Coalition released a landmark Marsh Conservation Plan, outlining an audacious but actionable blueprint for protecting the ecosystem for the people and the wildlife who depend on it. It’s a huge step forward for the Currituck Sound and the people and wildlife that call it home.

A Hopeful Vision for the Future

Looking ahead, Fearn believes we can continue to tap into that shared human impulse to do right by each other and the world around us. He leaves me pondering an existential but hopeful question: “How do we move compassionately toward a future that we all share in that has brightness as opposed to one of darkness?” It’s a question one can’t help but ponder when looking out upon the rare and bracing beauty of the Currituck Sound itself.

1 Learn more about the unique dynamics of Currituck Sound here.

Main image Wood Duck photographed by Teri Franzen / Audubon Photography. Audubon Photography Awards.

Article Written By:
MAS '23

Sustainable Strategy & Innovation Consulting

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