Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Stewarding the Wild Adirondacks

“We are part of a movement,” Dale Penny reminded the 50 people and representatives of 25 organizations gathered for the workshop on Nov. 3, 2012. Stewarding the Wild Adirondacks was the first workshop of its kind to bring as many of the Adirondack Park’s natural resource stewardship programs as possible together in one place to discuss ways to better collaborate. Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve was the workshop sponsor, and Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center its host. International Paper helped provide underwriting support for the event.

Dale Penny is president of the Student Conservation Association, America’s conservation service organization which places over 4,200 young people annually in demanding conservation and stewardship jobs in rural and urban settings across the country, including the Adirondack Park.

The workshop’s goals had been gestating since Adirondack Wild first organized in 2010. The Park’s growing number of stewardship programs were too unconnected, we felt. They needed and the Adirondack Park deserved an opportunity to share stewardship lessons and challenges, envision fresh ideas for collaboration, to explore common strategies for recruiting and training young people.
“As the North Country changes under the pressures of backcountry development, invasive species, climate change and other factors, it is increasingly important for diverse practitioners and organizations to work together in developing new and effective visions for stewardship. And that sort of collaborative effort is the main aim of this workshop,” said our partner and the day’s other keynote speaker, Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College.

Dale and Curt spoke to representatives of many organizations including Adirondack Wild, Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Nature Conservancy, Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, Adirondack Explorer, NYS DEC, NYS APA, Paul Smith’s College, Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program (APIPP), Adirondack Council, The Wild Center, Wildlife Conservation Society, Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center, Adirondack Fire Tower Association, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Adirondack Interpretive Center and Adirondack Ecological Center, St. Lawrence University, North Country Community College, SUNY Plattsburgh, SUNY Potsdam, Queens University.

“The word ‘stewardship’ is derived from a word used by the Norse people that means ‘keeper of the house,’” Dale said. “That’s who we all are. We are responsible through a covenant of mutual obligation to be keepers of our house, to care for our home earth. That is the goal we share, and that is what we want to accomplish together.”

Dale repeated what he had said during an interview with North Country Public Radio the day before: “This is a great opportunity, this workshop, for various groups–whether it’s governmental agencies, NGOs, educational organizations, or community-based groups–to come together, share best practices, and really make better connections between the groups to help learn from each other and work more closely together.”

Many of Dale’s points were echoed by others throughout the day: collaboration and sharing expertise and training opportunities among stewardship professionals just makes sense; young people are leaders today, not in some far off future (for example, he cited SCA’s founder, Liz Cushman Putnam, who was 20 when she instigated SCA in the mid 1950s); we need much more diversity in color and ethnicity in our stewardship ranks (our workshop was almost completely “monochromatic” Dale correctly noted). “SCA is here to help all of you to prepare the next generation of diverse conservation leaders, ensure that the conservation work we do is relevant to young people’s lives, and provides meaningful service to and engagement in America’s conservation challenges. Our ‘housekeeping’ never ends,” Dale stressed.

The careers of many professionals taking part have been interwoven over the years. For instance, Hillary Smith, coordinator of the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program, or APIPP, credited the program’s beginnings to a thesis written by Bill Brown. Bill, now professor of environmental studies at SUNY Potsdam, was in attendance. Collaboration among many in the room clearly was nothing new. APIPP is now a coordinated network of 30 organizations, and 150 volunteers urgently undertaking early detection and rapid response when invasive plants are detected. Hillary noted one key challenge: funding the program past the year 2014. Hillary noted one of her next goals: to recruit and train young people attending the many Adirondack summer camps. Never miss an opportunity to expand your stewardship program was a common theme expressed throughout the day.

Here are some other common lessons learned and ways to better collaborate that were widely expressed during the workshop:

• SHARE CREDIT: One of the founder of Summit Stewards Program in the High Peaks Wilderness Area, Kathy Regan, spoke for many in saying that stewardship programs can thrive when credit is shared, program cooperators/partners are allowed to shine, program objectives are clear and limited, build upon existing foundations, and creatively change to meet new demands and avoid stagnation;

• RECRUITMENT: Recruitment of young stewards every year, whether they work on Adirondack Lakes for Paul Smith’s Watershed program, or APIPP, or Summit Stewards, or for the DEC-SCA partnership in the backcountry, takes a great deal of time, resources and energy on the part of program coordinators. Are there mechanisms to make recruitment and job postings more efficient and accessible? Creation of a common bulletin board on one our partner websites was one suggestion; tracking of where talented Adirondack stewards go in their careers is another important task.

• TRAINING: Convening shared training of stewards, for example between APIPP Volunteers, Lake George Association stewards, and Paul Smith’s College Watershed Stewards (that works with the public on 22 lakes to prevent introductions of aquatic invasives) is starting to happen, but that training overall is still too disparate and uncoordinated; greater cooperation and collaboration in training is justified and needed;

• NYS DEC Region 5 has also begun to coordinate training of summer staff (such as backcountry stewards employed by SCA, SUNY Interns, Fire Tower Stewards, and more) but DEC’s Tom Martin noted that training could be better coordinated and expanded beyond DEC/SCA/Adopt-a-Natural Resource programs to include a variety of non-profit caretakers and stewards;

• Julia Goren of the Summit Stewards Program also recommended that their stewards and ADK’s could benefit from a mid-summer coordinated “training” that brought in a variety of expertise that would inspire hard-working field stewards needing an injection of fresh energy;

• FUNDING: Stewardship program funding in the Adirondacks is always vulnerable and relatively short-lived. A variety of speakers said that the state’s Environmental Protection Fund must be strengthened to address stewardship needs; DEC receives just a few million dollars – under 70 cents per acre – for stewardship of well over 3 million acres of Forest Preserve and Conservation Easements. A common lobbying for Adirondack stewardship funding could be beneficial;

• Others acknowledged that stewardship projects will always be fiscally limited; that fact need not hinder progress assuming that partnerships do a good job leveraging existing funds, avoid duplication of effort, and instill a sense of common ownership of programs and projects;

• STUDENTS, graduate-college-high school, should be filling many of the seats of stewardship workshops in future. Students in the Park need more opportunities for empowerment, for example the Youth Climate Summit organized annually by high school students themselves via the Wild Center figures out their own annual agenda and goals;

• EXPAND REACH of next stewardship audience to include and involve sporting community of hunters, fishers, Park businesses that can serve as program partners, and stewardship-minded landowners. Michale Glennon noted that wise stewardship must encompass good “backyard stewardship” of private landholdings to avoid unnecessary impacts on wildlife from residential subdivision and development;

• LOCAL AND REGIONAL DATA/RECORD COLLECTION AND RECORDING about the Park’s natural and physical features, and of the timing of events in nature, or phenology, can be collected well by volunteers, and is crucial to enhancing understanding and stewardship of our world. For example, Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College explained today’s relevance of journals and records taken from the Adirondack region in 1609, 1749, 1791 and 1863. Both Colin Beier of the Adirondack Ecological Center and Curt noted that our world long ago entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, where Homo sapiens dominate earth’s resources and cycles. What this means on a scale of Adirondack Park- as a model for the world- is an exciting field demanding more local collection of data, better interpretation and preservation of that data in retrievable forms.

“Basic science, seeking to understand sensitive systems like the Adirondacks and rates of change, and what that means at a local scale is a very positive story of stewardship in our time,” said SUNY ESF’s Colin Beier. “It means we are a thinking community, it requires humility to recognize these are not simple systems. We can use that information to make the best possible decisions. But equally true is the value today of witnessing and recording events that will provide teaching tools in the future.”

Stewards in the field doing monitoring and education should be required to keep a journal, added Paul Smith’s College professor Craig Milewski. “We need to combine the head and the heart in this work, so that ecological reflection using all of our creativity is integrated with long-term monitoring, stewardship of natural resources, and scientific research. I am reminded of what Dale Penny asked us this morning: ‘what moves us’? That’s the crucial question.”

The workshop concluded with a number of excellent thoughts and comments from workshop participants, all of whom seemed to suggest that the workshop deserved to continue in 2013, all the while broadening our audience, and experimenting with better ways to communicate and collaborate.

Dan Plumley thanked all workshop participants, and reminded us that humans have been observant agents of change forever by reading this Brief Description of New York written by Daniel Denton in 1670:

“For Wilde beasts there is Deer, Bear, Wolves, Foxes, Raccoons, Otters, Musquashes and skunks. Wild Fowl there is great store of, as Turkies, Heath hens, quails, partridges, pidgeons, cranes, geese of several sort, Brants, Ducks, Widgeon, Teal and others. There is also the red bird, with divers sorts of singing birds whose chirping notes salute the ears of travelers with an harmonious discord, and in every pond and brook green silken frogs, who warbling forth… strive to bear a part in this music.”

Photo: Workshop participants, Nov. 3, 2012, at the Paul Smith’s VIC. Courtesy Ken Rimany.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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