NRPA's Environmental Leadership Groups: Setting Standards and Equipping Agencies with Tools and Resources for Conservation

Article excerpt

IN A PROFESSION DEDICATED TO THE PRESERVATION AND CARE of green, publicly accessible spaces, it is natural to assume that leading-edge environmental conservation and management practices are already deeply entrenched. Park and recreation professionals are, after all, among the most passionate of advocates for conservation, and stewardship of natural resources is often central to both their training and their personal convictions.

One common theme of the environmental movement, however, is that a true conservation mindset is one that embraces the principle of continuous improvement. Of always asking, "How do we get better all the time?" In addition to the raw drive for improvement, broad-based environmental stewardship requires a set of standardized best practices partnered with achievable goals. As Brendan Daley, director of Green Initiatives for the Chicago Park District, puts it, "Parks and rec -people need leadership at the national level, since conservation is absolutely core to our mission."

Two different national environmental initiatives recently launched by NRPA are intended to spur agencies toward continuous improvement while developing and disseminating sets of tools and best practices. The first, the Environmental Conservation Advisory Panel (ECAP), is an advisory group of 12 experts from academia, the parks and recreation profession, commercial industry, and the nonprofit sector. NRPA created ECAP to provide the association and its member park agencies with broad, research-guided in conserving resources, modeling best environmental practices, and tracking improvement.

A separate initiative, The Conservation Task Force, was created in September 2010 for a more specific purpose: to examine ways that public park and recreation agencies can do more to contribute to conservation at the community level. One of methods to implement this goal will be to create a compendium of best practices and toolkits for guiding agencies large and small in implementing conservation practices in five broad categories:

* Natural Resources

* Sustainable Landscapes

* Stewardship

* Youth Engagement

* Energy Conservation

Environmental Conservation Advisory Panel (ECAP)

"I'm in the business of worrying about doing the right thing as we look forward five years," says ECAP member Dana Lonn, research and development director for the Toro Company. "It's easy for all of us to look for short-term solutions and to miss the big picture." Lonn's specialty area happens to be water conservation--but his presence on the advisory panel reflects the kind of imaginative, long-term thinking that defines ECAR As Shelley O'Brien, NRPA fundraising director and one of the NRPA staff advising the panel, comments, "Local parks and recreation agencies manage hundreds of thousands of facilities and open spaces. The potential for these organizations to contribute to the overall reduction of energy use and carbon emissions is immense, and their prominence in community life is an ideal platform for community engagement in these issues." ECAP is intended to be a solid foundation upon which to construct that platform.

An example of the kind of change that the members of ECAP are working to accomplish in the field is its Energy Efficiency Challenge. The goal of the challenge is to establish a clear methodology for agencies to assess how much energy they are using and to set achievable reduction plans. When agencies were surveyed, it was found that fewer than 50 percent had done any sort of formal benchmarking. And clearly, as O'Brien points out, "if you haven't done any benchmarking, you'll never know whether you're reducing your consumption."

Because ECAP is brand new, the panel is still formulating the many ways it can help the profession accomplish a higher level of accountability for wise use of resources and elimination of waste. "Our goal," Lonn says, "is to challenge parks and recreation to get into a continuous improvement mode. …