Dirty Jobs: Land Conservation and Environmental Management

My time at Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail has been split in many different directions, doing many different types of work, and working with all types of people. You can really learn a lot about the society we live in behind stands of pines and hardwoods, in the riparian lands along our creeks and rivers. Last week I went on a site visit to a Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) property (I won’t specify the exact location so all landowners may remain anonymous). This conserved land is separated by just a few parcels, and as many landowners from our most popular natural surface trail in the Carolina Thread Trail (CTT) network. To make this connection, would add about two miles onto our existing trail, and is a very tangible goal depending on landowner cooperation. That being said, I and two others went to the site to walk the corridor and assess trail possibilities. What we were met with was both exciting and discouraging.

Our walk started off through a managed forest of loblolly pines, which make for a great trail because of the relatively clean understory and forest floor, and then shifted down to the creek bank where the walking got a bit more laborious, but still had great potential for a trail. The creek wandered through the forest, large native pines and hardwoods on the east bank, and an intimidating wall of invasive privet on the west. Eventually the forest gave way to a wide, beautiful wetland area fed by a creek (name undisclosed) and the flood waters of the lake (name undisclosed). This area was quite pleasant this time of year, but would be a breeding ground for mosquitoes in warmer weather. The wetland area would require a series of bridges or boardwalks to implement a sustainable trail (although bridges and boardwalks would be a nice amenity for users, it can be a very expensive obstacle for us). Back into the woods we went for a short distance until we reached an untouched pool of the lake. This water body encompassed about ten acres, but was only about two feet deep and littered with trees, fallen branches, and exposed islands of grasses—a heaven on earth for wood ducks and other waterfowl. As we approached, sure enough, we bumped up a pair of wood ducks, a blue heron, and three Canadian geese. This was a beautiful sight, and rare to see on a commercialized lake such as this one. Our admiration, unfortunately, soon turned to dismay as we made our way around the water and saw the disgusting scene on the other side.

As we circumvented the pond, we came upon a litter pile of glass and plastic bottles, plastic toys, beer cans, tires, Styrofoam, and old household appliances. This was the largest and most dense litter pile I have ever seen in an undeveloped area. It was amazing amount of trash, and we soon came to realize that to make a trail a reality in this area we would need to have multiple volunteer workdays with many hands working diligently for hours, filling several dump truck loads of trash for removal. Trash pickup is not the most glamorous work in land management, but one that is necessary in many cases. This is one of the “dirty jobs” in land conservation work, and frankly, a job that can be over-looked or brushed under the rug because of the limited resources in small land trusts and other environmental organizations like ourselves.

As a conservationist, this is extremely frustrating to see. Trash is a serious problem in our society and a major concern for the environment through its impacts on wildlife, water quality, etc. Action needs to be taken on this front, and I’m not exactly sure what that will look like. Is it local, state, or federal policy changes? Or is it an effort made through corporate responsibility initiatives from companies producing these products, maybe an effort at the grassroots level? I’m not sure, but if something isn’t done about this soon, the increasing global population combined with the societal obsession with on-the-go products, fast food, and plastic products will be the demise of our natural environment as we know it today.

Seeing is believing. It is hard to wrap the human brain around something of this magnitude from anecdotes and photos, so it is important for organizations like us to get people outside and facilitate this conversation. But remember, non-profit environmental organizations love volunteers and would fall apart without them. So please look into spending some time researching and finding places to get involved in the conservation efforts wherever that may be.

The Carolina Thread Trail: A Collection of Unfinished Thoughts

On my desk, there are at least four scrapped, partially written blog posts. Sentences scratched out, pictures scribbled on, quotes highlighted, bullet points listed. None of these drafts have made it past my legal pad (sorry Jeff) because I felt that they either didn’t properly describe my experiences, focused too much on one aspect, or weren’t focused enough.

After five months at the Carolina Thread trail, I’ve realized that a blog post will never fully encapsulate my experiences, no matter how many drafts I write. Basically, I need to stop being so selective and post something already. So here you go. A blog post that’s been five months in the making but was written in a single afternoon.

First, my general spiel. I’m technically employed by the Catawba Lands Conservancy, a land trust that permanently preserves land to improve water, protect wildlife habitats and local farms, and provide connections to nature. The connections to nature part is where I come in-I primarily work with the Carolina Thread Trail, an initiative spearheaded by CLC to connect 15 counties in North and South Carolina through a network of over 1500 miles of trails, greenways, and blueways.

Things get a little more complicated when I start to explain exactly what it is that I do. Below is an excerpt from Blog Post Draft #2

‘Job Title _______________________’

I stared at this seemingly innocent question on a grant application for a few minutes before popping my head into my boss’s office.

“Hey Tom, what’s my official job title”?”

We bounce around a few ideas (Marketing Assistant, Marketing and Outreach, CTT Fellow) before deciding on Research Fellow- the broadest and yet most accurate description that we could come up with.

This post then just turned into a multi-paragraph list of things I’ve done (which is why it never made it online). I’ll subject you to a few things from that list.

  • Write grant applications
  • Research peer trail organizations
  • General trail maintenance (aka kill invasive species)
  • Create social media posts
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Blog Post Draft #4 focused on the theme “collaboration”. In my 16-person office, no one has just one responsibility.

Our work is a giant, multi-year, multi-decade group project that everyone is actually invested in… because there is a lot more than an ‘A’ riding on it.

Deep, I know. This post was scrapped for obvious reasons (I was trying too hard to be clever and match the quality of my peers’ blog posts). However, I stand by the core of that post.

One of my major goals for this year was to figure out what aspect of non-profit work I want to focus on and pursue as my career. I’ve realized that non-profit work isn’t that simple, especially in small offices. Everyone’s responsibilities are tangled together and, in order to be successful, you need to be well-versed in teamwork.

The title of Blog Post Draft #1 is “The Davidson Bubble Never Bursts” and was written two weeks into my fellowship. Because I had just started at the Thread Trail, it is about the community that exists outside the physical Davidson College campus and doesn’t really offer anything of value.

Blog Post Draft #3 is really just a jumble of thoughts written on post-it notes and in the margins or grant drafts.

First time I overheard someone talk about the Thread Trail outside of work

Day on trail vs day in office

Trails not just environmental- political. Healthy. Social. Transportation. Economic. -> look at things from diff. perspectives

Before I started to work at the Carolina Thread Trail, I saw it only as an environmental non-profit. We help build trails, plants species, and take people on hikes. What else would it be? But one day as I was talking to Tom Okel, the executive director of CLC and CTT,  he mentioned that the Thread Trail doesn’t identify as an environmental non-profit because it is so much more. Trails and preserved open spaces improve air quality and protect native species, sure, but that’s only one aspect. We’re a community development non-profit and a health organization. Trails bring jobs and tourism to the region. They act as transportation alternatives. They are gathering places and recreational facilities. They lower obesity rates and increase home values.  CTT doesn’t fit into one category. Our mission is to get people to support trails for whatever reason because in the end, we all benefit.

So there it is. My five months consolidated into one post. Hopefully I’ll get around to expanding / explaining things that I alluded to in this blog post. The important thing is that it’s out there and  I can throw away the jumble of papers littering my desk.

*I realize that I used a lot of different names and abbreviations to refer to the Thread Trail but, in the spirit of this post, I’m just going to leave them. The Thread, CTT, Carolina Thread Trail, Thread Trail… they’re all the same.

 

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