This month as part of our 50 Stories for our 50th we are sharing stories from one of the Alliance’s most beloved annual events, The Chesapeake Watershed Forum. The Forum is a space for like-minded individuals to get together and share successful tools and techniques, offer lessons and learning from on-the-ground work, build capacities of local organizations, foster partnerships, educate on new initiatives and emerging practices, network amount each other, and celebrate our successes. The following blog is by our one and only, Rebecca Wertime. Rebecca has been a part of pulling off this major event since its birth in 2006.

How it All Began:

The Chesapeake Watershed Forum was born out of a series of “Listening Sessions” held by the National Park Service (NPS) across the watershed to determine the needs of local watershed groups in the realm of watershed planning. Wink Hastings (NPS) and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay hosted the Mason Dixon Dialogue in August 2005 and it was through these discussions with watershed activists on both sides of the Maryland/Pennsylvania line that the idea of an annual gathering to exchange ideas and information with policy leaders and watershed groups throughout the Bay watershed was born. 

That first year, the outcome was unknown. Wink volunteered to help find funding and the Alliance began to coordinate the process needed to create the event. The planning team consisted of representatives from Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, River Network, funding entities, and local watershed organizations. The purpose of the event was to provide an annual opportunity for watershed organizations and local government officials from around the multi-state Bay region to learn the latest scientific techniques in Bay restoration and protection, address specific organizational capacity building needs, focus on regional and watershed-wide needs, network with other watershed organizations, and enjoy the beauty of the watershed.

The Chesapeake Watershed Forum was held November 17-19, 2006 at National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. (The National Park Service Gateways Program partnership gave the opportunity for the Alliance for the Chesapeake and its non-profit partners to hold the Forum at NCTC.) Nearly 300 gathered from around the watershed, the largest representation from Maryland. The theme was “Planning to Implementation”. The keynote speaker was Peter Forbes, Executive Director of the Center for Whole Communities. Forty sessions were offered in 8 topic tracks: Emerging Issues, Watershed Science, Communicating the Message, Watershed Planning & Policies, Collaboration, Organizational Development, Fundraising, and Commuter Labs/Field Trips. The final plenary offered Sunday morning (November 19) was the Funders Forum and office hours. 

Rebecca’s Recollections (behind the scenes):

Behind the scenes at the first forum in 2006

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has provided the event coordination since the inception of the watershed forum. Lou Etgen (MD) and Deborah Rudy (PA) were the main staff personnel with me as the assistant. The Alliance provided the in-house design of the event booklet at that time as well as creating and sending out event press releases. Event registration was in paper form and registrants were entered into an Excel spreadsheet. I do not recall who assisted us at the registration table but I do believe it was the planning team members.

More behind the scenes of pulling off the forum! Pictured is Deb Rudy. She was the Alliance support person in 2006 and 2007 and I was her understudy.

After the 2007 Chesapeake Watershed Forum several key changes occurred. I became the main staff support replacing Debby. The registration form went from paper to on-line. The event booklet was sent to a printing company for layout of the contents with the folder cover continued to be designed in-house. The River Network provided the first online platform for the workshop session request for proposal along with guidance on the evaluation forms (both event and session). My major focus became more registration-directed even I knew (and know) many of the moving parts in planning the event.

In 2008 the registration form was set up to gather the information that would lead to the creation of the Chesapeake Network. The keynote speaker in 2007, Marty Kearns, presented on emerging strategies for reaching and engaging audiences. The intent of the Network was a communication tool to capture and continue the discussions that had occurred in the NCTC hallways throughout the year.

Many other changes have come into being since 2006 and all for the good. The technological advancements have made the Watershed Forum a keystone event. The poster session was added that includes the next generation of new professionals. The planning team members have brought insightful expertise to the table and the Forum would not be where it is today without them. The Alliance staff is encouraged to participate as well as provide much-needed staff support.

In closing, I view the Watershed Forum as a train on the railroad tracks. The Forum director is in the front car (the engine) guiding and directing and with the planning team and Alliance staff in the various cars behind helping to move the train forward. I am always thrilled to match the face with the name behind the registration table at NCTC and feel the excitement grow and build throughout the event. It is my hope we will be able to return to an in-person event so we can network and share together the many tools and techniques of restoring and protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

Interested in registering for this year’s Forum? It’s not too late. Learn more here.