Creating a Constituency for Conservation

Publication Date: December 19, 2012

By Andrew Johnson, Program Officerwte.jpg

The ecological health of the Delaware River and its associated tributaries and aquifers is of enormous importance to the 17 million people who rely on this system for drinking water. It’s safe to say, however, that while many people undoubtedly think about the quality of water flowing from their taps, relatively few people think about the factors that either protect or threaten the quality of that water upstream.

This is a long-standing challenge faced by many established environmental and conservation organizations who are thinking about these issues nationally and in the Delaware River watershed and nearby regions. These organizations are effectively attracting new followers and raising awareness of water-related issues through research, polling, campaigns, and messaging. For some good examples, check out these Foundation grantees: Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

These organizations, and others, have committed followers and effective advocacy strategies, and with scientists and regulators, are on the front lines protecting our region’s water quality. Their efforts – long supported by the Foundation –- are critically important, and remain a significant focus of our grantmaking.

ICourtesy Scattergood Foundationt is clear, however, that to ensure a sustainable supply of clean water for ecosystem health, human consumption, recreation and other uses, we need to engage and mobilize many, many more people in efforts to protect our region’s natural assets. This is particularly important in the in the face of growing threats to water quality in our region posed by natural gas drilling, loss of forests and wetlands that protect sources of clean water, increased volumes of polluted stormwater and agricultural run-off, and unsustainable depletion of underground aquifers.

To complement the efforts of conservation and environmental organizations to attract and mobilize new followers, the Foundation will support efforts to deliberately and strategically engage a largely untapped and unorganized constituency for watershed protection---the thousands of people in our region who participate in outdoor activity that is dependent on, or enhanced by, clean water and healthy watersheds, including:
  • People who, for recreation or transportation, use The Circuit: Greater Philadelphia’s Regional Trail Network, which parallels and provides access to the region’s primary waterways, including the Delaware, Schuylkill, Lehigh, and Cooper Rivers, and smaller streams, such as the Tacony Creek;

  • People who use the rivers for kayaking, canoeing, and rowing, often reaching river access points by way of trails; and

  • People who use the trails, rivers, and adjacent parks and forests for birding, fishing, and hunting.
It is easy to make the case that all of these activities in the Delaware watershed would be far less enjoyable on or near smelly, polluted rivers, or without clean and accessible parks and natural areas. Nevertheless, we realize that engaging people involved in these activities in a meaningful, impactful way on matters related to watershed protection will be challenging—but we’re up for it, and we’re encouraged by evidence in our region that it can be done (see below for some great examples of how).

And, we’re convinced that together, these groups can form a substantial and potent constituency that policymakers will need to listen to when they consider actions related to our region’s water.

Because Philadelphia, Camden, and other smaller cities, such as Allentown, Bethlehem, and Reading are significant hubs in the trail network and typically located on key rivers in the watershed, an effective constituency building strategy must emphasize urban populations, including both youth and adults, creating an opportunity to address the urgent need to diversify the base of the environmental movement.

Four grants the Foundation approved in DecemberCourtesy Wildlands Conservancy demonstrate how we will implement this strategy:
  • Wildlands Conservancy, will expand its successful Bike and Boat Program on the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers, and the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, including programs offered through the Lehigh Gap Nature Center at the intersection of the D&L and Appalachian trails, with an emphasis on programs for students from the cities of Allentown and Bethlehem.
  • Outward Bound Philadelphia will connect its successful outdoor programming to The Circuit, thereby increasing both use and awareness of the regional trail network, with an emphasis on students in Philadelphia schools, who will eventually be key constituents for Outward Bound’s proposed center on the East Park Reservoir and Schuylkill River Trail, for which the Foundation has provided capital support. (See bottom of this page for a great video about Outward Bound Philadelphia.)

  • YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties will expand its cycling program, developed in partnership with the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, for youth in five schools in Camden. The program will incorporate a new element—Watershed Education on Trails—to provide environmentally focused destination programming. Among the most exciting destinations: Petty’s Island, just off Camden’s banks of the Delaware, where the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust is creating a 400-acre urban nature preserve based on a Foundation-supported plan.

  • The Scattergood Foundation will engage the Student Conservation Association in developing and implementing community-based programs and stewardship activities along a new portion of the Tacony Creek Trail that crosses the 100-acre campus of Friends Hospital, which Scattergood owns and will open to the community as parkland for the first time. Programming will explain and help to implement the development of “green infrastructure” on the site under a grant from the Philadelphia Water Department.
We will report on the progress and impact of this work as we make Greater Philadelphia’s trails, rivers and parks models for animating public spaces and activating new constituencies in support of watershed protection.

Video courtesy of Outward Bound Philadelphia