Well Connected: Chris Meaney '00 Stays "Interconnected" with the Natural World

Well Connected: Chris Meaney '00 Stays "Interconnected" with the Natural World

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Senior NOAA Policy Advisor Nurtured His Passion at UNH

Chris Meaney ’00, on right, at the entrance to the EcoQuest program’s facility in New Zealand.

In The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck writes about our interconnectedness with the natural world, stating, “[…] all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

Christopher Meaney ’00 has done just that.

As a child growing up in coastal Connecticut, Meaney’s playground of youth was the ecotone where shore meets ocean. “The foundation for my conservation ethic was established in the tidal pools of Long Island Sound,” he says. This early love for the coast and ocean would later inform many of his decisions regarding educational pursuits and, ultimately, guide him to a position as a Senior Policy Advisor to Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator.

Meaney’s passion for conservation extends far beyond our waterways. He has approached life with eyes wide open in appreciation for the natural world. Such awareness at an early age, and an influential vacation in the Granite State, led him to pursue an undergraduate education at the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). It was autumn in the White Mountains when Meaney’s parents drove him through Franconia Notch where maple leaves shimmer like fire jewels against the yellow canopies of slender birches. The majestic Old Man of the Mountain had not yet crumbled. “I fell in love with the area,” says Meaney, “and knew I wanted to go back.”

Familiar with COLSA’s reputation for a strong curriculum in the department of Natural Resources and the Environment, Meaney declared an Environmental Conservation major with an ecology focus. “I met great, like-minded folks who wanted to better understand the natural world and pursue efforts to work on natural resource issues,” says Meaney who was profoundly influenced by his educational experiences at the college. He studied with Dr. Mimi Larsen Becker and recalls that her environmental policy course was instrumental to his “understanding of the importance and evolution of policies and regulations affecting society and the natural world.”

Later, he was introduced to contemporary conservation biology theories in a course taught by Dr. Kimberly Babbitt ‘84. “She challenged us to apply those theories to what was happening in the world around us,” says Meaney who was awarded a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) to work further with Babbitt. Together they developed a study that investigated amphibian species richness in southern New Hampshire wetlands. “Through that experience, I strengthened my grasp of research methodologies and design, applied concepts learned in the classroom to the field, and sharpened my critical thinking capabilities,” says Meaney.

One of the most influential components of Meaney’s undergraduate education came in 1999 with the opportunity to be a pioneer in UNH’s initial EcoQuest program of applied field studies in New Zealand. For the first time, he found himself living far from home along the coast of Tikapa Moana/the Firth of Thames across from the rugged hills of the Coromandel Peninsula. There, EcoQuest’s facility shares the sacred land for which two Māori tribes are the tangata whenua or spiritual and material guardians.

In this unique landscape and elsewhere throughout New Zealand, Meaney and his fellow students studied ecology and natural resource policy and management. And they conducted research that emphasized, in process and result, our indisputable interconnectedness. “The directed research project was a very powerful experience in many ways. My teammates and I conducted research with a family-run marine mussel aquaculture farm. I remember staying up late and waking up early in order to continue our counting of juvenile mussels in a small garage that, at the time, served as one of the labs at EcoQuest. When you spend so much time together, you really get to know folks and understand what it means to work as a team. Together, we brought boundless energy and heaps of motivation to almost every aspect of our lives at EcoQuest,” says Meaney about this experience that advanced his interest in a career focusing on the connection between humans and the natural world. He recalls as transformative the experience of “identifying a research question, working side-by-side with the fishermen to conduct the research to help answer that question, and knowing that, in the end, the result could possibly help a local family’s business flourish.”

“At EcoQuest, I was able to take an in-depth look at policy and management concepts, identify issues and problems and debate ideas in a small classroom with my peers and teachers. We then were able to go out into the community or field to see how all these things were being applied. That was amazing. By the end of my EcoQuest experience, I felt certain that I would continue to study natural resources,” says Meaney. And he did. After traveling throughout the western United States and volunteering with the Nature Conservancy, Meaney stayed in Alaska where, he says, “I worked with a small non-profit association of subsistence and commercial fishers with a mission of protecting and promoting all healthy fisheries and cultures along the Yukon River drainage.”

His collective experiences mounted to a clearer understanding of how he wanted to be involved in conservation efforts. “The beauty of the US, and my previous experiences, drove me to complete a master’s in natural resources law and policy,” says Meaney. “I wanted to pursue a career where I could be closer to the decision making process and to have a greater role in effecting change.” He enrolled in the Environmental Management master’s program at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and, during that time, became a recipient of a Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, which led to his securing a position as a Marine Habitat Resource Specialist with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Habitat Conservation. “The main focus of my work was the implementation of the essential fish habitat provisions of the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act—the Nation’s primary law governing marine fisheries management in United States federal waters,” says Meaney, “and I also assisted the Office with efforts to incorporate climate change considerations into regional and national conservation programs.”

Later, he moved into a policy advising role at NOAA, where he now provides research, policy analysis, and fiscal advice on major policies and initiatives associated with federal marine fisheries management. “I interact with various constituent groups and many different federal agencies on national policies,” says Meaney whose work influences habitat conservation efforts, aquaculture, commercial fisheries, recreational fishing, and more.

In spite of a demanding schedule, Meaney takes the time to remain connected to his friends and colleagues in the Environmental Conservation major at UNH. He makes an effort to keep in touch with his former professors because, as he says, “I really give them credit for holding me to the highest standards and for pushing me to challenge myself to succeed.”

Meaney plans to come back for a reunion and share his perspective with current students on graduate school, travel, and his experiences working for the federal government. In considering imparting some words of wisdom regarding sustainability, he takes into account the interconnectedness of all living things. “When working on issues that involve natural resources, it is especially important to understand the social component, how personal, community and cultural values motivate people and how these values shape decision-making. If you can take these into account, you will be able to develop fair and effective solutions to these issues. It sounds simple, but it is all too often overlooked,” says Meaney. “Looking forward, there will be no short fall of challenges and plenty of work to be done. Be sure to challenge yourself in whatever you do. Know that problems will be complex, and when things seem almost impossible that’s when people really have the opportunity to shine.”

Meaney offers a rare gift in being able to look from the tide pool to the stars—with their ineffable shine—and back to the tide pool again, with confidence that the illumination reflected there belongs to and benefits us all.