Sunday, July 12, 2015

Becoming Part of the Community Fabric by John Hartig

The Detroit RiverWalk provides a new waterfront
porch for people and wildlife in downtown Detroit
Photo credit: SmithGroupJJR
Clearly, much needs to be done to reconnect urbanites to their land/ecosystem through compelling outdoor experiences.  Compelling outdoor experiences can lead to thinking fresh about city dwellers’ relationships to their land/ecosystem.  Thinking fresh can then lead to development of a stewardship ethic that can inspire urbanites to live differently.  Living inspired by a land/ecosystem ethic gives hope.  One of our goals of conservation organizations like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should be to make sure that their programs and staff become part of the community fabric.  As Aldo Leopold noted, we must learn to love and respect the land, our ecosystem, and the place we call home. 

It is abundantly clear that urban refuges and other urban conservation places have the unique proximal natural resources to help urbanites experience nature as the supporting fabric of their everyday lives.  Whether it’s hiking, fishing, hunting, birding, learning through environmental education, photography, natural resource interpretation, or just plain exploring in the woods, urban refuges and urban conservation areas have what educators, city planners, developers, business leaders, and parents want – unique natural resources that can enhance quality of life, contribute to ecosystem health and healthful living, and nourish our sense of wonder, imagination, and curiosity.   And in the case of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, these natural resources can be seen, enjoyed, and studied in the shadows of industries and skyscrapers, providing a foretaste of sustainable development.   

1910 breakwater at Elizabeth Park
 before restoration
Photo credit: Wayne County  


Elizabeth Park shoreline after restoration
 using soft shoreline engineering - Photo Credit: USFWS 

We need unique urban conservation places, whether they be urban refuges, urban conservation areas, urban state parks, metroparks, city parks, conservancy lands, or other natural areas, or some combination of these urban conservation places, that can make nature experiences part of everyday urban life.  It was indeed quite prophetic that the great American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, while watching civilization expand into the countryside during his lifetime (1817-1862), recommended that every town should have a forest  of 500-1,000 acres to be used for conservation instruction and outdoor recreation.  There is no doubt that unique urban conservation places will undoubtedly be part of every successful sustainable city in the future.


A few examples of how the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is becoming part of the community fabric include:
  • Refuge staff serving on the Board of Directors of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy that is building, stewarding, and programming a 5.5-mile Detroit RiverWalk in downtown Detroit – one of the largest urban waterfront redevelopment projects in the United States;
  • Being a consistent long-term supporter of well-attended community events like the Point Mouillee Waterfowl Festival that attracts up to 10,000 people each year, Hawk Fest that attracts over 4,000 people each year, and Detroit River Days that attracts over 100,000 people each year;
  • Being a supporter and champion for working beyond refuge boundaries by promoting soft shoreline engineering at over 50 locations in the watershed, creating new waterfront porches for both people and wildlife; and
  • Being a partner in regional efforts like the Detroit Heritage River Water Trail for kayaking and canoeing, the southeast Michigan greenway trail network, and the ByWays to FlyWays bird driving tour for southeast Michigan and southwest Ontario.

Indeed, there are more examples, but the point is that we need to find ways and means of becoming part of the community fabric.  To become part of the community fabric will not only require becoming involved, but staying involved for long periods of time.  Frequently, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees are encouraged to move every several years to gain experiences elsewhere and foster consistency across the National WildlifeRefuge System.  This is important, but it we are serious about becoming part of the community fabric to help make nature part of everyday urban life, then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation organizations will have to recognize that relationships are critically important in urban conservation work and that there are clear advantages to encouraging employees to “put down roots” in one area to become part of the community fabric.

What creative tools and techniques are you using or have you seen that will help conservationists become part of the community fabric?    


9 comments:

Richard Skoglund said...

I believe that the way in which the urban refuges become part of the community fabric is by getting the community (people) involved with the refuge on a consistent, regular basis. To me, this means having refuge programs, events and volunteer opportunities which are appealing to each constituency, in each area which John Hartig has mentioned. The US Fish and Wildlife Service calls these areas the Big Six.

From my experience with leading the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge volunteer stewardship crew for the past three years, I have observed several things which I believe have been very beneficial in building and sustaining a passionate volunteer group.
1. Our staff leader is the Refuge biologist who teaches us not only what to do but also why we are doing it and the long term benefits of our efforts.
2. The Refuge provides a regular consistent opportunity for involvement with weekly work days.
3. The crew members are consistently being educated on conservation by the biologist, either through personal contact on workdays or with articles via e-mail.
4. Refuge leadership and staff members consistently express their appreciation for the volunteers’ efforts.

Dedicated passionate volunteers are the best community ambassadors when trying to recruit additional volunteers as we have seen at the yearly volunteer outreach events the Refuge staff and Friends group have hosted.

My reply to John Hartig’s question, “What creative tools and techniques are you using or have you seen that will help conservationists become part of the community fabric?” is that helping people to become conservationists is the best way to get conservationists into the community

Richard Skoglund said...

I believe that the way in which the urban refuges become part of the community fabric is by getting the community (people) involved with the refuge on a consistent, regular basis. To me, this means having refuge programs, events and volunteer opportunities which are appealing to each constituency, in each area which John Hartig has mentioned. The US Fish and Wildlife Service calls these areas the Big Six.

From my experience with leading the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge volunteer stewardship crew for the past three years, I have observed several things which I believe have been very beneficial in building and sustaining a passionate volunteer group.
1. Our staff leader is the Refuge biologist who teaches us not only what to do but also why we are doing it and the long term benefits of our efforts.
2. The Refuge provides a regular consistent opportunity for involvement with weekly work days.
3. The crew members are consistently being educated on conservation by the biologist, either through personal contact on workdays or with articles via e-mail.
4. Refuge leadership and staff members consistently express their appreciation for the volunteers’ efforts.

Dedicated passionate volunteers are the best community ambassadors when trying to recruit additional volunteers as we have seen at the yearly volunteer outreach events the Refuge staff and Friends group have hosted.

My reply to John Hartig’s question, “What creative tools and techniques are you using or have you seen that will help conservationists become part of the community fabric?” is that helping people to become conservationists is the best way to get conservationists into the community

John Hartig said...

Thanks Dick for the thoughtful comments. You bring up a really good point that your work on the Stewardship Team receives support from a highly committed Refuge Biologist who not only instructs on stewardship activities, but teaches the theory as well. Your leadership in motivating, equipping, recruiting, and inspiring volunteers to get involved in stewardship is essential. We need strong ambassadors and champions for making nature part of everyday urban life.

Rick Schultz said...

From my perspective, I believe John and staff are on the right tract in building community support for Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. I truly believe that refuges wherever they are, need to become a local community asset if the Refuge System is to survive. As we know, the world is changing very fast and the number of youngsters and young adults that have a connection to Mother Nature seems to be dwindling. Ensuring these places become an important part of the fabric of the community in which they reside is critical...which will generate continuous support locally, regionally, and nationally.

John Hartig said...

Thanks Rick for your perspective. Our experience in the Detroit Metropolitan Area is that young people welcome experiences in nature and nature learning. We need to give them the opportunity. We also need to be in it for the long haul so that we can reap the benefits locally, regionally, and nationally.

Lisa Appel said...

Connecting with diverse stakeholder is always a challenge, especially if you are a newcomer to a community. In my own recent experience in planning state-wide water festivals two lessons emerge, 1) ask your community what it wants in regards to a conservation project to foster local ownership, and 2) partner with an anchor institution that will serve as a local community connection.

The DRIWR, with its roots in community interest in protecting and restoring the environment, has done an amazing job with broad-based partnerships. And, serves as a template on how common agreement on a vision between diverse stakeholders can result in extraordinary change over time!

John Hartig said...

Lisa, I fully agree with your two lessons: being customer or stakeholder driven and partnerships, especially with anchor institutions. To work in urban areas you have to be a good listener and have to build trust at all levels. Both are important to fostering local ownership. If done right, the potential to develop the next generation of conservationists in urban areas is enormous.

Roberta Urbani said...

From Roberta Urbani
My reply to your question, “What creative tools and techniques are you using or have you seen that will help conservationists become part of the community fabric?” is to agree with your recognition of the need for professional conservationists such as USFWS personnel to genuinely become part of the community by putting down roots.

John, our relationship goes back to the mid-1990s when diverse stakeholder groups were working on the Detroit Heritage River effort, the Detroit Greenways Initiative, and ultimately the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge (DRIWR). I represented DTE Energy in those partnerships. You went from being a local federal employee to the River Navigator to the Refuge Manager, continually building partnerships and coalitions that have resulted in the amazing development of the Refuge and the physical transformation of large areas of our region. That never could have been achieved if USFWS had sent in a new competent stranger every couple years.

Before the DRIWR was created, the Grosse Ile Nature and Land Conservancy (GINLC)had stewarded the area that became the Gibraltar Bay Unit (GBU)for many years. Now Refuge personnel and GINLC volunteers work together to inspire and educate new conservationists of all ages through programs at the GBU and elsewhere on the island. Coming up on Aug 3, children from the Delray section of southwest Detroit will tour the GBU and learn about nature from GINLC volunteers and the Refuge Park Ranger in a visit arranged by the Grosse Ile Rotary.

As you noted, John, "much needs to be done to reconnect urbanites to their land/ecosystem through compelling outdoor experiences." The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR)has taken a giant step in that regard in the creation of its Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC)along the Detroit Riverfront. The OAC (in an indoor space!) presents the how-tos of hiking, hunting, fishing, camping and kayaking in exciting ways that are sure to whet the appetites of visitors to experience the real thing. I listened to an NPR story about the OAC during which Opening Day visitors said they were now planning on going "Up North" to do the things they tried in the OAC. We need to make sure these visitors and others understand that they don't have to go "Up North;" they have these resources in their own backyard at the DRIWR, Belle Isle, the Metroparks and state and county parks.

We need to do more to make connections between these resources and people who do not have easy access to them. As a board member of the DRIWR's International Wildlife Refuge Alliance and a former board member and current Advisory Committee member of The Greening of Detroit, I hope that the Refuge and The Greening can work together more closely in the future to bridge that gap.

As Baba Dioum, the Senegalese conservationist, once said, "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." It is up to professional conservationists, working hand-in-hand with their local community conservationists, to teach everyone to build understanding that leads to love of our beautiful planet.

John Hartig said...

Roberta, Thank you for sharing your insights on the importance of becoming part of the community fabric. While you were employed by DTE Energy you were able to help negotiate a cooperative management agreement with the USFWS for the Lagoona Beach Unit - 656 acres of unique habitats that surrounded the Fermi Power Plant. This was so significant to have a corporate partner step forward and be the first industry to work with us in a formal way. That laid the foundation for others to follow. Also, urban areas are unique places In with great potential for partnerships. Whether it is businesses, nonprofits like Greening of Detroit, or other government agencies, the potential is enormous. Places like the Outdoor Adventure Center in Downtown Detroit, the Detroit RiverWalk, and the Refuge must provide leadership if reconnecting urban residents with the outdoors through compelling experiences. We have so much to do to get people to love and understand their ecosystems as Baba Dioum and Aldo Leopold have taught us.