UConn Office of Environmental Policy

Promoting sustainability at UConn


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NRCA Students Help to Renovate a Campus Rain Garden

Despite our best intentions, sometimes things don’t go as planned. As part of its commitment to reducing stormwater impacts to our local streams, UConn installed a rain garden at Mansfield Apartments in 2010. Unfortunately, it was not maintained and the garden failed. Fortunately, a collaboration of several groups helped to renovate this garden and restore its functionality.

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Rain garden before renovation. Turf dams had grown in and prevented water from entering, and all of the plants had died.

UConn’s landscape services provided heavy equipment to removed excess material from the garden, and they also provided stone for the “river channel” to prevent erosion. New plants were purchased with help from the Office of Environmental Policy though the UConn Campus Sustainability Fund. Students from UConn’s Natural Resources Conservation Academy (http://nrca.uconn.edu) used the garden as their project during their week-long natural resources field experience on campus. This exciting program brings high school students from around the state to UConn to learn about many different aspects of natural resource conservation. Working with Mike Dietz, students replanted and mulched the rain garden, and prepared a presentation about the project to all of the parents on the final day of the NRCA.

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So in the end, functionality has been restored to a failed rain garden, and the project turned into positive learning experience for an outstanding group of students!

 

Michael Dietz, PhD

Water Resources Educator

CT Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO) Progam/CT Sea Grant Program
University of Connecticut


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UConn goes for the (LEED) Gold!

Happy 4th of July to friends and followers of the OEP!  Here’s some UConn green campus news also worth celebrating.

Earlier this week, UConn’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously, on the recommendation of its Building, Grounds & Environment Committee, to upgrade UConn’s longstanding Sustainable Design & Construction Policy.  The new mandatory performance standard for all construction and renovation projects exceeding $5 million will be LEED Gold, as certified by the USGBC.

Our minimum performance standard under the old policy had been LEED Silver since March 2007, when UConn was among the first public universities in the nation to require certification at this level.  Since then, our green building track record has been excellent, much to the credit of our Planning Architectural & Engineering Services Department at Storrs and the Planning, Design & Construction Department at the UConn Health Center in Farmington.  Since 2007, UConn has had 34 projects that were at least LEED Silver registered or certified, representing more than 3.3 million square feet, and including four LEED Gold certified projects. We’ve won green building and energy efficiency awards for many of these projects, and they’ve been a significant factor in our high green campus rankings over the past five or six years.

UConn’s resource-efficient new construction, together with our steady commitment to energy efficiency measures in existing buildings[1], is saving the University millions of dollars each year in energy costs and keeping us on track with our Climate Action Plan goal of reducing our carbon footprint by at least 20 percent by 2020 (against the 2007 baseline). This achievement is well within our reach, despite the concurrent growth in enrollment and campus building square footage during this 10-year period.

This upgrade of our green building policy was overshadowed by other agenda items covered at the June Board meeting, including approval of UConn’s operating budget for the next fiscal year and the unprecedented revocation of an honorary degree granted to comedian Bill Cosby in 1996. But, for UConn’s strong network of environmentally-minded students, faculty, staff, alumni and others, this LEED Gold policy news doesn’t take a back seat to anything else.  If you happen to see a senior administrator or UConn Board of Trustees member, thank them for keeping UConn on the leading edge of green building!

 

 

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[1] These energy conservation measures include more than 20 significant building retro-commissioning projects, the ongoing campus-wide retrofit of all interior and exterior lighting to LED by 2020, and the extensive steam/condensate system replacement project.

 


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Welcome UConn’s first full-time Sustainability Program Coordinator

After a search that yielded more than 100 applicants from across the country, the Office of Environmental Policy (OEP) is pleased to welcome Sarah Munro as UConn’s first full-time Sustainability Program Coordinator. Sarah will be responsible for supervising student staff in the OEP’s Sustainability Office, developing, planning, and administering sustainability initiatives and events across campus, chairing the EPAC Recycling Workgroup, maintaining the OEP’s (EcoHusky) website, and developing and publishing OEP newsletters and outreach materials.

Prior to joining the OEP as a full-time employee, Sarah worked at the OEP as a graduate student sustainability coordinator for 2.5 years.  During that time, she was also a UConn EcoHouse graduate assistant, and teaching assistant for a Sustainable Energy course co-sponsored by UConn’s Departments of Political Science and Chemical Engineering.

As a graduate student sustainability coordinator at the OEP, Sarah led and assisted with the implementation of various initiatives, including:

  1. Organizing UConn’s first trip to the UN’s annual climate summit (COP21 in Paris) with a group of students, faculty and staff from departments across campus;
  2. Overseeing the development of outreach and engagement activities (Green Office Certification Program, Green Campus Academic Network, 2014 Sustainability Progress Report);
  3. Collaborating with departments across campus and OEP interns to fill out detailed Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Reporting System (STARS) survey data that helped secure UConn’s top 10 position in the Sierra Club’s Cool Schools and World University GreenMetric rankings, for the 4th and 5th consecutive years, respectively.

 

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Sarah Munro promoting EcoHusky Nation in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, during her recent vacation abroad

Sarah holds a B.A. (triple major) in Political Science, German, and International Studies: Europe, from Guilford College in N.C., an M.A. in International Relations (focused on EU environmental policy) from Central European University, and an M.A. in Political Science from UConn. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at UConn.

The OEP is very excited about the possibilities that this new hire brings. Please join us in welcoming Sarah as UConn’s Sustainability Program Coordinator.


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UConn Wins GreenCircle Sustainability Award

UConn recently received a 2016 GreenCircle Sustainability Award presented by the CT DEEP, in conjunction with the Hartford Business Journal. The GreenCircle Award Program was established in 1998 to recognize Connecticut businesses, institutions, individuals, and government entities who have gone above and beyond to reduce energy and climate change, water usage, improve waste management and recycling, as well as sustainable civic improvements and innovations.

Green Circle

A Proud UConn contingent accepting the DEEP’s 2016 GreenCircle Sustainability Award during a ceremony held at Hartford’s Infinity Hall on May 23rd. DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee (front left) presented the award. See below for a listing of UConn attendees pictured.  Photo Credit J. Fiereck Photography

The GreenCircle award came in recognition of UConn’s many diverse sustainability initiatives and projects to reduce its environmental footprint, consistent with UConn’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). To date, UConn has registered or certified 23 LEED projects (2.2 million sq. ft.) at the main Storrs campus, including 3 LEED Gold-certified buildings.  Also, four of UConn’s dining halls are Green Restaurant Certified for serving local organic and third-party verified food and for reducing water, energy, and food waste. UConn also strives to reduce emissions from transportation. In 2015, Rec Services implemented a new Cycle Share program that enables use of bicycles for a week, month, or semester for anyone with a UConn ID, at a nominal cost. In addition, two new electric vehicle (EV) stations are free for use by commuters, and will help power UConn’s fleet that is already 15% hybrid or EV.

To help meet the University’s 2020 carbon reduction target under the CAP, and achieve a goal of net zero energy and water growth, as part of the Sustainability Framework to UConn’s new Campus Master Plan, Facilities began a 5-year re-lamping program to replace all indoor and exterior lighting with ultra-efficient LEDs. In addition, low-flow faucets and aerators were installed in all student residence halls and apartments, saving between 50,000 and 100,000 gallons of drinking water per day.
Beyond operational initiatives, UConn implemented several programs on campus designed to promote more sustainable behaviors and increase engagement. UConn’s Green Office Certification Program enables staff to self-assess the relative sustainability of their offices. By the end of 2015, 30 offices across campus had been certified as Green Offices. Meanwhile, the 9th annual version of UConn’s inter-dormitory EcoMadness energy and water conservation competition inspired students to reduce water and electricity use by as much as 35% in the winning dorms. To raise awareness among faculty about opportunities for engagement in campus sustainability actives, in 2015 UConn also established a Green Campus Academic Network (GCAN). This led to more environmental class projects and research with on-campus demonstration components, like rain gardens and air monitoring stations. Ultimately, GCAN also led to UConn@COP21, whereby a group of 12 students, 4 faculty members, and 2 sustainability staff traveled to Paris, France for the 21st annual UN Conference of Parties climate summit.

In addition to the University winning the 2016 GreenCircle Award, UConn’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE) was named a finalist for its work in training environmental professionals. The finalist award specifically recognized the work of NRE professor, Dr. Gary Robbins. Over the past 30 years, Dr. Robbins has trained and educated young professionals, developed the first approved online continuing education courses for Licensed Environmental Professionals, and has provided hands-on field training for DEEP staff.
The 2016 GreenCircle Award and Finalist Award recognize UConn for its comprehensive efforts at reducing the University’s environmental impact and raising awareness for sustainable behaviors. UConn’s continued commitment to sustainability promises to reinforce its growing reputation as one of the greenest universities in the country.

A special thank you to all of the UConn members present to receive the DEEP GreenCircle Sustainability Award on May 23rd in Hartford:

  • Office of the Executive Vice President for Administration and Chief Financial Officer
    • Scott Jordan, Executive Vice President for Administration & CFO
  • Facilities
    • Stan Nolan, Director, Utility Operations & Energy Management
  • Transportation and Parking Services
    • Bill Wendt, Director of Logistics Administration
    • Dwight Atherton, Parking Manager
    • Charlie Grab, Business Services Supervisor
  • Office of Public Engagement
    • Julia Yakovich, Program Manager for Service Learning, Office of Public Engagement
  • Faculty
    • Mike Willig, Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Director, Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering (CESE)
    • Oksan Bayulgen, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
    • Tracy Rittenhouse, Assistant Professor, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment
  • UConn Recreation (UConn Cycle Share)
    • Jay Frain, Director
    • Mike D’Alfonso, Associate Director, Programming & Special Events
  • Office of Environmental Policy
    • Rich Miller, Director
    • Jason Coite, Compliance Manager
    • Paul Ferri, Environmental Compliance Professional
    • Mark Bolduc, Environmental Compliance Professional
    • Sarah Munro, Sustainability Coordinator
    • Eric Grulke, Sustainability Coordinator


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UConn Faculty Bleed Blue and Go Green with GCAN

A group of UConn faculty members gathered this past Earth Day, along with OEP sustainability staff, for the second annual meeting of the Green Campus Academic Network (GCAN).  The OEP, in coordination with UConn’s Office of Public Engagement and Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering (CESE), established the Network in 2015 to increase faculty engagement in community-based and campus sustainability-related activities, which, in turn, promote a greener UConn.

DSC04580After introductions and opening remarks by the co-sponsors, faculty exchanged information about how they fit into the GCAN mission.  Conversations continued just outside the CESE conference room, at a casual reception with special guest, Dr. James Porter from the University of Georgia, who had been UConn’s expert motivational speaker on the topic of environmental literacy at multiple events during Earth Week.

Up to this point, GCAN’s focus has been on identifying faculty members teaching or researching environmental topics who are either relatively new to UConn (~ six years or less) or who have more recently begun incorporating sustainability into their curriculum.  Most of UConn’s more senior environmental faculty members, often department heads and directors of academic centers, are already actively engaged “champions and change agents” for a green campus – they’ve been a big part of UConn’s consistent Top Ten position in the Sierra Club and GreenMetric campus sustainability rankings for the past four years.  By reaching out to include the newer faculty members, we hope to nurture the continuing growth of sustainability-related courses, academic projects and even on-campus demonstrations of green technologies and research. This past academic year, there were more UConn students enrolled in Environmental Science and Environmental Studies majors than ever before, and more inter-disciplinary courses in all majors that featured a sustainability-related module or project.

DSC03478Both CESE and the Office of Public Engagement explained how their respective missions align with GCAN’s. CESE aims to lead and promote multidisciplinary research, education, and outreach in environmental science, engineering, policy, and sustainability. In co-sponsoring the activities of GCAN, CESE narrows this mission to incorporate sustainability and environmental issues that relate to UConn specifically.  At the same time, the role of Public Engagement is to promote engaged scholarship, support faculty and staff in scholarly outreach efforts, and maximize UConn’s impact on communities through service learning. Service learning is a teaching and learning strategy integrating meaningful interaction with the community with instruction and relevant projects to enrich student learning, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen community/University partnerships. A number of the collaborative efforts pursued through GCAN have been designated as service learning projects.

Over the course of the past year, several collaborative efforts arose as a result of GCAN, primarily between the OEP and faculty from a variety of disciplines.

  • The OEP reviewed proposals that students of Nataliya Plesha’s ARE course drafted for on-campus sustainability initiatives and attended their presentations and poster sessions after providing recommendations for improving upon those proposals. Similarly, the students in Laura Cisneros’ NRE class proposed viable sustainability projects for the University to consider implementing, one of which is the addition of bike racks on the front of the University buses to promote green transportation and cycling on and around campus.
  • OEP also provided guidance on how to incorporate UConn sustainability into the curriculum of a few courses offered by Christine Kirchhoff (ENVE) and Carol Atkinson Palombo (GEOG).
  • In the past year, OEP’s Director, Rich Miller, has given guest lectures about campus sustainability at UConn in more than half a dozen courses, from Environmental Law and Science, to Physics, Geography, Engineering and Political Science. Rich also teaches an honors UNIV seminar in Environmental Sustainability during the fall semester.  Over the same time period, Paul Ferri, an OEP Compliance Analyst, has led a variety of classes on seven campus tours featuring low impact development/Green Stormwater Infrastructure, the Hillside Environmental Education Park, and other green campus amenities.
  • Atkinson-Palombo’s students investigated UConn’s infrastructure and compared it to that of municipalities in developing countries to assess the sustainability of each and to better understand the resources required for development. Additionally, Atkinson-Palombo is interested in compiling case-studies drafted by her students regarding various climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.
  • Kristina Wagstrom (CBE) employed several undergraduate researchers to collect air quality monitoring data at various locations around the University. This case study also served as a pilot for testing and improving methodologies in order to expand monitoring into select cities and towns. Based on the results of these efforts, future research was identified regarding the air emissions from the food trucks that serve the campus. Wagstrom’s air quality monitoring project also provides preliminary data for her own research purposes, making this project mutually beneficial for her work, her students, and the University.
  • group photoFinally, several members of GCAN, including Oksan Bayulgen (POLS), Tracy Rittenhouse (NRE), Anji Seth (GEOG), and Mark Urban (EEB), worked together with OEP to send a UConn delegation to Paris, France in December, to attend the historic events surrounding the United Nations annual climate change summit, COP21.
    • This enlightening experience was made possible with the help of CLAS, Global Affairs, CAHNR, the School of Business, School of Engineering, Marine Sciences, Coca-Cola, and the Campus Sustainability Fund who helped to sponsor the trip and worked with the faculty and the OEP to ensure a meaningful education experience.
    • The four faculty mentioned above, two staff from the OEP, and 12 students were able to attend the public Climate Generations space at the conference, a Global Landscapes Forum surrounding sustainable land use and development, Solutions21, which focused on the ways in which business and enterprises can solve climate change issues, among other varied climate- and COP- related events.
    • UConn also co-sponsored a higher-education networking event at COP21, with Second Nature and AASHE, which was generously hosted by the Kedge Business School in Paris.
    • After their return from France, the students and faculty alike set out to promote change here at UConn by preparing individual projects educating the UConn community about climate change and solutions, pursuing an environmental awareness general education requirement, and initiating dialogue with the University about the possibility of divestment. Furthermore, two students and one of the OEP’s two graduate sustainability coordinators attended the CT Green Campus Coalition’s annual conference, hosted this year at the UConn Law School, to discuss the implications of COP21 and the measures that need to be taken to make significant and lasting change at Connecticut colleges.

Following the increase in faculty engagement over the past year, and GCAN’s successful role in fostering it, OEP looks forward to numerous collaborative opportunities on the horizon.

If you are interested in learning more about GCAN or ways in which you can become involved please contact the OEP at 486-5773 or envpolicy@uconn.edu, OEP Director, Rich Miller (rich.miller@uconn.edu), or intern Ben Breslau (benjamin.breslau@uconn.edu).


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Revitalizing Rural West Virginia: EcoHouse Alternative Spring Break 2016

West Virginia 1This Spring Break, I had the privilege of participating in EcoHouse’s fourth annual service trip to Milam Creek and Glen Rogers in Wyoming County, West Virginia. Initiated by former EcoHouse program coordinator Brigid Belko, this Alternative Break assists the Friends of Milam Creek on various service projects. This organization is composed of local volunteer residents who seek to revitalize their community. In their own words: “Aspiring to restore Milam Creek and its adjacent neighborhoods to its former glory with clean, lush waters and creek beds, Friends of Milam Creek is uniting the community through collaborative action toward a healthier environment and better tomorrow.”

The Appalachian Community

West Virginia 2.pngDvon Duncan, Friends of Milam Creek’s Secretary, and Donna Burner, Chair, welcomed us all warmly and gave an introduction to the town and its situation. The Milam, McGraws, Ravencliff, and Glen Rogers region of the county is one of many small, relatively isolated communities in southern West Virginia that has been severely impacted by the coal industry over the last century. For decades, the timber, gas, and coal industries have held a virtual monopoly on the region.  At one time mining companies forced workers to buy all provisions from company stores, preventing the growth of local businesses. Most men in the area have worked in the mines at some point in their lives, since there are few other jobs available to them. In addition to very poor working conditions, the mines have polluted the surrounding watersheds with heavy metals and coal residue. As a result of landscape modification, the narrow creek and river valleys where most towns lie have been prone to massive and deadly floods.

Now, as coal production declines in the face of natural gas and renewable energy, more layoffs and few alternative job options have resulted in a high unemployment rate and a general feeling of hopelessness for the once thriving communities. And on top of all this, the area is suffering a ‘brain drain,’ as those who can afford higher education often move away and don’t return. Dvon stressed that our work here is essential to providing a place where people young and old can safely play and exercise.  There are no other sources of recreation for this community except Milam Creek Park.  An important goal for Friends of Milam Creek is to re-educate their community about the importance of taking care of all their natural resources.

West Virginia 3Throughout the week, we worked on several projects around the community. The main location was the Milam Creek House, where the Friends are based.  Here, we helped to remove rotten wood from the basement and paint the building. Down the road, we helped to renovate the recently donated community center. This involved setting up electrical wiring and lighting throughout the building, as well as demolishing the old restrooms. Meanwhile, several people cleared invasive plants from the nearby creek bank to make room for a fishing deck. The final major project was the construction of a memorial to the more than 160 miners who died in Glen Rogers mines between 1917 and 1960. We installed a new fence and pathway on site to make way for the stone obelisk that will honor the dead.

As we worked, we got to meet many local residents and gained some insight on what it was like to live there. Dave Polk, for example, chatted about what it was like to grow up here. He told us that when he was young there were dozens of bird species in the area, even in winter. The whip-poor-will’s call would announce the arrival of spring, and soon the woods would be full of wildflowers. Now, he explained, the environment has become degraded. He hasn’t seen a whip-poor-will or a wildflower in years, and urbanization has forced remaining wildlife into developed areas. Like many young men, Dave soon found himself working ten to twelve hours a day in the coal mines. Throughout his time working he’s seen many changes in the community, including the end of segregation in the industry. According to Dave, the community as a whole was always far more tolerant of diversity than the mines, where African Americans and European immigrants used to receive very poor treatment until very recently.

West Virginia 4

Taking a break and walking through town in our free time.

However, when I spoke with Dvon later on the issue of race, she said that to most people coal mining was the ‘great equalizer.’ “One had to depend on the person working next to them for their individual safety.  There was no room for prejudice in the mines.  While African Americans and European immigrants might have been treated differently outside the mines in other parts of the community, when you were working inside the mines – everyone was someone of color – coal black.  Communities DID center somewhat on nationality – but much of that was because of language…and food…and familiarity.”

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Doug’s helmet, decorated with stickers that include a Cross and one that says, “End Black Lung. Act Now!”

Doug Thorn gave a presentation on his work as a miner and a mine inspector. He showed us the gear that miners carry, including a methane gas detector, oxygen tank for emergencies, and light. Doug then explained that while he worked as an inspector, he came across numerous safety violations from different companies as they tried to avoid regulations. He’s been in court several times to force mines to temporarily shut down as gas or coal dust buildups were drained, and continues to challenge mines on their hazardous conditions. Doug himself has developed black lung, in spite of all the precautions he’s taken over the years.

West Virginia 6

Doug Thorn, dressed in his mining outfit, gives a presentation on the life of a coal mine inspector.

We also met Jack Spadaro, an expert witness and environmental consultant, who came to speak to us about how he combats these illegal mining activities. He became active after the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood killed over 120 people and destroyed over 4,000 houses. It was discovered that the flood resulted from leaky dams that filled with coal and metal slurry, then spilled into the valleys below. The pollutants have caused numerous health issues in the victims and birth defects in their children, but for years the mines refused to take responsibility. Some have even illegally hid the documents linking them to the pollutants. Many floods have occurred since 1972, the worst of which destroyed 3,000 more homes in 2001. Jack has worked on hundreds of cases and investigations, many of which have resulted in at least some financial compensation for the victims. However, Jack warns that over 700 reservoirs remain full of mining waste, and many are poorly maintained. There could easily be more disasters in the near future if nothing is done.

 

Mountaintop Removal

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Elise Keaton explains the landscape-level impact of mountaintop removal. All of the mountains visible in the background are currently slated to be excavated.

Before leaving West Virginia on Saturday, we got to see the heart of modern environmental devastation in Appalachia. Kayford Mountain, owned and managed by Keeper of the Mountains, is a sliver of protected land surrounded by mountaintop removal. We met with Elise Keaton, who has worked for many years to promote awareness and push for action against the industry. She gave us insight into this now prevalent form of mining.

The shift away from reliance on manpower began in the 1970s, as the growing energy crisis and increasing environmental regulations brought companies to search for more efficient methods of coal extraction. Instead of sending miners underground, companies raze entire forests and level the mountains with explosives. Debris is forced down into the valleys and watersheds, which in turn has caused the heavy flooding in recent decades. Elise showed us several mountains that have lost up to 800 feet of elevation. Diverse forests have been reduced to barren wastelands, and the ground beneath Kayford has begun to crack as the rock destabilizes. Furthermore, the mining is continuing to expand. At this time, 500 mountains have been demolished, and every mountain around Kayford is slated to be removed as well.

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The view from Kayford Mountain. Only a few years ago, another mountain peak stood where this quarry is now. The forest was razed, and 800 vertical feet of rock were removed to access the coal beneath.

In spite of growing up in West Virginia, Elise herself was unaware of mountaintop removal until she was in college. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of other people in West Virginia remained uninformed of the devastation going on in their own back yard.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to this crisis. Overall coal production continues to decrease as it’s replaced by natural gas and renewables, but the United States still consumes over 700 million tons of coal per year. As long as there is a demand for coal, the industry will continue to supply. 30-40% of our nation’s energy is currently supplied by coal, and the Department of Defense relies heavily on fossil fuels.  And until new industries – energy or otherwise – develop in Appalachia and other coal producing communities throughout the United States, large portions of the population will remain jobless and/or impoverished for the foreseeable future.

west virginia 9

UConn students and several members of Friends of Milam Creek on our last night in Mullens.

There is still hope for the region’s natural environment. When mining companies do follow regulations, hard and soft wood trees and native species can be planted on reclaimed land.  Some of that land has been turned over to communities. For example, Dvon recently helped with planting in the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, managed by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.  Here, some of the ridgetops have been surface mined and reclaimed to ‘wildlife habitat,’ most recently by Alpha Natural Resources. On top of this, the DNR plans to reintroduce elk to the new preserve. Additionally, in a separate project, Cliffs Natural Resources planted 9,000 trees with help from the two Wyoming County high schools. Here, there is a plan to introduce American chestnut hybrids.

I’m incredibly grateful for my experiences on this trip. I got to bond with other environmentally-minded UConn students, meet the wonderful people of West Virginia, and gain insight into one of the most challenging environmental crises our country faces. I hope to continue to raise awareness of the problems of fossil fuels, and go back to help the residents of Milam Creek in the future.

-Ben

 

Learn more about the issues surrounding coal mining: http://www.mountainkeeper.org/the-problems/

Find out how much you rely on coal: http://ilovemountains.org/my-connection

 


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Global Understanding Through Regenerative Tourism

Below is a blog written by Cassie De Pecol, Founder and Chief Explorer of Expedition 196.

 
yogaThere are two forms of tourism: Tourism (Tourist) and Responsible Tourism (Traveler). The ‘Tourist’ will travel to locations that are relatively safe and within their comfort zone. They’ll expect to stay in a 3-5 star hotels owned by large corporations, embark on tours offered by the hotel, and will typically not veer off the beaten path to unknown locations. They’re knowledge of the local people of that country and their way of life is very limited, and they’re not interested in learning more about it first-hand. They are waited on by local people but that’s about as far as their study of that culture within that country will go. The hotels they stay in don’t necessarily have any sustainability or energy efficiency practices, instead they offer tours such as riding with the dolphins and learning about culture by having a woman come into the resorts event area for a belly dancing show, for example. The ‘Traveler’, on the other hand, will be more open to experience off-the-beaten-path locations and unique experiences that test their limits. They’ll be more supportive of the economies of local cultures (staying in locally owned hotels), spending time learning about the local people and communities, adding to the regeneration of the environment that surrounds them, and trust in their hosts.

‘Responsible Tourism’ encompasses two main components; Sustainable Tourism and Regenerative Tourism. While ‘Sustainability’ is the trendy word right now, I believe that ‘Regeneration’ will soon overpower the realm of Sustainability. Sustainability is to sustain the land, the communities, to develop land and avoid further depletion of our resources. Regeneration is to restore land that was once degraded, ecosystems that were once being threatened, wildlife that was once becoming extinct, cultures that were once suffering. To ‘Regenerate’ (within the tourism industry) is to not only give back to local communities, but create a solution to one problem, and hone in on it year after year, perhaps by partnering with local and NGO non-profits, working to alleviate these issues. To not only plant a couple of trees, but to build an excursion where guests have the opportunity to plant new flora that produce edibles. To ‘regenerate’ is to encourage guests to give back to local communities during their vacation, to learn about the people, to have a conversation, through a unique tour experience, for example. To be a traveler who supports regeneration, is to plan a vacation through an eco-resort (or eco cruise-liner) who supports the local communities and economies of the countries of which they embark.

bikeDuring my travels in St. Lucia, I performed a case study. The island is comprised of at least several “1-800 Sandals” resorts. I wanted just to speak with the people who worked there to get a sense of their clientele and overall sense of happiness. The employees came up to me with a massive smile on their face, willing to answer any questions that I had, offering their input on activities, and the like. I sat down with one of them, Ron, and talked with him for a bit. I’m assuming he told me to call him Ron because it’s easier to pronounce to foreigners. I said, “Hey Ron, I’m not here to vacation, I’m here to learn more about 1-800 Sandal’s sustainability impact and its cultural influence. How do you like working here?”. He took me aside and said, “I can barely keep afloat, I work long hours, I’m overworked and don’t make enough to provide for my family. But it’s a job.” I asked, “Do the guests want to learn about your culture, where you’re from in St. Lucia?”, Ron responded, “No, they’re here for a vacation! They don’t want to learn about that type of stuff while they vacation here”, he said with a chuckle. I paid $70 for a dinner which granted me access to walk inside the premise. There were couples, mainly from Western areas of the world, and many from the US. I observed as they enjoyed their vacation, never leaving the resorts premises. They drank their Mojitos and Piña Coladas and enjoyed their Honeymoons, never once engaging in conversation with the people who worked for them. If they did, it was to show whoever it was they were Facetiming with, the idea that they were mingling with the local people when in reality, they weren’t. Meanwhile, the employees worked diligently to ensure a perfect vacation for their guests. They had the typical, “Save water, use less” signs located in the bathrooms, but in regards to their sustainability protocol, that was about it. In a place that receives an average of 9 hours of sunlight a day, they had no solar panels. They had no tours where guests had the opportunity to learn about the local culture. They had no reverse osmosis system or wildlife/ecology conservation program, which could easily be implemented given the vast capital that this resort chain endows. I went back to my locally owned lodge near the airport to digress. If these resorts focused on their sustainability message, the people who vacationed there would not only experience a luxurious vacation, but they’d walk away having contributed to the greater good of the environment and local culture. A feel good, do good vacation. There needs to be a major shift in the way we travel, and regenerative tourism has to be it.

plantTwo continents away was another resort I’d visited. Located at the tip of the Oman peninsula, nestled on the northern Musandam Peninsula and facing the Arabian sea, is the 5 star, Six Senses Zighy Bay Resort. The guests who visit this particular resort must be willing to venture way out into the Middle East. They have to be open to traveling two hours from the Dubai Airport by car, through the desert of UAE and Oman to get to this very secluded resort deep within the mountainous rifts. I took a seat next to Manuel, the Organic Garden intern at Six Senses. He traveled there from Germany. “How much of the garden is factually organic? In my experience, it’s challenging to harvest an organic garden over 80% to serve a hotel.”, I asked. Manuel said, “It’s a 95-98% organic garden that supplies much of the produce for the resort”. There is a compost system, a reverse osmosis irrigation system and the resort has plans to install solar panels in the near future. In every room, the guests can purchase a cute little Zighy goat stuffed animal where 100% of the proceeds go to the local schools. They also have cultural tours to the mountains and communities, where guests have the opportunity to visit the families who live in the surrounding areas. I took a ride with one of the guides and had the opportunity to meet Mohammed, a man from Pakistan who lived high up in the mountains. “I chose to live here for peace and serenity.”, Mohammed said. Every day, he climbs 100 stairs just to get to the top, where his rustic house is.

goatThe primary focus of Expedition 196 is to generate awareness within the tourism sector. To deter travelers from the traditional experience, and focus more on the development of regenerative hotels and tour companies, in order to reverse damage to the environment and save endangered species and cultures who are suffering. Traveling “Sustainably” doesn’t have to mean the letting go of things that provide comfort to the average traveler. That’s what rustic travel is for; to give up certain elements that make a person comfortable, in order to experience a truly authentic, and surreal experience, with traditional essences of normality, left behind. Sustainability and moreover, regenerative tourism provides an opportunity for the traveler to reduce their carbon footprint, while making friends with the local people. Sure, they might have to give up their Herbal Essences shampoo in order to use the biodegradable shampoo and soaps provided by the hotel (if they do so choose), but it’s a do-good-feel-good experience that should add to the overall authenticity of their vacation. Sustainable/Regenerative resorts, lodges and hotels can range from $10/night to $10,000/night. This form of travel appeals to all types of travelers and that’s the best thing about it. There’s really no excuse to not travel in this way.

Personally speaking, I’m a frequent flier. My work involves me to travel to 196+ countries, which means that I can’t shy away from the fact that I need to fly, a lot. I’m fully aware that my carbon footprint is through the roof and I’m sure that there are many other business travelers who can relate. But this is one way that a simple effort can help to reverse the damage that’s already been done to some of our degraded environments and hurting cultures around the world.

So, how does responsible tourism generate understanding/peaceful relations? I’m a firm believer that just by engaging in conversation with local people, a newfound open mind is birthed. A person develops a heightened and unbiased understanding of that Nation. There’s politics, there’s religion, and then there’s everything and everyone else in between. The level of turmoil that every Nation faces, stems from primarily politics or religion. If you go to Kabul, Afghanistan and take a stroll through the streets, you might start a conversation with a local. In this case, you’ll see that they have many of the same desires as you. They want to live, they want to provide for their families, they don’t want to die. They want a wholesome, happy life. They’re not a threat to you. Their government or a religious group might be a threat to your government, but the millions of people who live there, pose no threat at all. Even if we know nothing about a culture that is experiencing turmoil, we can generate peace by making the right choices, by choosing to travel responsibly. Because by traveling responsibly, we’re able to understand a culture, a problem, an ecosystem, more thoroughly and therefore develop a mutual respect and a yearning to want to help, even if “helping” is exchanging a smile and a conversation with a local person.

Like the rest of us, I want to change the world. This is me doing my part. By not only practicing what I preach, but sharing my observations and knowledge with other prospective travelers to further a shift within the tourism industry.