Greater Dayton Conservation Fund

Founded in 2006 to support innovation in caring for the Earth, stewardship, and healing. To learn more about the Fund, visit The Dayton Foundation: https://www.daytonfoundation.org/conservation.html

At some vague time  in the 60s I remember being amazed at seeing people zipping along the Mad river at Embury Park in motor boats. I had lived my whole short life (at that time) in Dayton and had never seen anyone near the rivers. Mom would take us to Island Park to play on the old airplane and that fire engine…that was long ago before there were lawyers I think…. and we were always warned to keep away from the river. We were told the river was dirty and we’d get sick if we got in it. I believed that because I never saw anyone in the rivers. The old canoe lockers were empty. Eventually people were cautioned about eating fish they caught —mostly carp and catfish. My uncles were avid fishermen and they wouldn’t throw a line into Dayton’s rivers.

Black & White old photo of factory and train
Dayton Malleable Ironworks

In the 70s we started having serious conversations about the state of the air, the rivers, our drinking water, the soil we played on and grew food in. Those fears and those realities combined with a choking economy and changing technology began a pretty quick decline of the city. When those factors joined forces with cultural pollution it seemed the city was dying as fast as the biological ecosystems that were failing. Like that houseplant that doesn’t ever seem to die in spite of the neglect, Dayton just went static. We threw floating gardens at it. We tried branding campaigns. We imposed demolitions  and installations and still people kept leaving. No one wanted to be here.

Black & White aerial photo of Dayton

The only tax-payers left weren’t paying taxes. Either because of poverty that wouldn’t allow moving away or corporate agreements that were intended as incentives to create jobs, the well of income was drying up. Entire neighborhoods died. Houses were crumbling and being sold by the block to investors from other continents who were buying up section 8 income opportunities instead of homes. Infrastructure in triage, shortages of police, extremely limited inspectors. .. this city was composting in place.

Raggedy old house with abandoned car in falling down garage

While most people were seeing a lack of business opportunities and noting that there was no money to be made here there were others who were seeing opportunities. Farmers know that compost is good for growing. One person’s pile of dead things is another’s pile of gold. People started asking what if and then responding as if there was nothing to lose.

GArden and children playing in water park at Roverscape
Riverscape gardens and water park

What if we build a ball park?

Let’s build some townhouses a couple blocks from center city and see what happens.

What if we created miles and miles of connected bike paths?

What if we created a school that focused on the arts?

I wonder if building a micro-brewery in Dayton could make money? What if OUR brew pub was a cooperative?

What if we build a performance space right in the center of Dayton that is better than any other in the US?

Black & White photo of movie cowboy
Hoot Gibson needs a posse

One of the things about desperate Americans is that when we’re in trouble we round up a posse and tackle the issues. None of those things was accomplished by our legendary, fantasy hero, the Rugged Individual.  People worked together, bringing their talents to the processes and wonderful things began happening. Committees were formed; tasks were carried out; money was gathered; Many little projects and some monumental projects emerged and are now our community assets, not because of one person’s vision, but because hundreds of us got behind  a dream and shaped it into a vision that was possible, then contribute in whatever ways we could to make it happen.

Old color movie card of cowboys on a stage coach

Changing attitudes about more fundamental things was no different. After several years of education, health problems, fears for our children’s lives, maybe even a little guilt, we started to understand the importance of cleaning up the ecological and environmental messes we had created through the Industrial age in order for our children to survive. Literally to survive.

Cuyahoga River on fire
Cuyahoga River on fire, 1969

In 1969 the Cuyahoga River actually caught fire it was so polluted with industrial waste. Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring in 1962 and scientists were confirming that the American Bald Eagle was becoming extinct primarily because of commonly used insecticides like DDT. Babies in utero were being affected by common household chemicals such as Chlordane. Toddlers’ cognitive functions being impacted by lead paints.  Leaded gas was great for keeping an engine from overheating, but it was making us sick and poisoning our soil. Massive oil spills were national news worthy and we saw the devastation on TV as we passed the meatloaf.

Pogo- We have met the enemy and he is us.
Pogo

Minds were changed not because of well-place advertising by organizations with political agendas, but by people we respected for their interests in making us safe, well-informed, and yes, happy, because that is one of the principals on which that original collaborative effort was focused.

Old rusted truck in a river

In Spring of 1970 America established Earth Day in response to years of increasingly polluted air, and water. By July, Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and by December the new organization was officially in operation. Love it or hate it, the EPA came into existence because we, our  parents were seeing the devastation that unregulated, ill-informed behaviors were causing to ourselves, their children, and to everyone’s quality of life. We knew we could do better.

This is relevant because now we are seeing the Law of Unintended Consequences playing out. The Adam Smith version, not those other guys’. By combining the intellectual and fiscal power of the federal government and the support of many local organizations, we have seen amazing turn-arounds in our environments and health.

Mad River with trees refelcted in the water

The spring of the first Earth Day I went on my first canoe trip. A large group of us launched our boats up in West Milton and paddled down to the Englewood reserve. What we encountered was life-changing for me and for many of us. I suspect some never went near a river again, but for the rest of us it was a point of commitment. We rowed around towers of old appliances; we navigated around mountains of tires and old cars, some really old cars; There were banks littered with ancient and recent garbage. Raw sewage was being washed into the stream.

What we didn’t see was remarkable as well. There were no fish and very few birds. We saw evidence of great shoals of mussels without the animal. They had long since died. For three hours we moved through a river that appeared dead or near death.

After that trip a group of us teenagers got to work cleaning up the Stillwater river. We soon had plenty of adult support that included law enforcement—a lot of that mess was already illegal—and we worked for a couple years on that river. As a teenager I understood that we don’t plant trees for ourselves; we plant the for our grandchildren. We believed we’d never see that river come back in our lifetimes but we gave all we could to repair the damage that our ancestors had done.

Man with really big smallmouth bass

Amazingly, within about 5 years after the last trash pile was cleared and the last citation was issued for illegal dumping of sewage a Northern Pike was caught by someone fishing along the banks of that same river. With a couple more years many of the native fish were turning up. the river is not restored and may never be completely brought back but the community did that and successive groups maintain that stewardship.

We did it for the physical health of all the people that came in contact with the streams, but the unintended consequence? Turns out there is economic value to clean rivers. Quantifiable value.  Not just the rivers either. Clean air has a critical value. Reduction of noise and light pollution can be measured and it impacts our income. For every effort to protect wildlife habitat and plant diversity there are measurable benefits to us that have monetary impact.

Slide image-$131 Billion dollars in the US on outdoor gear

Last year,  Americans spent $97 billion on cycling and skateboarding. We only spent 61 billion on video games. $14 billion on  water sports and $20 billion on gear for hiking and backpacking. People no longer have expectations that there will be trash and toxic sewer sludge when we head out doors. We go out there to escape manicured lawns and pavement. We want to see the natural world in as unspoiled by human intervention as possible. So maintaining the local habitat in a coordinated effort with a broader segment of our community.

Kayaker in whitewater

Not interested in becoming  a kayak retailer? That’s OK, but know that engineer you so desperately need has been on the some great whitewater since he was a kid and will make his employment decision based on availability of clean streams to roll in when he’s not at work.

River Stewards listening to presentation
UD’s River Stewards

In the work to keep Dayton’s brain drain at slow drip, UD and its partnerships came up with the Rivers Stewards program several years ago. Over and over one of the reasons for staying  in Dayton from graduates is beautiful rivers, the parks, the miles of bike trails. Those that have moved are visiting to paddle the shoots newly installed. If we’re not all working together to maintain healthy rivers, clean water, preserving land and habitat and assuring we keep our air clean it is a nearly impossible task. Like any web, everything and everyone is connected in order for the web to work.

River Stewards on the river
River Stewards on the river

For a long time those of us with our hands in the soil and the water were operating with a disconnected web. Lots of disconnected organizations were around, often duplicating efforts, environmentalists and scientist as conservationist, while really good at identifying flower part are rarely good at finding money to do their work.  That is where leadership with a broad understanding of many of the common problems was important.

The Dayton Foundation Hall and sign

In 2006 Jean Woodhull and Bob Jurick – two local legends that had committed their lives to conservation and preservation—went to the Dayton Foundation to establish the Greater Dayton Conservation Fund.  Seeing so much work that needed support. Most often the foundations were focused on social services to the detriment of land conservation, wildlife habitat, education.  Having a fund who’s mission was

Today this permanent endowment fund supports work that encourages collaboration and regional land conservation, as well as protects the integrity of our natural environment. The fund has a strong advisory committee working in collaboration with The Dayton Foundation. The committee’s individual experiences in both the business world as well as naming flower parts and identifying birds.

Close-up of blades of grass with raindrops

The fund presently holds over $384,000 of which only 4% may be spent each year on administrative costs and grants to the community. That means that most years $10k is available to put into the 19 county area that we serve. Our service area is defined by the aquifers- the Great Miami and the Little Miami.

Urban gardener in east Dayton
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We aren’t just  great advocates for working collaboratively; we walk the talk. Two years ago we established a relationship with Partner for the Environment that would allow us to cost share an administrative assistant. That allowed us to gain greater visibility in the community as well as help to support the work being done by that collaborative organization that reaches an even broader range of interests . Their teams include Land air, water,  food, and wildlife bringing together organizations from that 19-county area to stay informed of the work of the other similar organizations and to often collaborate and share resources.

Working together with many means we are able to be even more effective at making changes. One of our great prides is that the Fund helped to launch the UD River Stewards. A grant to that upstart campus-community collaboration has helped turn that program into a model for education that reaches young children as well as well a college students from a variety of disciplines.

River Stewards launchin canoes

Andrew was among the first cohorts of the River Stewards when he was at UD.  He was not originally from Dayton and like most UD students coming from other places he assumed that he’d graduate from a first-rate university and leave this uninteresting, dying city to head out for someplace interesting. By the time he did finish school he was a River Steward who had fallen in love with the community in Dayton, the rivers and outdoor spaces of this region, and he was hoping to find work in his field in order to stay here. The jobs just weren’t here for him and he eventually was lured away. Far away.  Arizona far away. Those of us in the community that had the benefits of this incredibly smart, hard-working young leader still miss him.

Canoes and debris

Every year since the Stewards have been around we see UD students hanging around longer and longer. Andrew came back this summer with his kayak to play on the newly renovated river and visit friends who are still here. Many other students have stayed around or say they would return. We’re proud to  be part of this success story.

Another project funded by the Fund was The Tecumseh Land Preservation Association’s local food summit that promoted the significance of increasing sustainable agriculture. That was the first Food Summit in our area. It featured Will Allen who developed the Growing Power program for inner city children and encouraged excitement for growing their own food in the city. His presentation inspired a number of area programs around urban gardening and the issues of low income families in cities. In was also the inspiration for the Montgomery County Food Summit, whose planners came out of that first summit. It has been among the best in the state.

So why would we need funds for the environment in the Miami Valley? We have the state and federal EPA. We have the MetroParks, we have the regional Planning Commission. Isn’t that enough? Sadly it is not. Thank heavens we have those resources and they are all major allies for Partners for the Environment and the Fund.

Among the many projects ongoing are:

Aullwood Audubon and Farm’s efforts to educate the public about the devastating effects of the Emerald Ash Borer and engage students in hands-on research and forest restoration and preservation;

Beaver Creek Wetlands Association, Inc.’s project to eliminate non-native aggressive plants that threatened to destroy many of the 500 native plants on nearly 2,000 acres of wetlands;

The Honey Creek Watershed Association’s efforts to protect local water resources and identify possible pollution sources by locating, mapping and inventorying animals in all livestock operations within the region’s watershed;

The Tecumseh Land Preservation Association’s local food summit that promoted the significance of increasing sustainable agriculture; and

University of Dayton Rivers Institute project that highlighted the importance of river stewardship and engaged the community, particularly urban school children, in nature.

While representative of programs and initiatives, these are only tiny representation of work being done, sometimes in groups of two or three individuals. Often it is a single committed person making connections and telling the stories and making small, but critical progress for our survival.

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