Boundary Spanning Leadership: Environmental Advocacy in the Chesapeake

By: Elizabeth Hurley

June marks the midway point for VA Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resource students. In the XMNR program, students develop leadership, management, and administrative skills to achieve sustainability goals. Students spend the first half of the year developing and applying leadership skills to local sustainability challenges. During the summer, students expand their view and practice to include regional issues.

At our June meeting, students examine environmental advocacy and the ways in which groups can influence and prompt change using various tactics and approaches. Advocacy is one of the most important and powerful tools for accomplishing sustainability goals. However, rather than being a single tool, advocacy is a collection of tools that can be brought to bear depending on the situation, the goal, and the nature of the advocacy target. Students view some of those tools through the eyes of panelists who are actively engaged in environmental advocacy. Students also use the lens of advocacy coalitions to make sense of how groups come together to advocate and better understand how they might use advocacy in a situation they face in their own work.

This year, the Chesapeake Bay watershed served as a regional focus. XMNR faculty member Joe Maroon opened the June meeting with a discussion of the Chesapeake Bay’s current health. He shared the progress that has been made in addressing challenges such as air pollution, damming, and climate change, noting “the next 10 years will be challenging. The easy stuff is done. We need people to do more, not less.” Mr. Maroon brings to the classroom his 30 years of experience as an environmental advocate. For 16 years, he served as the Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In this position he was the Bay’s lead advocate and worked to pass several laws that form the foundation for many of the programs and much of the progress we currently see.

Mr. Maroon emphasized the power of advocacy in addressing environmental issues by facilitating a panel discussion and by pointing out that “in state government, you can be an advocate; as a funder you can be an advocate – it’s really how you approach your job.” The panel included representatives from organizations that work at the national, regional, and local levels and that use a variety of approaches toward advocacy. Panel members included:

  • Nat Mund, Director of Federal Affairs at the Washington DC office for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which uses the power of the law to champion the environment in the southeast.
  • Michael Town, Executive Director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which advocates for sound environmental law and policies by holding elected officials accountable for their votes and actions and by working to elect pro-environment candidates.
  • Monica Billger, Northern Virginia Advocacy Manager for the Audubon Naturalist Society, which helps residents of the greater Washington DC region appreciate, understand, and protect their natural environment through outdoor experiences, education, and advocacy.

Joe Maroon said, “Environmental advocacy is about working to affect policy to bring about positive change in environmental matters.” To have a bigger impact, environmental advocates often work closely with diverse coalitions of individuals and organizations. Building an effective coalition to address complicated and often-controversial problems can be a challenging endeavor. To help students develop the competencies to build effective advocacy coalitions, Eric Eckl, founder of Water Words that Work and a regular XMNR faculty, coached students on effective communication in potentially contentious situations. Faculty member Jerry Abrams introduced students to boundary spanning leadership, an approach that enables groups to work together for a common purpose.

Over the coming month, students will examine possible climate change adaptation strategies to meet the challenge of sea-level rise. Paul Wagner, from the US Army Corps of Engineers, led students in a discussion of climate impacts and adaptation strategies in the Chesapeake Bay region, sharing his experience working on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and with local communities and interagency initiatives. Specifically, Dr. Wagner worked with a tribal task force of state and local leaders, helping them identify opportunities for adaptation and, in turn, helping the federal government understand their funding and policy barriers and data and information needs.

Students will apply what they have learned about the Chesapeake Bay, advocacy, communication strategies, boundary spanning leadership, and climate change adaptation to the issue of sea-level rise in the Hampton Roads region of the Bay. Sea-level rise is a threat to this region’s municipalities and communities. However, the adaptation strategy best suited to meet this challenge is not necessarily a foregone conclusion among the diverse stakeholders. Working as a team, students will conduct a stakeholder analysis, identify appropriate boundary spanning leadership tactics, and propose strategies that will allow a coalition in the Hampton Roads region to advocate for adaptation in response to sea-level rise. Throughout the process, to support their efforts, students will have access to climate data/reports and XMNR faculty and experts.


Elizabeth Hurley is an alumnus of Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program and is now a faculty member with the program. As an instructor with Fairfax County Public Schools, she taught IB Environmental Systems and Societies, an interdisciplinary, college-level course that addresses a wide range of environmental issues from a systems perspective. Previously, she worked as an environmental economist at SAIC, where she conducted cost-benefit analyses for the EPA’s stormwater and drinking water programs. Elizabeth holds a B.A. in Economics from Virginia Tech and an M.S. in Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics from the University of Maryland.


The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks XMNR student Allie Dore for permission to use her photographs.