Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Ecosystem Restoration After Hurricane Harvey

Ecosystem Restoration After Hurricane Harvey
Celia Montemurri and Sarah Richard, 2019 Cohort

Sarah: It was about a month before the stress of finals, and anticipation of Christmas break was upon us. I was scrolling through my emails when I noticed an opportunity to attend an 8-day winter breakout in Houston, Texas. After the devastation that Hurricane Harvey brought the city of Houston, one could expect the need for house repairs and cleanups. Instead, this trip was seeking individuals willing to help with conservation and restoration efforts. My roommate, and fellow Stew, Celia, has taught me nearly everything I know about the importance and great need for ecosystem restoration. I quickly forwarded her the email stating quite bluntly, “DUDE. We have to do this.”

Celia: Sarah’s email about this breakout trip found me at the perfect time. My grandma lives just outside Houston, and her house was three feet deep in water after the hurricane. I felt very helpless being so far away during the devastation, and couldn’t stop thinking about all the other people displaced, as well as those who lost their lives. I wanted to do something. Participating in environmental service that helped people at the same time was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. When the morning came to embark on our 17-hour voyage to Texas, I was stoked!

Sarah: Environmental service is something I feel is often under-appreciated. A frustrating facet for anyone in the field, the impact of direct services such as disaster relief often receives more praise and support than preventive services in conservation or regulation.

Celia: The journey to Texas was long, but the company was good. Sarah slept for 80% of the ride (Sarah: Hey, I was tired!), so I had the chance to get to know the six other members of our group. We comprised of two chemical engineering majors, two mechanical engineering majors, one sociology major, one biology major, one environmental biology major (that’s me!), and our fearless leader Emily, a biology masters student in Dr. Chelse Prather’s Lab. A modge-podge group, we were all excited for the opportunity to learn, reach out, and make a difference.

Sarah: We arrived in Galveston, where would spend our first night of camp. The fact that we were camping nearly the entire the trip, was something that initially attracted me to sign up. Truly immersing yourself in the natural environment you are working in provides an opportunity that the luxury of a warm shower and hotel heater could not. Sleeping, eating, and sharing fellowship under the stars with the water just yards away offered a unique spiritual experience to reflect on the work of each day.

Celia: While at camp we took advantage of our little free time to walk on the shore of the gulf. The sunny skies and cool breeze were a nice break from the below zero weather we had been experiencing in Dayton just days before. One thing we immediately took note of, however, was the sea foam. There was a lot of it on the sand, and when we bent to take a closer look, a strange, iridescent shine was immediately apparent. A little research soon told us why. Many of us remember the tragic Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. As it turns out, oil spills on offshore rigs are not an uncommon occurrence, although they usually don’t occur on that scale. According to the Houston Chronicle, “Galveston Bay has averaged 285 spills a year since 1998.” In addition to the oil, agricultural nutrient runoff from the Mississippi River is contributing to an 8,776 square mile dead zone in the gulf. Consequently, the immense volume of decomposing algae contributes to the foam washing up on the shore. This was a sad sight for all of us, and strengthened our resound to do what good we could for the environment while we were there and after we left.

Sarah: This being said, we did take the opportunity to take a swim in the gulf. I have certainly made better, or at least warmer decisions, but after a long day of work, it was worth it, if just for the giddy laughs.

Celia: The University of Houston Coastal Center was an amazing site to kick off our week! The entrance on the side of highway 2004 emphasized its majesty, as it greatly juxtaposed its industrial surrounding. The coastal center consists of over 300 acres of coastal tall grass prairie, just like the ones that would have covered much of the state of Texas before European settlement in the 19th century. Now, less than one percent of Texas’s coastal prairies remain, due to Texas’ agriculture industry and urban development.

Prairie interspersed with invasive Chinese tallow tree

Invasive woody species also pose a large threat to the native coastal prairie ecosystems. The prairie at the coastal center is being invaded by Triadica sebifera, or Chinese Tallow. Chinese Tallow is a beautiful tree with white bark and heart-shaped leaves. Native to Eastern Asia, it was brought to North America for its use in the soap making industry. Our two days at the coastal center revolved around stopping the advance of this tree into the prairie. Armed with loppers, handsaws, one large, somewhat scary ax-like tool, and a machete (Sarah’s agent of choice), we began our crusade. The work was difficult and very tiring, but at the end of the day, taking a step back to observe the full scope of our destruction was rewarding. Plus, I worked muscles in my arms that I didn’t even know I had.

Sarah: During the first two days at the Coastal Center, I was overwhelmed with the amount of information to take in. I admittedly never gave much thought to these grasses, but in reality, they are environmental warriors. With root systems reaching heights much greater than the average human, they are disputably the best natural defense against abrupt flood waters. Not to mention a host of many vital insects and animals. Having the chance to explore one of the largest preserved prairies in the area was a huge awakening for the importance of environmentally conscious zoning laws and regulatory policy.

Intact non-tallow invaded prairie at the University of Houston Coastal Center

Celia: Our third day in Houston, we arrived at Kolter Elementary School and were greeted by the smiling face of Ahlene Shong, the Kolter Pocket Prairie Guardian and a retired science teacher at Kolter. Ahlene’s passion for the environment carried over to her teaching when she proposed putting a pocket prairie on the school’s property to teach children about native Texas ecosystems. What a cool lady, right?

Jennie Katharine Kolter Elementary School was badly damaged by flooding during Harvey

Luckily, Ahlene connected with Jaime González, the Community Conservation Director at the Katy Prairie Conservancy, who helped her get support for her project. Jaime combines restoration efforts with education at over 25 pocket prairies through the Prairie Builders Schools & Parks program, so he and Ahlene made the perfect team.

Buffalo Bob watching over the Kolter Elementary Pocket Prairie

Jaime and Ahlene taught us how to give the prairie a “haircut,” cutting down the tall grasses to simulate grazing by bison, which would be a normal occurrence in this ecosystem (but unfortunately no longer exist in Houston).

Sarah: The second pocket Prairie we visited was on the grounds of the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center. The perfect model of what a Pocket Prairie can offer a city or community, the prairie itself covers around 2 acres of land in the heart of Houston's medical hub. It offers patients and their families a space for natural healing and opportunity to briefly escape thoughts of their sickness. In addition, the prairie constitutes a living classroom to educate the public on the importance of natural drains in the hope to inspire future restoration in the concrete jungle of downtown Houston.

Seeding and transplanting at MD Anderson Cancer Center Pocket Prairie

We were met by Jaime again, who led us in the pursuit to prepare for the spring growing season- by seeding and transplanting native wildflowers and grasses. An hour before our work day was to be over, it began to downpour. After running to the van to avoid being the perfect target of a lightning bolt, I took this opportunity to reflect on the strength of nature. Prairies are resilient- essentially unaffected by the devastation that left many in despair just months prior to our visit. Last semester we closed our River Steward seminar with a lecture, or rather dialogue, with Professor Bien from the philosophy department. We discussed the physical properties of water and its fluidity contrasted with its incomprehensible strength. Water can be quite ruthless in its destruction, leaving humans entirely defenseless. I strongly believe, however, that like many other aspects of our natural surroundings, water is not meant to be controlled, especially in the capacity it is today. This can be seen in the destruction and disturbance of habitat due to rerouting and damming rivers. How do we replicate water in our own daily lives? How can we challenge ourselves to put better trust in the natural form of our water systems?

Celia: This is something that I struggle with in our world today. There seems to be such a focus on controlling nature, and our society’s viewpoint of nature has changed from a nurturing, providing mother, to a wild, uncontrollable force. Our patriarchal systems push us to micromanage, restrict, and dominate our surroundings, and all the while we do this, we create infrastructure which may bring immediate economic benefits, but which ultimately leads to the destruction of not only human life and dignity, but the lives of all other species.

Sarah: Our final day of service was spent at the Buffalo Bayou Park, a beautiful 16-acre park stretching along the banks of Buffalo Bayou. The park took a pretty hard hit during Harvey. Sediment from upstream was dropped off on the banks of the Bayou (just a Texan word for river) reaching heights as tall as me! The last few months have been spent removing this debris and restoring the park. We were tasked with removing dead trees with the help of an eager group of high school students from the area. 

The mission of this park to connect to Downtown Houston around the river inspired me to imagine the possibilities for the Dayton Riverfront Master Plan. As former Mayor Parker stated, “Houston owes its very existence to Buffalo Bayou. Today, Buffalo Bayou Partnership is taking a neglected waterway and transforming it into an attractive and inviting gateway into downtown and beyond.” How relevant to the work of the Rivers institute and stewards program!

 Last semester I took a class entitled Cities and Suburbs with Dr. Felix Fernando.  In this course, we looked at cities as an environmental function. One of my favorite sections within this unit was the exploration of Urban ecosystem services. These services include: provisional, regulatory, cultural, and supportive. Something I found Buffalo Bayou Park to model very well. It is moments like this, where I see classroom knowledge come to life, that make me adrenalized to be in this field. Cities have the possibility to be radically sustainable places to live, work, and play. What an exciting position for Dayton to be in as we consider the future of growth of our beloved city (the inclusive, non-destructive, uplifting, kind of growth).

Buffalo Bayou Park

Celia: Our trip to Houston was an experience I will never forget. I gained a tremendous insight about ecology, conservation, and community in a way that can only be understood through experience. In addition, I gained a new sort of hope- hope that there are people out there who are doing their best to save the environment, and hope that there is a job out there for me where I can truly make a difference doing something I am interested in and passionate about. In the future, I am excited to take the new knowledge I have to guide my life vocation.

Sarah: I packed up my great list of new perspectives, connections, and experiences and we began our 1,000-mile journey back home. As a mechanical engineering student, I strive to have a better understanding of the decision-making process. Opening my mind to the importance of ecosystem restoration and conservation has allowed me to consider the responsibility that industry and city governments have in designing and supporting communities with natural systems at the center of conversation. I challenge our readers to consider just slowing down and taking the time to listen. Listen to one another. Listen to the concerned. Listen to nature.

Monumental Moments” a series by Anthony Thompson Schumate, 2015

Learn More:


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Power of a River

The Power of a River
by Claire Roberts (2020 cohort)
        When I was younger, my family and I would spend our summers in northern Michigan at our cottage.  My sister, Grace, and I filled our days adventuring along the river that ran through our backyard.  Before leaving for the summer, my Dad would always tell me to go down to the dock and say goodbye to the river. It has become something that I always do before leaving. I sit on the end of the dock, and lean over to let the water flow through my fingers. I just watch the river flow for a few minutes, sometimes just closing my eyes to take in the sound of the water gently hitting the dock. Leaving without saying goodbye and acknowledging the role it has in bringing my family together seems disrespectful.  I do not feel compelled to bid farewell to a lake or an ocean, but a river, a river is different somehow. In a way it represents our lives. If I had returned to that river the very next day, it maybe have appeared to be the same, but the water that is flowing through it is new. A river is always transforming, not unlike ourselves. That river brought me and my family closer during the summers. The time we spent there brought us all a sense of renewal. This was the first time I experienced the power of a river and this year I have seen it again. In our program, we have people from many different walks of life, majors, hometowns, and viewpoints. However, we are a cohesive group that supports and respects each other. It has been so incredible to look at all the members of my cohort and see how each and every one of them has really grown this semester. While the river behind my cottage will always hold a special place in my heart, it is the Great Miami River I am thankful for now for bringing together this inspiring group of people.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

St. Louis and Dayton: A Juxtaposition of Cities

St. Louis and Dayton: A Juxtaposition of Cities
Natalie Merline, 2020 Cohort

I grew up in Eureka, Missouri, a town outside the city of St. Louis. If you look at a map of my town, you see that it’s mostly surrounded by the Meramec River, something I never fully realized until I left home. I would drive to high school every morning not realizing on the other side of the trees across the street was the river.

If you zoom out a little farther, you see that the boundaries of St. Louis are made mostly by the convergence of two rivers, the Missouri and Mississippi. One side of the Missouri River is St. Charles County and the other is St. Louis County. One side of the Mississippi is Missouri and the other Illinois.

I grew up surrounded by rivers that I never truly saw. It’s only as I sit here in my apartment in Dayton, Ohio, 391 miles away, that I see the beauty in that. It was only when I learned about the many rivers that converge here in Dayton and how important rivers are to Dayton, that I realized how important the rivers in my hometown and city are.

They are also quite a juxtaposition, Dayton and St. Louis. Both consist of three major rivers converging and both have certain boundaries laid out by the river, however the treatment both cities have of their rivers could not be more different. In Dayton, the rivers are prized, protected, and beautified. They are used to get people outside, they are beautified with river walks, bike paths, and parks in order to get more people to want to enjoy the rivers and come to Dayton. In St. Louis, the rivers are trashed and not held in any sort of high regard. There are no plans, at least that I know of, to beautify the rivers and make them a point of attraction. I think that’s why it took me coming to Dayton to actually see the rivers I left behind in my hometown.

Even in their disgraced form, brown, seemingly lifeless, and surrounded by concrete, I now have the ability to see the beauty within these rivers and how much they’ve shaped the culture and history of St. Louis and my present life.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Square One: Not a Bad Place to Be

Square One: Not a Bad Place to Be
Troy Lampenfeld, Philosophy

I arrived on campus at my home away from home, brimming with nostalgic glee and prepared for the adventures to be brought by my sophomore year. After unpacking and checking out my new place I bid farewell to dog Stanley and my mother who was of course crying as she does any time she drops me at school. This wasn’t quite a normal arrival however; the place was a ghost town compared to what I remembered move in day looking like my freshman year. In fact, I was alone for most of my first day on campus. After all the only people on campus were athletes, faculty, and of course the rest of the River Stewards whom I would grow to know and love over the next few days.

 I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous walking into my first day of orientation. A fresh set of faces and names to learn, new relationships to be explored, and a lot of impressions to make. Despite my nerves however, I made it through the day and through the whole wonderful process of orientation. From being educated on Dayton’s aquifer to laughing with new friends around the fire to paddling through the fountains in downtown Dayton, I loved every second of it. But for the time being I’ll spare you the details of orientation, they’re memories that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life, but I think for now I’d like to talk instead about what the experience did for me.

Sophomore year of college I believe will prove to be one of the most formative years of my life. The start of my first semester was the first time that I’d been left entirely to my own devices, living in my own apartment, making my own money and managing my life without the close supervision of parents and guidance counselors that I had freshman year. Freedom to go in whatever direction I chose. Square one. This was my opportunity to prove to myself what I was capable of, but to do that I’d need dedication and conviction.

Now my life before this year wasn’t devoid of those principles, but because of experiences like River Stewards orientation I carved those values deeper into my character, not only in regard to my work ethic, but also my beliefs. Orientation helped to start off one of the most important years of my life by renewing my resolve and reminding me of the reason I’m in school. I gained so much in just a few days it was near unfathomable.

Along with this tremendous benefit to my development as an adult, orientation simultaneously reminded me that even in a time where every pressure in my life points toward responsibility and adulthood, it’s okay to be a kid sometimes. Learning and becoming better while having fun and embracing the things I loved to do showed me that being responsible and dedicated doesn’t have to mean losing myself in the process. And while a stern face and a stiff demeanor are often necessary to get by in the world, every once in a while, it pays to be a kid.

So, as I continue through sophomore year, the starting block for the rest of my life, I stand ready to face down challenges that come my way, and excited take them on with a smile. Much of this confidence I owe to those few long days on the River with my good friends. Thank you all, I won’t forget it.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Living Like Water: Daoism and our Rivers

Living Like Water: Daoism and our Rivers
Kelly Hines, Biology

Recently, we had Dr. Bein in the Philosophy department present to us the theory that we could and should live out Daoist lifestyles, more specifically how we may be successful and at peace living like water.

Prior to this lecture a fellow River Steward, Carter Spires, had leant me the book The Dharma Bums. Both the book and the lecture spoke to me in very different ways, but they also both echoed the call to recognize life and all of it’s challenges and details in new and significant ways. The presentation on Daoism seemed to have called me to be more mindful of challenges in how I act in response to them, not just how they react to me. A lot of time and energy can be wasted by focusing on what you can’t do versus what you can. The book Dharma Bums has introduced this new way of mindful living for me, one that draws me to look more closely not only at how I live but at how others live the ways that they do. I think that being more contemplative about not only what I take part in, but what I view around me has changed my perspective and helped me to focus my outlook on the beauty in which we live in. 

Reflecting back on several events I have taken part in with River Stewards, I can more closely identify with the impactful community members we have met. Most significantly, I really connect with the ideals and the mission that Chad from Living Lands and Waters holds. It is so neat how a guy suddenly decided one day to get up and clean a river, let alone continue this mission throughout the rest of his life up until now. I think that it is interesting to recognize how his life is full of so much meaning, how his daily actions are fulfilling. He is making a difference in ways that many people aren’t brave enough to and I feel as though I myself do not recognize that quality in enough people. We are all brave in different ways, Chad is just brave in a way that connects him not only with the river, but with communities and people. If life is a summation of our connections, then the way in which we live should be centered the way that Chad’s is, making positive connections with whoever he encounters. I see ideals from both the Daoism seminar, and the book when I reflect on how he has come to live the life he leads. I hope for all of us that we can be as brave, and as impactful as Chad was. 

Linking Environment and Economy

Linking Environment and Economy
Jesse Carbonara, Biology
Junior River Steward, Jesse Carbonaro, explains how her experiences in the program shaped her role with the Hanley Sustainability Fund.

Jesse and other analysts from the Hanley Sustainability Fund

River Stewards demonstrate the correlation of environment and economy. Through the Dayton Riverfront Master Plan, we saw how development focused on enhancing current environmental assets can reinforce positive economic development. Firsthand, we have visited organizations that connect environment and economy. Some provide environmental public and private services. Some focus on advocacy and education. Both rely on economic conditions to exist, while contributing to the economy. An environmental business can add growth to the economy, and a growing economy can finance more environmental initiatives.

River Stewards revealed a perspective of environment and economy that I had not been exposed to. This sparked a passion to learn more about this relationship. I took this passion, and I applied to work at the University of Dayton’s Hanley Sustainability Fund. After multiple interviews I was accepted as the first non-business major of the fund, and the 3rd women of the group.

The Hanley Sustainability Fund is student-run investment group with a portfolio exceeding $120,000, whose primary focus is investing in companies that have an environmentally conscious business model. The fund strives to over perform the stock market while embracing environmentally conscious companies. Our investments show the University of Dayton’s commitment to the environment, by divesting from companies whose actions negatively impact the environment. Our fund continually outperforms the stock market demonstrating how showing a passion for the environment can be fiscally beneficial. It seems to be a mutualistic relationship where both environment and business benefit.

My role within the fund is Head of Sustainability. I am responsible for investigating a potential investment environmental impact via a Sustainability report. I have developed a quantitative assessment that analyzes several ways a company can impact the environment. This includes an in-depth look at water and energy usage, waste, carbon emissions, supply chain, and social responsibility. They score in these individual categories based on a rubric with criteria. This criteria analyzes history of reduction, their current plans and procedures, any sustainability oriented goals and the nature of their business. I set goals to ensure that each investment improves the overall sustainability rating of the fund. If it strives to help the fund further achieve our goals it is passed to the next step of deciding if we will invest.

Through this research of companies’ sustainable practices it has become apparent how striving to approve your environmental footprint can help a companies’ bottom line. Sustainability is becoming a cornerstone of all Fortune 500 companies. River Stewards has demonstrated the local relationship and further exposed me to the relationship on a greater scale. I am very thankful for the perspective that River Stewards provides. Given its interdisciplinary nature it provides each member with a broader view of how sustainability connects to the world. In my case, I felt a strong passion to continue to learn about how economy and environment connect

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Stewards for the Environment: The Benefits of Early Childhood Outdoor Education

Stewards for the Environment: The Benefits of Early Childhood Outdoor Education 
Meaghan Lightfoot
2020 Cohort

                As a child, no one was able to ever persuade me to come inside. Every day after school, you could always find me in the wooded area behind my house, running in between and climbing on the trees, building piles of leaves during the fall, exploring creeks, and looking for rocks. I’ve always felt a close connection to nature; I was raised with a high regard for the outdoors and most of the fond memories of my childhood involve those woods behind my house. So, when my Child Development teacher showed a video discussing outdoor education for children, I was intrigued. When the video presentation ended, however, I could hear the scoffs and judgmental remarks of my classmates. “That’s so dangerous.” “I would never send my child to a school like that! So irresponsible!” The news report video was entitled Kids Gone Wild: Denmark’s Forest Kindergartens, in which children were running around in the woods and climbing on trees in 5-degree weather. All this was taking place at a Forest Kindergarten in Demark, under the supervision of a teacher who encouraged the kids to roam freely in the natural environment. When asked for our opinions on outdoor education, I was the only student in the class of 30 who agreed with Denmark’s methods of outdoor learning. As a River Steward, I feel a close and personal connection to nature and the outdoors, and was able to view this video differently than my classmates. It is my belief that fostering outdoor experiences is so incredibly vital and important in the dexterity of child development, especially in a society where technology is distracting us from the natural world.

                  According to the video, 10% of Denmark’s preschools are forest schools, with the classroom being outdoors despite the weather or time of year. The number of Forest schools has doubled in Denmark in the last 20 years, and numbers continue to increase with their rising popularity. The video also addresses the issue of integrating those children who attended forest schools into the classroom environment when outdoor education is no longer offered for their age group. Research is showing that compared to 3 to 5 year-old children educated in classrooms, kids who attended forest preschools and kindergartens are less stressed, can concentrate more, and show better motor development skills. In his article Leave No Child Inside, Richard Louv points out the risks of raising children under the protection of our homes, with no outside experiences or contact, stating this causes “threats to their independent judgement and value of place, to their ability to feel awe and wonder, to their sense of stewardship for the Earth, and most immediately, threats their psychological and physical health.” He then goes on to mention that studies show that “schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math.”

As a future environmental educator, I see the importance of getting children engaged in the natural environment at a young age, fostering a love for the environment that will hopefully stay with them throughout the course of their lives. The outdoors is a place I am passionate about, and that’s why I’m choosing to complete my service requirement at Learning Tree Farm here in Dayton,  Ohio. The farm’s mission is to facilitate learning in a traditional farm setting, allowing people to take the time to explore the outdoor area and see the interwoven connection between humans and nature first hand. Their nature preschool encourages children to develop and implement their curious minds into discovering their surrounding environment. Volunteering at the nature preschool, I’ve witnessed the excitement these kids have coming back to the farm each day, feeding and caring for the animals, and exploring the local flowers and plants. They learn how to be stewards for the environment and gain the appropriate developmental skills all through outdoor, hands on learning experiences. 

The benefits of outdoor education are endless, and the lack of outdoor educational facilities in the U.S. compared to European countries could explain issues surrounding U.S. society and the way in which we treat our environment. Access to nature is continually disappearing through deforestation, construction, pollution, and human expansion. This, along with the value our society places in technology, hinders children from forming a connection with nature. As Lauv puts it, children of our generation lack “places of initiation” or places/experiences in their life that give them a sense of awe and wonderment of our surrounding world. My first place of initiation was my backyard, and thinking about how many children do not experience that feeling of excitement pertaining to the outdoors is upsetting. I believe the next generation would benefit immensely from the implementation of more forest preschools and kindergartens such as Learning Tree Farm. Such schools would foster a love for nature vital to child development and potentially put an end to the mentality that children playing outdoors is “dangerous” or “irresponsible”.