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Passport to Nature

Inspiring the Next Generation of Conservationists

“We were always doing something. Everything was an adventure.” —LEAF intern Christina Smythe (right)

By Daniel White

Cold water swirls above my ankles as I crouch in the rocky shallows of western Virginia’s Cowpasture River. Concentrating first on remaining upright and second on photography, I squint through the viewfinder and watch looks of surprise flash across the faces of my three teenaged subjects.

That’s when I notice that the roar of a tractor from the opposite bank has grown deafening, and I turn to see a wall of John Deere green bearing down on me.

For the three teens — Briani Boyd, Melanie Cruz and Christina Smythe — who grew up dodging traffic in New York City, a tractor fording a remote river is merely an amusing spectacle. A little over a week into their LEAF (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future) program internships with The Nature Conservancy, the girls are experiencing a rare respite from urban noise.

They’re also engaging with nature in ways they’ve scarcely imagined.

Outdoors in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia

So far, the students have cleared hiking trails at Maryland’s Sideling Hill Creek Preserve, pulled invasive weeds along the Potomac River and learned about regional conservation priorities.

“They didn’t have a lot of environmental experience,” says Deborah Barber, Maryland’s director of land management. “So we included educational hikes in the Potomac Gorge, talking about issues like how river flows affect ecological diversity.”

On this humid morning, the students get to cool off in the Cowpasture River. And from Conservancy staff and members of the Cowpasture River Preservation Association, they’re receiving a hands-on introduction to the relationship between aquatic animals and water quality.

“The students get to use seine nets and D-frame nets to figure out what types of insects — mayflies and dragonflies and damselfly larva — are in the water,” says Marek Smith, Allegheny Highlands director in Virginia. “They get to identify those organisms and learn how important they are in showing how clean the river is.”

LEAF: Connecting Youth with Nature

A recent poll commissioned by the Conservancy confirms that America’s youth spend far more time online than outside. Girls, urban youth, those of color and the less affluent also are more likely to stay inside due to concerns about gangs and crime.

The good news, though, is that 66 percent of youth reported having a personal nature experience that made them appreciate it more, and they were twice as likely to view themselves as strong environmentalists.

The Conservancy’s LEAF program is one key strategy for breaking down the barriers between nature and children. Through LEAF, students from urban environmental high schools earn paid internships offering both career development and first-hand experience with environmental stewardship.

Ultimately, the Conservancy seeks to support more than 30 environmental high schools and at least 20,000 students across the country, while fostering the next generation of conservation advocates and leaders.

This effort to broaden the constituency for conservation has already produced impressive results. More than one-third of LEAF alumni have gone to college and majored in life sciences, and 33 percent have launched budding careers in related fields.

Lessons in Conservation—and Life

The LEAF program is physically, socially and intellectually demanding. “We were always doing something,” intern Christina Smythe says she’ll tell friends back home. “Everything was an adventure.” Through these challenges, the students improve their work, social, academic and life skills.

“The interns arrived in Maryland with a great attitude about nature, and they left with more knowledge and experience,” says Barber.

After their morning at the Cowpasture River, the interns will tour Coursey Springs State Fish Hatchery and learn about conservation easements at Berriedale Farm. They’ll close out the week collecting and studying wildlife scat samples with Virginia Tech graduate students at Warm Springs Mountain Preserve.

“They’re all enthusiastic and energetic and getting to experience new things and see special places here in Virginia,” says Smith. “And we get to share our time, our knowledge and our expertise and give them an opportunity to see what it’s like for us every day working for the Conservancy.”

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