The Green Scene: Preserving the future while holding on to the past

July 29 marks graduation from AmeriCorps Project Conserve for 22 environmental enthusiasts who have been serving at 14 different environmental organizations throughout Western North Carolina.

Take me to the river: AmeriCorps Project Conserve members Eric Chance, Josephine Butler, Maureen Halsema and Rebecca Childress gathered a truckload of trash along the Watauga River during an AmeriCorps service day back in May.

For the past 11 months, members have been involved with a combination of community service projects and peer trainings at their host sites, including Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, RiverLink, Appalachian Voices, Friends of the Nature Center and others.

AmeriCorps Project Conserve was the first AmeriCorps project in the nation to focus solely on conservation issues. Administered by the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy in Hendersonville, the program’s mission is to help local landowners protect their land and water resources. Project Conserve is supported through grants from the North Carolina Commission on Volunteerism & Community Service and from the Corporation for National & Community Service.

Project Conserve members share a passion for the preservation of local wilderness and watersheds. Members give back to the community in a variety of ways, through outreach and other projects, such as water-quality monitoring, volunteer coordination and education.

AmeriCorps member Maureen Halsema explains: “Project Conserve members approach the same issues in different ways in hopes of accomplishing the common goal of conservation.” Halsema serves as associate editor at The Appalachian Voice, an environmental news publication, reporting on environmental issues in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains.

Eric Chance also serves with Appalachian Voices, assisting the Upper Watauga Riverkeepers. Through the group’s project, Operation Medicine Cabinet, Chance helped prevent approximately 228,563 pills, 32.2 gallons of liquid medication, 2,300 “sharps” — needles, syringes, and lancets — and two glucose meters from polluting the Watauga River.

Rebecca Childress, AmeriCorps member and RiverLink's Education Coordinator, spent her service term leading free educational workshops with children throughout the French Broad River Watershed. In the past 10 months, Childress alone taught 2,393 students about the nature of watersheds and watershed conservation.

When not serving at their host sites, AmeriCorps members are giving back to their communities in a variety of ways. On October 24, 2009, Conserve members joined volunteers of the Burton Street community in West Asheville to help weatherize five low-income homes. By reducing the amount of airflow through the homes, Conservers helped prepare these homeowners for the cold winter ahead, ultimately lowering their heating bills. “It is nice to know that we are making a difference today and in the long run,” says AmeriCorps member Josephine Butler, who serves at the Friends of the Nature Center. “Not only were we warming up their homes for the winter, we were also bringing down their cost of living.”

Members say they want to help communities preserve the future while holding on to the past.

On Martin Luther King Day, members of different groups joined forces in Polk County to help repair and revitalize the Stoney Knoll Community Center, site of the oldest African American library in the state. Members spent the day cleaning, painting and restoring the historic venue for future use. In May of this year, members traveled north to the Watauga River in Boone for a river cleanup. Members filled three truckloads of recyclables and trash in seven hours.

AmeriCorps Project Conserve members not only share conservation issues and information with members of the community — they also teach and inspire each other. Once a month, members gather to learn about the issues their fellow Project Conserve members are passionate about. Trainings have covered a broad range of topics, including conflict resolution, forest management, trail construction, invasive plant identification and disaster preparedness.

January’s peer training was an emotional experience for everyone involved. Amid snow and frigid temperatures, Conserve members ventured to the town of Appalachia, Va., for a training focused on mountaintop removal. Members trekked to a clearing where they witnessed firsthand the destruction of mountaintop removal: a horizon with missing peaks.

For many of the participants, the experience was tragic and affirmed the need for environmental conservation. Alyssa Lawless, AmeriCorps Communications and Outreach Coordinator serving with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy explains, “The peer training on mountaintop removal reaffirmed my dedication to protect land and watershed resources after my AmeriCorps service term is complete.”

Completion is near. On July 29, members graduate from their eleven-month service term with AmeriCorps Project Conserve. Members will have served a total of 1,700 hours, working to protect the unique natural resources of the southern Blue Ridge Mountain region.

[Kyle E. Wolff serves as AmeriCorps Communication & Outreach Coordinator at RiverLink. She can be reached at wolff.kylee@gmail.com]

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