“No Child Left Inside”: Creating the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders
For many reasons, Bayou Land Conservancy embodies the description “the little land trust that could.” This tiny organization with just 3.65 staff members is located in Houston, Texas, the fourth most populous city in the nation. But within this highly developed region, the Conservancy is making a significant impact in preserving land and fostering the next generation of conservation leaders.
Under the intrepid leadership of Executive Director Jennifer Lorenz, the Conservancy is nearing completion on the Spring Creek Greenway, the longest contiguous urban forested corridor in the nation. They also recently conserved the Deer Park Prairie, a 50-acre, pristine piece of land in the middle of an industrial area, thanks to a herculean fundraising effort. Both of these locations serve as educational sites for the organization’s innovative “No Child Left Inside” program, which literally gets the students’ feet wet and their hands dirty as they become field scientists for a day.
Spring Creek Greenway
Now close to 80% complete, the Spring Creek Greenway will ultimately be 33 miles long and cover more than 12,000 acres. Lorenz is hoping it will be 100% complete by 2020: “We’re working hard on that every day.” Located in one of the most densely populated areas in the country, it provides habitat for gray foxes, bald eagles, salamanders, and centuries-old palmettos, sycamores, and bald cypress.
The Greenway also provides a rich learning environment for the Conservancy’s “No Child Left Inside” program. This focused, four-hour field trip mainly serves students from low income families in public schools. The Conservancy receives only a small amount of funding for its education programs from a few foundations, so they have to pull funding from their general operations budget to support this part of their programming. “We fund this program,” Lorenz says, “because we strongly believe it’s very important to grow the next conservation leaders. In such an urban area, it is, was, and always will be vital to have public land that people can get out on.”
During a session, students, who are primarily in 7th grade, engage in Watershed Education and Training (WET). “They learn what a watershed is and the importance of it. Houston is 90% surface water, so we talk about how we need to pick up dog poop and not over pesticize and over fertilize because it ends up in the water. We get them to understand their direct connection to water quality, water that they’re drinking and bathing in,” Lorenz explains. All students are supplied with boots, a dip net, a clipboard with special waterproof paper, and pencils. They get right into the wetland ponds and, using macro viewfinders, they’re able to see what’s in the water. “We have turbid water so it looks dirty at first,” Lorenz says, “but then they can see it’s teeming with wildlife. There are fresh water shrimp, and dragonfly and damselfly nymphs. These eat the mosquito larvae. We show why, as an engineer after they get older, they shouldn’t concrete a pond because all you’re doing is creating a mosquito breeding pit.”
– Jennifer Lorenz, executive director, Bayou Land Conservancy
Working as aquatic scientists, the students do a quantitative and qualitative study of what they’ve pulled out from the water. “They get it in a way that it’s hard to do in a classroom,” Lorenz explains. “We do a pretest and a post test, and at first we’re lucky if they get 10% correct, but after the four-hour session they’re getting 80 to 90% correct.” One of the best investments they’ve made, says Lorenz, is in the rain-proof paper. In addition to being more workable in the field, students can keep the paper and show their families. During the course of the program, students also learn about the trail system, which hopefully will inspire them to share with family members as well.
Deer Park Prairie
Although the majority of the work that Bayou Land Conservancy has done over the past 17 years has focused on the land-water connection, in September of 2013 they raised funds to purchase the Deer Park Prairie, an “old growth” prairie that’s home to pocket gophers, over 50 species of birds, more than 300 native plant species, and a variety of amphibians. What makes this piece of land even more unique is that it’s wedged between subdivisions and oil refineries. The Conservancy facilitated the transfer of ownership to the Native Prairies Association of Texas, and executed and recorded the land’s conservation easement.
Not only is the land now protected, but it also provides a valuable resource for the Conservancy’s educational program. “We got a huge grant from an industry to hire an education person just for the Prairie,” Lorenz explains. “We bought a house there that will host our educator, and we’ll pull in three underserved school districts from right around that area and teach about the importance of native prairie species. We’ll emphasize how people can translate the information into their own yards, incorporating more native plants that can withstand the droughts and rain gluts we’re getting due to climate change.” Since the plants also support pollinators, Conservancy staff will encourage people to create “pollinator pathways” in the surrounding area. The staff is also collecting 10% of the seeds from the prairie’s plants and will then replant the native species in other nearby areas.
The educational impact of “No Child Left Inside” has been “phenomenal,” says Lorenz. Every year they have returning teachers, some for seven years in a row, excited about improving environmental science literacy through direct experience. “Nowadays, it’s all about the tests,” Lorenz says, “and teachers tell us that kids do much better on the science. It’s hands-on science, and a lot of students are better tactile learners than visual or auditory. “
But the real impact is long term and harder to measure. The program’s goal is connecting tomorrow's conservation leaders with nature today. It isn’t hard to imagine that the next generation’s stewards of this important watershed in one of the fastest growing regions of the country are among this group of children not left inside.
Photo by Jennifer Lorenz