When I was in college, I did this “thing” called Outdoor School.
While there, we taught local students all about working together and lessons on natural history, cultural history and all the cool things you can learn while playing outside.
At the end of the week, after all these lessons about conservation and the importance of natural resources, we hosted a scenario where we’d talk to kids about a private landowner coming in to build on public lands that were traditionally being used to explore, experience and learn outdoors (ie: the camp we were at).
We hosted a public hearing, shared the proposed development plans, and talked about how the land owner didn’t really care about the wildlife using that space or natural processes taking place on those lands. Rather, what they cared about was creating an experience for paying customers and paying the bills (logical, right?).
Kids would be in an uproar! They would debate how we need to “speak for the trees” and fight for what’s right for the natural world…and I would be blown away by how emotional they would become. But sometimes, I wondered if we were living in a bubble – if what we were doing would go the distance and stick with these kids so that they would become stewards of the places they know hold more value as natural sites than anything else.
Well, tonight, for the first time in my life, I sat in a public hearing to discuss exactly what our mock scenarios used to cover. And the moment I heard the landowner say “don’t let your emotions get in the way…this is a useless piece of land” I was back at Penn State’s Outdoor School and so much energy came flooding in…
But outside of the emotion I was feeling, I heard a community member next to me say “useless for who?” and another one say “depends on the use – you can’t build on it, but a wetland for a frog is heaven!”. And then the arms and hands start raising – more people wanted to speak out against just how “useless” this piece of land is.
And I realized something: we were not in a bubble and stewardship is alive. It’s alive in ourselves and in our communities.
Then my amazing husband – a voting member of a board that will ultimately make the final decision for the sale of this property – spoke up.
The landowner admitted to clearing the “useless” space and he said we have a bigger issue before us than whether or not a town will sell a piece of public property to a private business: first, clearing a public piece of land without consulting the town is “technically” a trespass, but more importantly, a rare or endangered species could have inhabited the nearly 3 acres that person unlawfully cleared – species that are, in fact, present regionally.
And at that moment, I heard My husband speak for the trees and the birds and give each of the community members in the room an even louder voice than we had for just sitting in that town hall room.
Not only was I amazed that this whole thing was happening, but then I became so proud of someone I appreciate SO much for speaking up and reiterating that the proposed land was, in fact, NOT “useless”.
It’s a wild thought, especially in the way our current world appears to function – that we still have the ability to influence our environment, community, and maybe even our government.
A decision was not made as to the fate of this “useless” piece of land – a piece, might I add, that connects to an existing river walk and could potentially be included in the larger community river walk zone. But our voices were heard, and the town plans to investigate further; and I certainly hope, in the end, that the vote is whole-heartedly in favor of the community and the land.
And to those of you who were with us tonight: thank you. Thank you for coming to the table and representing the space, species and experiences that public piece of land exemplifies. Sometimes, it takes the voices of a few to help a whole community win. Fingers crossed…