Feature Article - April 2019
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Conservation Conversations

How to Get Your Department and Community More Environmentally Aware

By Chris Gelbach

Creating Events and More

Conservation-focused events can be a great way to attract new constituents and get people more environmentally aware. But they work best as part of a larger, committed approach.

"I think the piece that is often missing is the consistency of contact. It's great to have 60 people come, but in terms of long-term impact, what you're really looking for is consistency of contact so that people who do the tree planting come back next week and engage in a different way," Leinbach said. "Events are awesome. It's just that in our case it's part of a collection of events so it's an opportunity for people to come back and have repeat business for us."

One way the Urban Ecology Center does this is through memberships that support the environmental education of urban youth, but also provide members free access to equipment lending of canoes, kayaks, snowshoes, tents, bicycles and more. "I think it's about access," Leinbach said. "So, having equipment to lend out to people is a huge, wonderful thing for that access."

The center also keeps people engaged through events that reach out to different constituencies that may not otherwise be primary users of the educational programming. Recent examples of such events included one called "Eco I Do" that teaches people how to have a more sustainable wedding, and a candlelight walk that was done in partnership with the Young Professionals of Milwaukee. Others included a partnership with the Milwaukee Brewers on a bicycle ride, and eco-travel vacation opportunities that Leinbach refers to as "friendraisers" that are targeted to the center's donor base.

Seeing Local Nature in a New Way

External partners can also help people see the natural world around them in a different light. Wilderness Inquiry is helping parks departments do this around the country through its Canoemobile program. The program has five different rigs that can go around the country. Each rig has six 24-foot 10-person Voyageur canoes and is accompanied by a staff of eight outdoor educators.

Wilderness Inquiry Executive Director Greg Lais estimates that the Canoemobile served more than 75,000 kids last year. "The idea is to bring the outdoors to where people live, and specifically to the densest part of the city with a waterway of some kind and take people out in the canoes where they learn about different things like water quality and invasive species," Lais said. The curriculum is adaptable to the needs of the local community and can cover everything from STEM to history to language arts.

This year, Lais says the Canoemobile program will hit 60 to 70 sites, from San Francisco to the Bronx, and give a wide variety of kids an experience they've never had before. "So many kids have never been in a boat, have never been in a life jacket, have never done anything like this before," Lais said. "And they come back totally stoked having mastered that environment."

Lais noted that it doesn't have to be an excessively expensive program when done at a larger scale, estimating that in those instances it runs $20 to $25 a head. He said it also provides an opportunity for students of all abilities to go on the same trips and boats together. "And that's really what our mission is, to use the outdoors to integrate diverse groups of people," Lais said. "That's what we're doing."

A Gradual Approach

Sometimes, choices that create environmental, social justice and economic benefits don't have to even involve additional expense. Lee noted the example of making different choices when doing a planting.

"Instead of planting a crape myrtle that provides zero ecological benefit and is just an ornamental tree, you can instead plant a serviceberry tree or an oak that provides habitat for our native species," Lee said.

The Conservation Fund is expanding significantly upon this concept with its work creating an urban food forest on 7.1 acres of land in southeast Atlanta. The forest will ultimately produce a wide selection of healthy nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs and mushrooms that will be available for public consumption.

The organization has also been implementing smaller-scale versions of the idea in recent stormwater parks. "They include serviceberry trees and blueberries as the shrubs and strawberries as the ground cover," Lee said. "So, these parks can provide a whole array of benefits if you just stop and think about how you can incorporate them."

Beyond a focus on conserving what's already there, the focus on making improvements can be an incremental one that leads to positive change over time. "The idea of going down this path of exploration is that you don't have to swallow the elephant all in one bite. Our program has evolved over 30 years," Halicki said. "We've developed a fairly robust series of different programs, but it was very organic and developed over time."