Protecting the Ocean From 1,000 Miles Away

The Inland Oceans Coalition has a unique mission: To emphasize the land-to-sea connection and get people to preserve the ocean – even if they live nowhere near it.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Lost Lake in Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest, Colorado. James Hager/Robert Harding Premium

Vicki Goldstein has been passionate about ocean conservation for years. She has worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and was the executive director of Save Our Shores. Then in 2011 she began her own organization focused on ocean conservation. The only problem was that by then Goldstein was living more than 900 miles (1,450km) from an ocean.

The organization, the Inland Ocean Coalition, is dedicated to marine education and conservation in communities that are far from the shoreline. Goldstein says that after moving to Boulder, Colorado, she realized that, despite intimate connections between the land and the sea, there were no inland organizations dedicated to ocean conservation.

Now there is one. Since 2011, IOC has now grown to include nine chapters across the United States and Canada, whose locations range from the Great Lakes to the Manitoba Prairie to the Sonoran Desert. The IOC’s projects ranges from local river cleanups and sponsoring environmental activist Jack Johnson’s concerts to cosponsoring a three-day swim across the Caribbean to highlight plastic pollution.

Oceans Deeply recently spoke with Goldstein about the need for inland ocean conservation and the challenges that the unique organization faces.

Oceans Deeply: Why did you decide to start an organization that focused on inland conservation of the oceans?

Vicki Goldstein: I moved to Boulder in 2009 after a lifetime of conservation work on the East Coast and the West Coast, running nonprofits, working for NOAA, starting up children’s programs all around oceans and watersheds. So it has been a very consistent theme in my entire life. Also, my undergraduate is in environmental studies and marine biology and also a master’s in ocean policy.

So when I moved to the middle of the country, I [had] this sense that, do you really need to see the ocean to protect it? And I started thinking, I don’t think so. So, that was the beginning. It started out as a hobby, and it has grown over the years to be a very active organization now, with real clear supporters and a mission. But the beginning really was that theme of, “I think you can protect ocean from anywhere you live, as long as you’re involved in the policies,” a little bit of that cultural shift, and you can actually make personal decisions about how to protect them, even if you can’t see them.

Oceans Deeply: What issues seem to connect the land and the ocean the most?

Goldstein: Number one, I would say, is to take care of and pay attention to your local watershed, because all water flows toward the ocean. And by having that recognition of what you do regarding the application of pesticides, herbicides, as any chemicals that will eventually get into your watershed and flow down the river, will impact the ocean. We do a lot of creek cleanups, river cleanups, around taking care of your watershed. We do a lot of outreach around storm drains.

Another big one that people can relate to is plastic pollution – the way that plastic works is that it never goes away. It just breaks down and gets smaller and smaller. So, you have your larger issues where you have plastic bags floating around, and [they] can impact wildlife through ingestion and impaction. But the other side of it is that those plastics – those single-use plastics – break down into smaller and smaller pieces, and eventually they get so tiny that they can be taken up in the environment.

Oceans Deeply: What is a unique and memorable project that people have worked on?

Inland Ocean Coalition members, including Vicki Goldstein (third from left) pose with singer Jack Johnson, in the middle. (Photo Courtesy of Vicki Goldstein)

Goldstein: We have been working on a youth ocean ranger program. We launched it in Fort Collins. The idea is to develop a curriculum that is targeted toward inland kids and teachers that will help them understand their fossil fuel use and their impact on the oceans, so to help them understand the connection between ocean acidification and what we are doing in our own community.

It helps them to look at plastic – how much plastic is being used, and how you can reduce that, maybe, to zero-waste in your school, and then talking about how plastic really does impact aquatic and ocean life. Looking at transportation and how teachers get to school, and kids. It’s really taking a lot of work that curriculum directors have already put together, but then linking it to an ocean framework and overlaying that with a community that doesn’t necessarily live in the ocean but can help them draw their connections.

Oceans Deeply: When people living inland are dealing with their own environmental issues – wildfires and climate change and pollution in their own backyard – why should they volunteer to protect an ocean hundreds of miles away?

Goldstein: People like to feel engaged. People find satisfaction in giving. And if there is something that can connect them into the water or oceans realm, that is where they feel that joy. From an academic and science perspective, the ocean is enormous and has serious and significant impacts, and really regulates how this planet functions. It regulates our climate. It orchestrates the seasons. It produces more than 50 percent of the oxygen that we breath from plants in the ocean. So it is a very, very important piece of the planet – I mean, it’s the majority of our planet – and I think that people are beginning to recognize more and more that without the ocean, even though we may be 1,000 miles [1,600km] from the closest coast, we are going to be feeling those impacts.

So, you have the emotional connection, “I just love the ocean,” you have the understanding of the ocean and how it functions to support planetary life, and then you just have that joy of wanting to work with a group of people who you can connect to – who are having fun, who get it, who have a lot of events, who provide opportunities for getting involved.

Oceans Deeply: What do you feel have been your biggest successes so far?

Goldstein: I just think the idea that people can get involved in ocean issues in the middle of the country – that has been a huge success. If you were to come to one of our events, there is this 100 percent acceptance of “of course we make a difference, of course we have a voice in ocean and water conservation,” where, when I started this up in 2011, I got crazy looks and silly comments. And now, when we go talk to schools or go and talk to our political leaders – our senators, our representatives – there is no longer that look. They almost greet us like “yes yes, we know how important this is.” So, there has been a real cultural shift in accepting that we have an opportunity to engage, and it isn’t such a wacky idea that you can be involved in ocean and water conservation if you live nowhere near the coast. So, I think that has been huge.

Oceans Deeply: Are there particular issues in inland states that you are paying attention to because you know that it will affect the oceans?

Goldstein: Some that are very obvious right now are opening up the outer continental shelf to oil development. Our inland communities go to the coast – they vacation there, they go scuba diving, they sail. So, those issues that might seem very far away to us, are in fact very important to us. We are tracking the executive orders for reducing the monuments and national marine sanctuaries.

What is happening with the EPA, and with the mining regulations, with the water quality regulations is affecting waterways throughout the country. That is in our backyard. Just the one regulation, recently, that allowed mining companies to put their tailings back in the creeks and streams. That has an enormous impact. You are adding in heavy metals. If you look at heavy metals in mammals, there’s a lot of examples of sickness, and being tired and not well. It is fairly well known that you do not want heavy metals from mining operations to enter into an aquatic environment.

Oceans Deeply: You’re an organization that emphasizes protecting the coasts at a time when there is some cultural and political tension between coastal cities and inland communities. As an organization, how do you deal with that to achieve your mission?

Goldstein: We are very challenged, currently, with both sides being so separate. But, we do have success stories where they are crossing over and voting in favor of the environment – in favor of their water and oceans. So, we just need to continue that dialogue.

Having the inland movement, where there is that connection [with the ocean] that’s never been done before. I moved here, and I spent a year before I started up the Colorado Ocean Coalition, which is now a chapter of the [IOC]. There was no other organization then, nor now, that really helps to make that connection and trying to tap into communities that really care about the ocean-water connection. It’s exciting that it is starting to move throughout different states, because I think that is what we need – people who can talk with other people, share information, collaborate, find common ground and slowly move the dial forward for our goals, which is really to create a land-to-sea stewardship ethic and action associated with that.

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