The Transformative Power of Nature
Healthy communities do not happen by accident. They are created by the power of choice — the collaborative choices and decisions of all their citizens. The Big Sur Land Trust (BSLT) believes that by working together, individuals, community leaders, nonprofit organizations — such as land trusts — and government agencies can build healthy and thriving communities now and for the future.
In the past five years, BSLT’s mission has broadened beyond conserving significant lands and waters of California’s Central Coast. Its goal is to become a model organization focused on the well-being of people and the conservation and stewardship of land; in short, to connect people and the land. Its new mission reflects this theme: to inspire love of the land and conservation of our treasured landscapes.
BSLT has put its beliefs into action by running overnight summer programs at its conserved Glen Deven Ranch in northern Big Sur for children with limited opportunities in the Salinas Valley. The programs connect young people to the land with the aim of inspiring children through nature and creating a new generation of land stewards.
Statistics Tell a Story
Monterey County is endowed with tremendous natural beauty and resources. Yet many Salinas Valley young people and families have little or no educational interface with nature in a wilderness setting. Land statistics paint this picture.
The City of SaIinas’ ratio of parkland to its 150,000 inhabitants is far below other densely populated cities. Whereas Los Angeles and San Francisco have 6.2 and 6.6 acres of parkland, respectively, for each 1,000 residents, and San Jose has 16.6 acres, Salinas has only 2.9 acres per 1,000 residents. During 2012 there was a total of 21 murders in Salinas, nearly 14 murders per 100,000 residents, compared to California’s statewide average of five murders per 100,000 residents. As of early August, there had been 15 murders in the city during 2013.
Salinas Valley is an agricultural region east of the affluent city of Monterey. It produces large quantities of fruits and vegetables, and, thanks to this plentiful and profitable industry, the valley has earned the nickname “America’s Salad Bowl.” Because of its close proximity to Mexico and the abundance of low-skilled agricultural jobs, the Salinas Valley attracts many migrant workers among its farm laborers.
Not a Camp
With the goal of enriching the lives of Salinas Valley youth through the healing powers of nature, BSLT began running its overnight programs in the summer of 2013. The program is designed for a group of 20 to 25 children at one time, most of whom are Hispanic and living in urban neighborhoods where they have limited access to natural environments.
BSLT developed these programs with assistance from various partners who work to support youth in Salinas Valley. The trust proposed the idea that these other organizations chaperone the children during their stay, while BSLT employees act as teachers. In addition to chaperoning, the organizations choose which youth from their own programs will attend. During the application process, BSLT visits the organizations and shows a presentation about the program. Since many of the youth’s parents have been restricted to urban areas, they are sometimes hesitant to send their children into the “wilderness,” fearing for their safety. So in addition to explaining the curriculum, BSLT does its best to reassure the parents. To ease communication, BSLT also produces its program materials in the majority of the parents’ first language: Spanish.
Although these programs take place during the summer, Director of Community Stewardship Lana Weeks emphasizes at every presentation that BSLT programs are not science camps. As Weeks explains, “There are a lot of environmental camps out there, but we are not in the business of doing environmental camps. There is nothing wrong with them, but that’s not what we’re doing. We are in the business of doing nature programs that transform and inspire.”
A Free-flowin, Creative Schedule
BSLT has deliberately chosen to not have a set schedule of daily lessons for the participants. The staff creates a rough outline of activities in which the youth will participate, but they call their method a “free-flowing schedule.” This ensures that nature is the primary teacher, and the staff instructs based on what opportunity presents itself. For example, the group might be at the river learning about the water cycle when they come across some fresh scat. The BSLT leader can opt to deviate from the lesson to teach about the animal that made the scat. In addition to ecology, the staff leads lessons on healthy eating, striving to make their activities applicable to the participants’ daily lives.
Guest musicians also lead programs at Glen Deven Ranch. One such teacher is Beyoncé Knowles’ percussionist, Marcie Chapa. A Texas native who has traversed the world as a respected musician, she is also a dynamic teacher, stressing empowerment and expression of self through drumming.
Reuniting and Reconnecting
When the youth travel to Glen Deven Ranch, the experience is, for most, their first introduction to the natural environment. In an effort to ensure that this will not be their only opportunity to connect with the land, BSLT plans to hold a fall reunion at a property closer to their neighborhood. Marks Ranch, a protected property near Salinas Valley, will be the site for daylong activities for each program group. Beginning in 2014, BSLT will also run summer day programs at Marks Ranch with the hope that continued exposure to the natural world will inspire the youth to bring their families into these environments to share their experiences. These educational programs are explicitly designed to inspire passion for conserving and preserving all natural environments.
BSLT believes that people can only be as healthy as the lands we inhabit, and conservation works best when whole communities are involved and every member is a stakeholder. By reaching out to create innovative partnerships and by encouraging local economic development that supports natural resource conservation, community-based conservation efforts go well beyond traditional land protection strategies.