Lessons from Trail-building: Grassroots Change for Conservation

 

Not only is June 6th National Trails Day, but it is Land Trust Day, as well. It’s no coincidence that these go hand in hand. Land trusts focus on conserving individual tracts of land in order to contribute to conservation efforts at larger scales (counties, watersheds, ecoregions, etc.). Read about our Director of Conservation & Stewardship’s lessons learned from working at a land trust and leading trail workdays with public volunteers. The message is that we can learn a lot from a service day example, including how we should approach big environmental issues that seem too large to tackle. Much like little grassroots, everyone doing their little part in their own areas adds up to greater impacts overall.

 

The following is an excerpt from a longer article published in 2019, entitled “The Future of Conservation in Anthromes: Narrative Analysis from a Millennial Conservationist.” It’s a combination personal and scholarly piece on Jesse’s perspective as a young conservationist, written before she started work with us at SCT. The larger project that it is a part of, Elsevier’s Encyclopedia of World Biomes, will be complete next year and, unfortunately, access is not completely open online (article landing page). Please send an email to conservation@sctlandtrust.org if you would like to read the full piece. Other sections talk about diversity in the conservation field and integrating people into our concern for nature. As these are both relevant topics SCT also cares about, we may try to share those sections in the future.

 

Turning Toward Others: Local, Bottom-Up Conservation Efforts


(An excerpt from “The Future of Conservation in Anthromes: Narrative Analysis from a Millenial Conservationist,” by Jesse (Wood) Woodsmith, published by Elsevier in 2019 as part of an Encyclopedia of World Biomes)

 

When I think of our conservation challenges for the future, I am not worried about our ability to do good science. We are building bodies of knowledge and advancing our understanding of ecological processes and systems in novel conditions. To me, a looming challenge is effectively practicing conservation. I think we need to focus on our communication—translating our  messages and engaging with the right audiences in the right way. This may include some or all of the following:

  • improving the public’s trust in science,
  • communicating well not just with each other but with the public and with policy makers,
  • identifying and reaching all stakeholders involved,
  • being receptive to new ways of doing things,
  • utilizing unconventional but powerful platforms like social media to spread information (infographics, sound bites),
  • and doing work that is interdisciplinary.

 

These all involve interactions with other people and reaching people that are different from us. (For more on how diversity increases resiliency and possibilities of success, see Lanham, n.d.).

 

I have some ideas about how we might effectively engage others in tackling conservation issues, borne out of work I did at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, a regional land trust where I served as an AmeriCorps member. The idea of service was not something advocated for by my academic advisors, but I was drawn to it—affecting change by empowering young leaders in target communities. Environmental conservation is a focus area of The Corporation for National & Community Service’s AmeriCorps, although it is not as visible as public school programming or community revitalization (Simon and Wang, 2002). I decided this program would be a humbling way to pass time between college and graduate school and might help me process what I could contribute to conservation. I looked forward to getting out of the theory books and “getting things done” with non-academic folks working in land protection and stewardship. I am not surprised now to learn that AmeriCorps participants show marked changes in values as a result of their service experiences (Simon and Wang, 2002), but I did not expect then for mine to fundamentally change my mindset of conservation.

 

The service was rewarding and enriching. It taught me more about what various careers in conservation looked like than anything I had been exposed to in school. I learned about non-profit management, the dynamic nature of collaboration with state and federal agencies, and environmental issues specific to a place. I peeked into the legal side of land protection. Above all else, I learned about improving lands for the public good (whether publicly owned or not) and promoting responsible land stewardship. And on a personal level, I was encouraged and impressed by my passionate peers—fellow future conservationists—who lived and breathed their values.

 

One thing I did repeatedly in my AmeriCorps service was plan, lead, and execute volunteer workdays to improve trails, clean up trash, and control invasive species. These exhausting but exhilarating days came to represent something larger to me: the power and potential of bottom-up conservation.

 

Leading a good volunteer workday is a parable for practicing conservation. You have to identify your needs and the context, prepare for the work, gather your resources, recruit people, anticipate their needs to keep them happy, and reevaluate the problem at the end of your workday to see if you’re going to need to plan another.

 

The issues behind these workdays involved multiple stakeholders, often with different values and objectives. Take the example of a trail workday on a conservancy-owned tract of land. This particular property was adjacent to National Forest Service land and was an unintentional gateway for recreationalists. There is an impetus to apply best management practices on such properties, to be a good neighbor and example to others. The land trust would rather protect the water quality of trout streams at all costs by reducing erosion and limiting all impactful recreational activities upstream. But the land trust is subject to board members and the public, so it also experiences some pressure to keep their protected land open for public enjoyment. Also involved in the scenario is the local community—folks who are going to walk, bike, or 4-wheel across the property regardless of signs posted and who may not be aware of how their tread damages the land. Finally, there are the federal and state partners who lent support to the land protection in the first place—USFS and NC Wildlife Commission folks who have a vested interest in collective natural resources. Thus, we had to minimize threats to water quality while maximizing stakeholder satisfaction, and we had to hold a workday to redirect problematic spur trails and improve the grade and sustainability of the main trails.

 

A number of lessons I learned from coordinating these events can be applied to the future of conservation:

 

(1) Always begin with identifying the problem. The problem was loose sediment from the unofficial trails washing into high quality trout streams. In conservation science, we have to start with knowledge: making observations, documenting and monitoring, and doing basic science.

 

(2) Plan and prepare. The observations and knowledge from step 1 help you make a good plan for applying resources toward a particular problem.

 

(3) Have the right tools, or you can’t get the work done. Resources need to be in place before you start. It goes without saying that we need to match conservation problems with the appropriate resources (and this often also means securing sufficient funding).

But beyond that, I think the right tools we can have as conservationists in the next generation are communication and critical thinking, on top of a solid foundation of scientific training. In fact, non-disciplinary skills like written/oral communication, leadership, and interpersonal training are desired by employers in multiple sectors (Blickley et al., 2013). Although not all that is required, this broader training will allow us to address varied problems.

 

(4) Success involves people. None of the planning and preparation mattered unless we had people show up. The jobs were simply too big for the staff alone. Conservation issues have to be made relatable (why should a hiker care about erosion?) and actions/solutions have to be accessible (if you come help us improve a trail, you’ll be helping protect water quality). When they arrived, you had to keep them there despite hard, unglamorous work. It was easier when doing a project with visible progress, like pulling invasive plants, but otherwise you needed to get them to learn or experience something new to make the day worthwhile.

Achieving this commitment often takes offering some sort of incentive. This is not unusual for conservation, especially in the private arena; it is a practical approach undertaken by many groups. USDA-NRCS cost-share programs offer assistance for producers to do best management practices that promote soil, water, or wildlife habitat health which may otherwise be prohibitively expensive for them. Land protection is a much easier sell when there are tax incentives, so conservation easement landowners experience an immediate payoff for waiving development rights on their land. Also, the USFWS has several agreements to make it easier on private landowners where threatened and endangered species are concerned. Our volunteers

would be given the best experience possible while still getting important work done. Volunteers would be invited to use the trail they helped improve, and I would follow up with them later on with long-term results of their labor.

At the end of these days, people were dripping with sweat and dirt, aching for showers and running toilets. But they would feel they had done something tangible for the issue at hand. That lasting awareness is essential to getting more people committed and making messages stick.

 

(5) The final lesson about workdays was that there were always results I had not anticipated. These volunteers had totally different backgrounds and day jobs, and sometimes ideologies, but they were unified by a shared love of the region we were working in, or a common value of community service. Sometimes we learn the most when we think we have complete control but we allow ourselves to be surprised by something we could not have predicted.

 

I believe the work of connecting people to land will be a successful conservation strategy because it transcends other boundaries and constructs. One can hold a land ethic and have various sociopolitical or economic leanings. Owning—or simply enjoying—unique spaces creates solid personal connections which endure because they involve so many senses. For example, hikers completing a trail earn a sense of ownership, hunters and farmers become keen and intuitive naturalists, volunteers invest a piece of themselves in service, and kids treat woods as their own personal playgrounds. Values derived from experiences are powerful (Chan et al., 2016). These authors explain that relational values contribute an important piece to the case for environmental protection—beyond simply intrinsic (for nature’s sake) or instrumental (for human’s sake) arguments. Such a framework considers the influence of cultural and

individual identity, social responsibility and stewardship principles, and additional moral virtues in people’s decision-making. Importantly, values are formed because of relationships, experiences, and connections to people and places.

I think this is how conservation scales up and effects change: by involving people, keeping them coming back, and counting on them to spread awareness one step further. It is certainly how a group of about 30 AmeriCorps members increases education and awareness about conservation issues in Western North Carolina every year. It is how we could build better trails, establish new wildlife and pollinator habitat, clean up rivers and banks, and make space for native species. And if it takes a volunteer heart, then we ought to be cultivating that more in our peers and children.

 

References:

 

Blickley JL, Deiner K, Garbach K, Lacher I, Meek MH, Porensky LM, Wilkerson ML, Winford EM, and Schwartz MW (2013) Graduate student’s guide to necessary skills for nonacademic conservation careers. Conservation Biology 27: 24–34.

 

Chan KM, Balvanera P, Benessaiah K, Chapman M, Díaz S, Gómez-Baggethun E, Gould R, Hannahs N, Jax SK, Klain S, Luck GW, Martín-López B, Muraca B, Norton B, Ott K, Pascual U, Satterfield T, Tadaki M, Taggart J, and Turner N (2016) Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113: 1462–1465.

 

Lanham, J. D. n.d. (In preparation, same volume). Elsevier, Encyclopedia of World Biomes.

 

Simon CA and Wang C (2002) The impact of AmeriCorps service on volunteer participants: Results from a 2-year study in four western states. Administration and Society 34: 522–540.

 

This paper:

Wood, JM (2019) The Future of Conservation in Anthromes: Narrative Analysis From a Millennial Conservationist. Elsevier [Future Association with Encyclopedia of World Biomes]  <https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-409548-9.12025-1>.

AUTHOR: SCT ADMIN
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