Citizens Mobilize for Conservation in the West

COLORADO SPRINGS – Across the west, river systems are flowing at record low levels, snowpack is decreasing, farmers are struggling to successfully grow their crops, and pollution and debris is covering ecosystems.

Problems in the west are threatening the future of pristine wilderness, and challenging communities connected to them.

Overuse and drought in Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states are degrading groundwater and aquifer sources.

Pollution of oceans off the western coast is hurting sea and coastal ecosystems. Every year, a million seabirds and 100,000 turtles and marine mammals die from plastic pollution in oceans.

Some citizens are now taking action to protect their environment.

Grassroots and citizen organizations are creating an army of environmental stewards with a common interest in protecting ecosystems they see as worthy.

In Seattle, Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), uses citizens in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii to gather data on coastal ecosystems. COASST runs on a volunteer basis and is the largest citizen science program in the country. Volunteers are in it to contribute to science, learn, and engage in a community, said Hillary Burgess, science coordinator at COASST.

In Colorado, San Luis Valley community leaders are trying to protect a high desert river basin where a 20-year drought may be a sign of long-term climate change. For locals here who depend on agriculture, as well as those concerned about wildlife, water changes may be devastating.

“We have to stop manipulating resources thinking that somehow this place is going to be okay. It’s not going to be okay. At some point the natural resources not only suffer but are decimated, and so are human beings,” said Christine Canaly, director of San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC), a public lands advocacy group.

“In order for agriculture to survive here, these mountains surrounding the valley have to be protected. These watersheds have to be protected,” Canaly said in a recent interview. By protecting natural resources, people are protecting their future and the viability of agriculture, which relies heavily on water, she said.

Organizing local citizens for environmental protection has its challenges. Both COASST and SLVEC face conflict.

“Balancing scientific service with motivations and abilities of participants requires different capacity and skills to manage more-so than traditional science,” Burgess said.  Volunteers have varying reasons for joining local environmental organizations, and these must be balanced with skillset and scientific integrity.

Funding for grassroots and local organizations is often insufficient.

“The reason that environmental organizations are so effective is number one, not because there’s so much money. There isn’t. The environment is always low on the totem pole in terms of funding. But, we’re really well coordinated. We share information,” said Canaly. Lack of funding has not stopped effectiveness of shared information, she said.

COASST, harnessing locals from across the west coast, runs on shared information. The large community of volunteers allows for a large-scale fine grain data collection, said Burgess.

People are organizing in part because they want to fix problems.

What is the future for grassroots and community-driven science? This is the question organization coordinators are asking.

“One vision for the future is that citizen science is just science, and that it’s integrated into everyday lives,” said Burgess. People want to contribute to science and tackle environmental conservation issues, she said.

“What we really need are good stewards of the land and people who are willing to maintain the landscape for future generations,” said Canaly.

Saving the San Luis Valley and coastal ecosystems likely will depend on people, Canaly and Burgess both said.

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