James Pinsky: Program grows new conservation leaders

Water and education have a lot in common – get enough of both and you’ll thrive.

The Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District not only takes the health of our soil and water seriously, but the well-being of conservation minds as well. In fact, the coordination and implementation of educational programs is, by law, part of our mission under Virginia State Code.

As such, for decades many great and philanthropic hearts and minds within the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Districts have crafted, facilitated, and graduated from some of the best conservation education programs in Virginia. We do this because we know being able to sustain our natural resources begins with education, which then creates awareness and understanding, and then ultimately leadership.

This past week I concluded a three-month pilot program at the Mountain Vista Governor’s School for a conservation-based educational leadership program that I hope will continue in the successful and impactful traditions of other programs within the district family. The Mountain Vista Governor’s School serves students in Clarke, Culpeper, Fauquier, Frederick, Rappahannock, and Warren counties  and the City of Winchester at Lord Fairfax Community College campuses in Middletown and Warrenton.

The program is based on the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute, a professional development program for leaders confronted with Virginia’s most pressing natural resource issues. Inspired by my own experience as a 2014 graduate, I drafted a program that focused on not simply educating high school students about their local natural resource related issues, but empowering them to find and facilitate non-conflict-based resolutions through cooperation, collaboration and consensus building.

I felt teaching and inspiring students to not simply know about natural resource-related issues, but act upon them, was a key aspect to this program. One of the key contributors to people not being active in issues they feel passionately about is the belief that they won’t, or worse, can’t make a difference. This is the farthest thing from the truth.

I pitched the idea to the Mountain Vista Governor’s School staff, and thanks to some great minds like Dee Thompson, a teacher at the school, and school Director Dr. Rosanne Williamson, I was able to facilitate the program through Thompson’s Senior Research Project II curriculum for two classes.

“We seek to have interdisciplinary, authentic experiences for our students,” said Williamson. “We want them involved with the local community, making a difference here and now. The opportunity presented itself when we had time in our schedule to dedicate to such an endeavor.”

Beginning in February, both classes researched local environmental issues ranging from riparian buffers to the impact of human population decline on community services to a multitude of water quality issues. Despite more than 20 different issues, each class had to select one topic by the third class, research its causes and possible solutions, and then present formal, research-based solutions to a panel of professionals.

Williamson weighed in on the program’s success.

“I thought the experience was valuable for the students,” she said. “This project was an in-depth investigation of a local issue with time and resources to enable the students to propose solutions. Concluding with the opportunity to share their ideas with experts in the field added validity and could actually make a difference. The students had the opportunity to better understand our federal structure of government and how policy issues are handled at a local level, as well as develop their organizational skills when working in groups.”

During the project’s research phase, key subject matter experts from the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District, John Marshall Soil and Water Conservation District, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Department of Forestry, Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Fauquier County Water and Sewer Authority spoke to the students, offering in-depth knowledge and critical mentorship toward finding plausible solutions.

On the final day, both classes presented their projects to panelists, which included Dr. Joshua Kincaid, chairman of the Environment and Society Department at Shenandoah University; Jonathon Weakley, vice chairman of the Madison County Board of Supervisors and Culpeper County Department of Environmental Service’s chief operator, Water/Wastewater Department; Ken Alm, planning commissioner for the Center District, Fauquier County; Lt. Ray Prudhum with the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office.

“The forum was impressive,” said Williamson. “Our students were knowledgeable and articulate as I expected them to be.  The judges were supportive of the students’ work and gave relevant suggestions for other options and further study.  I also appreciate getting our name and mission into new agencies in our community.”

James Pinsky is the Education and Information Coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District. Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.