Pensacola, Florida
Friday October 24th 2014

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One Advocate’s Story

By Jessica Forbes

For many public officials and attendees of local government meetings, Barbara Albrecht is a familiar presence. Typically donning a straw hat, she is an environmental scientist who is involved in a number of community organizations and speaks out regularly on behalf of the environment and community at large.

“I’m a big fan of recycling,” Albrecht said. “Taking care of what we have. It doesn’t all have to be new.” Albrecht, who for nearly 30 years has lived in a 108-year-old house in East Hill that she helped restore, puts her principles to practice by conducting outreach to educate the public and elected officials about the ways seemingly isolated decisions often have broader impacts.

The broader picture is something Albrecht is accustomed to considering in studying how various components of watersheds connect with and affect one another. In 1987, Albrecht earned a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology with a minor in Geography from the University of West Florida. Her community activism slowly built over the years as her work as a scientist involved her with a range of projects tied to the federal, state and local government.

Albrecht worked at the EPA as a student, analyzing contaminated sediments. During that time she met J.D. Brown, one of the original members of Bream Fishermen Association (BFA) and began participating in water quality monitoring with him.

“The BFA brought the Department of Environmental Protection, the Northwest District, to Pensacola in the ‘70s. They went to Tallahassee and lobbied,” Albrecht said, who took over as president of BFA in 2011 when the group — composed largely of original, now elderly members — began discussing disbanding.

Around 2000, while employed with the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), Albrecht took a small step toward activism when residents of Vernon, Fla. contacted the company when a developer began dynamiting nearby Beckton Springs to create caves for diving.  Albrecht suggested residents photograph changes they saw in the area and coordinated biological surveys to study the effects. “They built a case,” Albrecht remembered of the determined residents. “That was my first experience with a lot of things, a lot of higher-ups.”

Experiences in her personal life furthered her desire to speak out. “For me it was really eye opening to get sick,” Albrecht said. In early 2001 she inexplicably began losing her hair and later in the year, her voice.  “I had to become an advocate for myself. The doctors didn’t know what to do with me, so they just dismissed me.”

Albrecht said she spoke in a whisper for over two years. “I asked for my voice back because I have a lot to say; I don’t need my hair.” After seeing dozens of doctors, Albrecht discovered her body was accumulating metals. “I accumulate them because of endocrine disruptors, which could potentially be in our waters and sediments.”

“Our environment doesn’t have a voice,” Albrecht said after losing her own. As a Program Manager and Ecologist for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the late 2000s, Albrecht said her community involvement began to expand. “That’s where all the threats to the landscape really became apparent.”

In 2009, the recession eliminated a number of positions, including Albrecht’s from TNC, and she has since dedicated her time to volunteering as a Watershed Coordinator with UWF and serving with a number of organizations, including the Technical Advisory Committee of the Bay Area Resource Council, the Francis M. Weston Audubon Society and the Blackwater State Forest Liaison Committee.

“I feel very strongly that when you land on this planet all you’re given is your word,” Albrecht said, who worries that politics often trump public needs. “The right hand and the left hand, they might be connected to the same state or county entity or body, but they’re not talking to each other. They’ve got their own agendas, their own missions, they’re not communicating.”

Next up for Albrecht is outreach with RESTORE Escambia — a coalition supporting the sustainable use of BP fine monies for community projects. They have developed a document and will it present to the county Jan. 6. “We developed a set of filters, if you will, that refines projects so that they are truly focused on the RESTORE Act and what that intent was,” Albrecht said.

Albrecht is also establishing a non-profit, Panhandle Watershed Alliance, with the goal of developing educational outreach and serving as an umbrella organization for citizen-based water quality monitoring operating in Perdido, Chocatahatchee and St. Andrews Bay and reestablishing monitoring in Perdido and Pensacola Bays.

While she is now highly involved in advocacy, Albrecht suggests starting small for those who have identified an issue they are passionate about or would simply like to volunteer to learn more: “Donate four hours a month.”

“I recognize that I’m a mere mortal,” Albrecht said. “I’m hoping if I build up something that the next generation can carry it on.”