Empowering the Next Generation

This week, a summer rite of passage takes place.  118 students from environmental high schools across the country head out for their Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program summer jobs on Nature Conservancy preserves in places like Colorado, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Wyoming.  What is so exciting is that all of these students reflect the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of our nation’s largest cities.

 By 2050 the world’s population will swell to nine billion, with seven billion living in cities — as many people as there are on the earth today.  Historically, conservationists and organizations like The Nature Conservancy focused their conservation efforts on rural and wilderness areas. Places far away from cities.
LEAF helps turns that history on its head.  And it’s about time.  The students, through paid summer jobs, will learn about land management and stewardship; ecosystem restoration; and the use of natural defenses like dunes, wetlands, oyster reefs and forests to protect us in a changing climate.  They will come back informed, energized and eager to lead. They will have a new appreciation for the nature that surrounds them right at home, whether that’s New York City, Chicago or Atlanta. Nearly 35 percent of LEAF alumni choose a science or conservation major in college, as compared to the national average of 5 percent. This is essential if conservation is going to succeed in the 21st century.  Our challenges will increasingly be urban, and our leadership must understand cities.
Last week I had the chance to spend a day at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, NY, with this year’s class of LEAF interns. They learned about the natural history of the area and how Hurricane Sandy forever changed the refuge. We then spent time removing debris from the beach, allowing the students to play a role in this important place for people and nature. As I worked alongside the students with such varied backgrounds — Asian, Caucasian, Latino, African American, Middle Eastern -– I wondered if anyone of them might become the Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy in New York? Or even CEO of the Conservancy? Just being able to ask that question shows how important the LEAF program is.


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