Policy Analyst at the Association of State Wetland Managers — Marla Stelk

My Career as a Planner

Marla Stelk

I am a policy analyst at the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASMW) where I wear a lot of different hats. I do a lot of research on wetland policy and science. I facilitate interdisciplinary national expert work groups that assist us in identifying professional challenges, best practice recommendations and implementable solutions.

I also represent ASWM in various work groups such as the Advisory Committee on Water Information — Water Resources Adaptation to Climate Change Workgroup. I write reports, white papers, blogs, newsletter articles and I moderate three different educational webinar series.

I travel to professional conferences to give presentations, facilitate workshops, and build partnerships, and I travel fairly often to Washington, D.C., to coordinate our activities with federal agencies. I also lead our Communications Team which oversees our website, social media, direct email, newsletters, membership and webinars.

Is your career based on considered choices you planned or has it unfolded as part of a process you didn't necessarily foresee?

Neither really. In in many ways, my career has just come full cycle. I've always had multiple interests, but primarily I have focused on the environment, equity and the arts. I graduated from Colorado College in 1992 with a BA in Environmental Issues — mostly because everyone at that time was talking about all the great new career opportunities that would be opening up in the environmental field. There were few if any colleges at that time that offered environmental policy degrees. I knew that what I was interested in went beyond just the science — I was much more interested in sustainability planning. Back then the theory of "sustainable development" was fairly new in academic circles but it intrigued me and ever since then I have been in search of ways to achieve the triple bottom line.

After graduation, I was hired by Green Corps as a Field Office Director for their Boulder, Colorado office where I ran several environmental advocacy campaigns. In 1997, I worked for an environmental consulting firm for a short contract and helped to coordinate what I believe was the first forum on climate change held at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Afterward, I worked for an environmentally friendly product company. I then moved to the east coast in 1999 to take a different direction as an apprentice for a metal sculptor on Martha's Vineyard, where I eventually opened up my own metal sculpture studio.

In 2006, I moved to Maine where I worked for a social service agency before deciding to go to graduate school. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I could get a master's degree in planning — I honestly didn't even know it existed as a degree program until I looked over the graduate programs available at the Edward S. Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.

I think if I had known about the planning field after I graduated from college in '92 I would have gone directly into that field because it really tied together all my interests. After receiving my master's degree in Community Planning & Development (with a focus on land use and the environment) I was hired right away by the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM). I did not immediately feel that it was a great fit for me, but since then I have learned about all of the amazing ecosystem services provided by wetlands and have discovered that they are critical resources for achieving sustainable development. So here I am full circle now working in the field of environmental policy and planning, exploring ways to achieve the triple bottom line.

Career Influences

What skills and personality traits lend themselves to success in your field?

Environmental policy and planning careers require someone who can take complicated science and effectively communicate it to inform management and policy. Folks interested in this line of work need to be interdisciplinary in the way in which they think and in their backgrounds. They need to be creative, good listeners, and able to ask constructive questions — in other words, deep thinkers that can identify gaps in our understanding and the right levers to pull to create change. We may not be technical experts, but we understand what the tools can do and have the ability to see things from the 10,000 perspective and develop holistic solutions to current challenges.

And maybe most importantly, you have to have a good sense of humor and the ability to "ride the rollercoaster" as my boss would say. Environmental policy has historically been and continues to be controversial and yet so critical to ensure the health, safety and quality of life for future generations. Many times we lose and often it feels like we are constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. So anyone interested in this field needs to be able to find healthy ways to relieve stress, rejuvenate themselves and celebrate the victories, large and small.

What has been the best surprise in your career?

That it's okay to not know all the answers. I have met a lot of very successful professionals who are considered experts in their field who don't know everything — and they will easily admit it. What they do have is confidence that they can figure it out, an eagerness to continue learning and an open mind to new ideas.

Looking back, what might you do differently?

I would have gone to graduate school sooner. It was challenging to be a returning student in my 40s. Many of my fellow students were either straight out of their undergraduate program or very recently, and so their technical skills were much more advanced than mine. Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds since I graduated in the early '90s so I had a very steep learning curve to keep up with my peers in class.

Environmental Policy and Planning as a Career

What do you enjoy most about your current role?

What I enjoy the most is the knowledge that, in some small way, I am making a positive contribution for the future sustainability of the planet. I also enjoy networking with diverse professionals and facilitating partnerships and collaborations. I enjoy bringing together interdisciplinary groups to leverage each other's knowledge and experience, brainstorm new ideas and find workable solutions. I enjoy the fact that every day I continue to learn something new.

The hardest part of my job is the sense of despair I sometimes come to — reading all the negative news stories and scientific journal articles that illustrate just how much damage we have wrought on the earth — at times it is overwhelming. With great knowledge comes great responsibility as they say, and sometimes the weight of it is unbearable. But at the same time that is most often what motivates me — I love a good challenge and finding that sweet spot at the intersection of the triple bottom line is the carrot at the end of the stick for me.

How has your perception of planning changed since you first entered the field?

I have realized that planning careers can be very diverse in nature. At first I thought I'd either have to work for a consulting firm or local government — both of which often require advanced technical skills. Since my technical skills were not as good as my younger fellow graduate students, I was afraid that I would have a very hard time finding a job. But what I discovered was that in many ways, planning is a frame of mind. It requires a person to be able to think long-term into the future, and simultaneously be able to apply lessons learned from history. It requires a person to be able to communicate well, engage stakeholders, facilitate discussions and solve problems. I didn't realize when I entered graduate school that it was such a progressive, interdisciplinary career.

Career Advice

What advice do you have for someone who hopes to find a job similar to yours?

Having an advanced degree, either a masters or a PhD is essential. But so is life experience. Don't be afraid to get involved in a variety of areas either as a volunteer, an intern or an employee. Try on several hats and see what fits — you'll pick up a lot of useful experiences along the way and every new experience will open new doors.

Network, network, network. Even though you may be shy, keep trying and eventually it will come naturally. Effective communication and listening skills are critical to almost any job. The more you put yourself out there in front of people and work with them, the better chances you'll have of being hired when a position becomes available.

What is the biggest planning-related hurdle you've faced in recent years and how was it dealt with?

The biggest planning-related hurdle I have faced in recent years is climate change. It's one of those topics that can trigger passionate responses on both sides of the political fence. Finding ways to get beyond the debate and establish common ground is challenging and much of the solution has to do with finding ways to effectively communicate an extremely complicated science in ways in which laypersons can understand and relate to. Planning for an uncertain climatic future is extremely difficult as it will impact every ecosystem on earth — and the future health of our communities and our economy will depend on how we address the challenge of climate change.

Schools and Education

Colorado College, BA in Environmental Issues.

Edward S. Muskie School of Public Service, University of Southern Maine, MA in Community Planning & Development.

First planning job:

Policy Analyst, Association of State Wetland Managers