Natural Leaders: Parks and Recreation Agencies Lead Their Communities in Conservation

By Beard, Elizabeth; Hannan, Maureen | Parks & Recreation, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Natural Leaders: Parks and Recreation Agencies Lead Their Communities in Conservation


Beard, Elizabeth, Hannan, Maureen, Parks & Recreation


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CONSERVATIONISTS ARE PRACTICAL SOULS. After all, the first step in conserving any resource is to measure the gap between what is needful and what is wasteful. To conserve is to count--and there are as many different ways to do it as there are valuable natural resources to save. Parks and recreation leaders, in their stories of conserving and protecting resources, detail approaches as varied as the agencies and regions they represent. They catalog concrete achievements--the nuts and bolts of inventorying, surveying, measuring, setting policy, applying tools and technologies, and assessing impact.

But as unique and as practice-centered as each story is, they also share a common "conservation mindset." It is this holistic mindset connecting the six agencies profiled here that also fuels their search for solutions. From the stormwater management efforts of New York City to the biodiversity surveys of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, each agency looked imaginatively at its region, its resources and wildlife, its funding, its public, and its available partnerships. The result, in each case, was a distinctive conservation initiative that safeguarded natural resources while engaging the community.

Dirt Beneath Their Fingernails, Mud Between Their Toes

"We painted their faces and declared war on the invaders." It might have been a paintball outing East Baton Rouge's park conservation director Greg Grandy was describing. "And then," he continued, "they experienced the exhilaration of pulling the invasives out of the ground by their roots." The warriors? Local youth summer camp participants. The weapons? Weed wrenches. And the unlucky invaders that day were Chinese tallow trees and Chinese privet. BREC--the Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge--is well known for its year-round conservation-centered youth programming, and its summer camps offer kids between the ages of 5 and 14 a week of immersion in the outdoors--complete with environmental education, natural and cultural history activities, and conservation service opportunities.

It's not enough, says Grandy, to proclaim a mission of creating a culture of conservation in area youth. "It's important to understand why we want to create [that] culture.... Given that many of the youth in our parish experience an urban, wired lifestyle ... it is vital to provide opportunities for positive, meaningful outdoor experiences."

And BREC's philosophy is that being a passive onlooker to natural beauty is simply not enough. "They need," Grandy says, "to have water splashed on their faces, dirt beneath their fingernails, mud between their toes. Adventures that get their hearts pumping and engage their minds." The hope is that Baton Rouge's youngest participants in conservation work would carry a love for the outdoors--along with memorable lessons in stewardship--into adulthood.

The activities BREC engages children and teens in are both purposeful in their own right and resonant with deeper lessons. For example, the experience of yanking out weeds is about more than seeing growing piles of vanquished invasives--it is also an exercise in the creation of habitat. And staff use the field experiences to reinforce lessons in sustainability at the same time: Regular management of invasives, campers learn, encourages a thriving native habitat while keeping taxpayer costs in check.

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"We are proud of the tangible impact on the environment," says Grandy, citing such successes as a youth-led bald cypress reforestation effort. "And we are also proud to see young people articulate environmental problems, identify solutions, and accept leadership roles in stewardship projects."

BREC's conservation director says his proudest achievement, though, is "the large number of youth who attended summer camp in the late 1990s ... who graduate from universities with advanced degrees and dedicate their life's work to conserving natural resources. …

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