Abby Fateman ’89
Executive Director, East Contra Costa County
Habitat Conservancy

Q: You’ve been with the East Contra Costa County Habitat Conservancy since 2002. Tell us about the focus of your organization and what it does for the region. 
A: The East Contra Costa County Habitat Conservancy implements parts of the Endangered Species Act in our region. We partner with other agencies to buy open space. We also restore and manage this land with the goal of conserving and recovering threatened and endangered species. Our organization has taken over permitting for impacts to endangered species habitat from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. We coordinate the mitigation that happens in the region for developers so that these conservation actions are completed in a strategic and coordinated way, resulting in a greater net benefit for all endangered species in our area. The work I do is a combination of mitigation for impacts and straight conservation.  

Q: Have you always been interested in environmental conservation?
A: My career didn’t start out in environmental work. My first job out of college was as an intern in Washington, D.C. with the Children’s Defense Fund where I was involved in political lobbying on social issues. After that, I worked for a conservation corps in Alaska and then later at the East Bay Conservation Corps in Oakland. I really enjoyed the diversity of activities working at a conservation corps. I was involved with job training programs for young people, education, social services and environmental conservation projects. After working at the East Bay Conservation Corps for a few years, I realized that if I wanted to progress in my career, I needed to choose between social services or environmental work. I ultimately decided to return to school, ten years after finishing my undergraduate degree, and get a master’s degree in environmental policy. 

Q: What are some of the endangered species that your agency looks out for?
A: There are quite a number of endangered and special status species in Contra Costa County and we target 28 for conservation through our program. We have the California red-legged frog, the California tiger salamander, the San Joaquin kit fox, Swainson’s hawks, and golden eagles. We focus on conserving habitat for all sorts of interesting species of plants and animals. Many of them have different habitat needs. This region is very interesting in that it encompasses parts of three different ecosystems: Central Valley, Delta and Mount Diablo Range. I work to conserve land to protect important habitats and the species that depend on them.

Q: Do you have a personal favorite for which you’re
an advocate?   
A: All of these species are just fascinating. I’m partial to the vernal pool fairy shrimp, which are perhaps less charismatic than frogs! Fairy shrimp live in shallow wetlands called vernal pools. Their eggs are actually cysts and are more like plant seeds. These cysts persist in dry pools. When the rains start and vernal pools fill, that starts the lifecycle for fairy shrimp. When the cysts are saturated in water for about ten days, they hatch. The shrimp can go through their entire life cycle in as little as 30 days. Then the shrimp die when the pools dry up, leaving only cysts behind. I’m often asked why fairy shrimp are important and what purpose they serve. We don’t know yet exactly what the purpose is of some of these animals in our ecosystem, and that’s okay. I think it is more important to ask, “Who are we to decide what has value and what doesn’t?” Until we can definitively answer that question, we need to value everything. 

Q: What are some of the specific projects that you’ve been excited about recently?
A: There are always exciting things happening. Buying and conserving land always feels like a win. Being one of the first biologists to go out on the land to explore and document the natural resources is an adventure. This past summer we had a big push to complete a series of pond dam repairs. In late 2016 and early 2017 this region experienced some huge winter storms and a number of dams of older, large stock ponds collapsed. These are ponds that were constructed by ranchers 50 plus years ago for cattle water. Over time, these ponds have become the main breeding areas for California red-legged frogs and California tiger salamanders. While these ponds are pretty and scenic, they also play a critically important role in managing our natural resources. They provide stock water for cattle, and in turn the cattle help keep our rangelands healthy and help reduce fuel loads in our fire-prone landscape. These ponds also are primary breeding habitats for our endemic endangered amphibians.

Q: What do you find the most rewarding about the work you’re doing?
A: It’s really important for me to see the tangible, positive impact of the work I do. I grew up in Berkeley and now live in Contra Costa County. When I drive around the area, I can see the land that I have helped conserve. It feels good to know that I am part of the team of people conserving the landscape that really defines this region—rolling hills, creeks that run through secluded valleys, and ridgelines that provide epic views. When I see a hawk fly overhead, I know that I was part of conserving habitat for that bird.  

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in environmental conservation today?
A: I think the hardest thing that the environmental movement is facing is how to get people to change their behavior. How do you move people out of their cars into public transit? To live in smaller houses? To use cloth bags instead of plastic bags? To reduce waste? People are slow to change habits, even if it’s making very small changes. We need to bring people together for a common goal. In my field, no one person or agency can really own all of the victories that we’ve had in the Bay Area around conservation. For example, for us to complete a restoration project we need biologists, land acquisition specialists, grant writers, range managers, botanists, and construction crews. There are so many organizations, funding streams, and people running campaigns to help raise funds to conserve land. The victory is really everybody working together to get to the finish line.

Q: Thinking back to your time at College Prep, what comes to mind about your time there?
A: I would say it was hard. I was challenged and held accountable for my work much more than any other time in my academic career. The teachers held us to high standards and made sure that we understood how to do things properly. Certainly, having a solid foundation in writing, public speaking, logic, math, and science concepts hammered into me has absolutely paid off. These skills have remained relevant and have served me well, not only through academic activities, but also through my professional life. 

Q: Do you have any words of advice for current students making their way through College Prep?
A: I think maybe it’s a lesson for life, and that is you don’t have to decide right now what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Where you go to college or what you major in does not determine everything in your future. While at Prep, make sure you learn the skills that will allow you to explore the world and find your place in it. It’s important to figure out what you’re excited and passionate about and pursue it. I remember feeling like when I was applying to college that my life depended on it, or that if I didn’t get into certain schools and if I didn’t major in a specific subject then I would somehow be a failure. You can let go of that. We all can take our time and find our own path getting to a career or place in life where we are happy.

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