I have written in the past about my personal belief in the power of citizen action. This is a core element of the Alliance mission and brings strength to our many partnerships, and efforts are under way to create a regional strategy that could help to bring greater attention to the value of citizen action and point the way to greater investments in cultivating this power to restore the Bay.
The latest Chesapeake Watershed Agreement signed by the Executive Council of the Chesapeake Bay Program in June 2014 included a goal for enhancing this essential aspect of the restoration effort. The Stewardship Goal states: “Increase the number and diversity of local citizen stewards and local governments that actively support and carry out conservation and restoration activities that achieve healthy local streams, rivers and a vibrant Chesapeake Bay.”
The achievement of the stewardship goal will be measured over time by the progress made in advancing three outcomes; increased citizen stewardship, local government leadership and diversity. The recognition of these outcomes in the agreement is significant.
Science and technology or laws, policies and programs, can only get us so far. The stewardship goal recognizes that the long-term success of the collective Chesapeake Bay restoration effort will be measured, in part, by the ability to sustain support and motivate action at the grass roots level through action that arises from local citizens and conservation groups. Success also depends on more local government leaders with the knowledge, skills and capacity to address watershed issues and support the implementation of needed improvements. Lastly, progress must be made in broadening and diversifying the base of the environmental community and its leadership.
The stewardship goal is the people part of the Bay equation — the social dimension. In some ways, it is far more complex and challenging than oysters, fish, crabs and wetlands — elements we can address more objectively with science and technology.
The 17 million residents of the watershed may share this habitat and geography but they are far more diverse in their backgrounds and beliefs, and have quite a few differing opinions about what is important enough to garner their time, talent and treasure.
The citizen participation outcome of the stewardship goal aims to “increase the number and diversity of trained and mobilized citizen volunteers with the knowledge and skills needed to enhance the health of their local watersheds.”
But what is citizen stewardship?
In the discussions of our workgroup so far, we have identified three aspects of citizen stewardship that seem to provide a framework for thinking about what strategies could contribute to achieving the goal.
First, the daily behaviors of millions of individuals can negatively affect the health of our watersheds and streams. Changes in simple behaviors, like picking up pet waste, not using toxic cleaners, or reducing miles driven; or taking simple actions like installing a rain garden or compost bin, or choosing not to fertilize a lawn in the spring are all personal actions and take place within one’s home or sphere of control.
But, when multiplied by millions, even these simple individual actions can make a huge difference to the Bay. For example, the Alliance’s RiverWise Communities program has provided technical guidance and incentives that have helped thousands of homeowners reduce or eliminate runoff from their residential properties. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of reduced stormwater runoff makes a difference in these communities.
The next aspect of stewardship is moving beyond private actions to mobilizing the power of volunteers. When people volunteer, they move beyond themselves and become a part of collective community action.
At the Alliance, we see this every year in the more than 8,000 people who come out for Project Clean Stream.
Volunteers translate personal time into a public good. They bring about a community improvement with no personal gain beyond the satisfaction of the deed itself.
We have found that the simple act of volunteering a few hours for a stream cleanup can be for many people the first step toward a life of greater civic engagement. People who get connected to nature want to learn more and will often do more to protect or care for their environment.
Lastly, we have all observed that where dramatic local changes are happening or impressive restoration projects are under way, there is usually a local champion — a local leader. How can we inspire the rise of more of these leaders?
Training programs like the Watershed Stewards Academy, which has grown up in a few Maryland counties; Master Gardeners; citizen scientists; riparian and tree stewards; and other programs train and mentor citizens who want to do more than just volunteer. These citizen stewards gain the skills to take on projects of their own or be the catalyst for efforts in their watershed.
There are also more than 600 local conservation and watershed organizations in the Bay watershed in addition to a growing number of community associations, religious institutions and others that are leading efforts to empower citizens to restore and protect their local streams and rivers to make a difference in their communities.
An additional challenge is not just to move residents to become stewards but to also engage and mobilize a wide diversity of our citizens. Recent reports, some highlighted in past Bay Journal issues, have documented that environmental organizations and programs have failed to engage many minority groups and as a result, this movement lacks a true representation of society.
This must change, but how? Many ideas are being offered, but rather than jumping to action and repeating past mistakes, a strategy for diversity might be best focused on listening to and understanding the needs, motivations and networks within minority communities first so that our actions are likely to lead to success.
The citizen stewardship strategy under development must begin to answer a variety of questions. What are citizen stewards and who is missing? What does success look like? How is it measured? What changes in behavior will yield the greatest benefits? What successful actions are taking place at each level of citizen stewardship and what are the barriers to expanding them? What types of actions, programs or tools would form the most effective strategies for increasing the number and success of citizen stewards?
In addition to simply building more involvement in Bay restoration efforts, the aim of citizen stewardship programs is to continually move more people from individual behavior change, to volunteerism and community action, to becoming local champions.
A growing and more diverse army of local citizen stewards who are willing to lend their time, voice, talent and resources will serve to support many of the goals and outcomes outlined in the agreement.
If you have thoughts or ideas to share or would like to participate in the workgroup developing the Chesapeake Watershed Agreement citizen stewardship strategy, please send your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to join our group, contact email@example.com or visit www.chesapeakebay.net/chesapeakebaywatershedagreement.
The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.