The Impractical Practicality of Collaborative Conservation

By: Brittany Messinger

It was a chilly morning, last night’s snow quietly clinging to the overhanging branches and cliffs surrounding Sylvan Dale Ranch. It wasn’t long before the lazy sing-song of canyon wrens was interrupted by a new kind of chatter: a cacophony of 50 Lincoln Elementary students. We exchanged glances; there was no going back now.

Just a few months prior, I joined the Center for Collaborative Conservation’s team as a communications coordinator. Once I got the hang of my role at the office, a fellow co-worker and I decided that we wanted to leave a lasting impact.

“Why not create a club that facilitates collaborative conservation between college students, elementary students, and the community? It’d be so fun!” We rambled over twin IPAs at the RamsSkellar.

Much to our (mostly my) surprise, the idea found traction. Greater than that, the thing took on a life of its own as student clubs, community members, and funders collaborated and planned the logistics, course content, and overall schedule of the event. I had no idea that others could be as jazzed on the idea of collaborative conservation as I am.

The idea of collaborative conservation, though, is much different than the practicality of it. Fast forward to the day of the event, Friday April 3, 2015.

The hoard of children is in view, but the only thing I hear is the occasional scuffing of boot soles against the grit of earth as my peers and I hold our breath. We shuffle through clipboards of schedules, talking points, and course objectives one last time. You’d think we were facing a firing squad instead of stumbling, sleepy-eyed 10 year olds.

Finally, the children separate into 4 groups and are led off by their respective module leaders: Forestry, Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation. I join the conservation module as they meander through the snowy thicket of Black Bear Trail.

“Is this why we had to sign a liability waiver?” An honest question drifts from the group as we pass the trail head stamped with its intimidating title. Tension broken, egos set aside, shields lowered. This is what the day held.

Schedules were slowly demoted from golden law to bagel holder. Talking points were substituted with clever responses to spontaneous questions. Activity procedures melted into whatever shape the children wanted. The event changed and challenged us as much as it did the kids (if not more). I suppose that’s what happens when you try to bridle something as transformative as collaborative conservation. It’s simply impractical to have a practical agenda.

Often-times, I’m tempted to categorize children into a stereotype of “unreachable techies”. However, as one river-soaked little girl approached me with a palm-full of aquatic insects in her frozen hand, proudly announcing, “I caught these all by myself and I’ve never even done this before. I love this river!” the construct shattered. The pride she and her peers took in their newfound knowledge about the environment was life-changing for me.

They appreciated our honest answers to their questions and our willingness to discover alongside them. No longer instructors, but facilitators. I suppose that’s what collaborative conservation is: all of us learning side-by-side.

Although our printed version of the day was semi-discarded, our goals were exceeded. Children discoveredthe secret wisdom of the earth as it came to them in its own time. Dirt-covered hands, grass-stained knees, and campfire smoke-infused jackets inspired unteachable curiosity and unforgettable learning.

Time was our greatest teacher during the event. Flexibility our greatest ally. Creativity our greatest lesson.

As the day ended, our smiles were almost as wide as the half-sized conservationists around us. With minds full and hearts content, we headed home down the cattle-lined trail for a well-deserved rest, the canyon wrens whistling us a farewell.