Becky Knappenberger, a Seasonal Ranger for the Conservancy, reflects back on her first season in the field and what it takes to protect nature preserves and create change.
I had only visited Fishing Creek Nature Preserve once before becoming a seasonal Ranger with the Conservancy. It was at the tail end of winter, and had been quiet then, asleep.
Little did I know how bustling it would become once the temperature climbed, or how quickly it’d establish itself as one of my favorite preserves.
Many visitors seek out the novelty of fording Fishing Creek in their vehicles. Unfortunately, many also go off-roading, damaging habitat in their wake. Others have prohibited campfires, graffiti rocks, or leave an abundance of litter.
This certainly isn’t the majority. Most are respectful, and want to help protect the beauty of their beloved preserve. Sometimes it’s simply a case of tradition. It’s what they’ve always done, and they haven’t yet considered the farther-reaching effects of their recreation.
One day, as I was slowly driving through Fishing Creek preserve, I spotted a young man standing mid-stream. He was immersed in a project he’d undertaken: lifting large rocks from the creek bank to rebuild a sizable dam. The same dam, in fact, that our volunteers had just dismantled days before.
It was a hot summer day, the busiest sort of day at this preserve, and he was disappointed about the disappearance of the dam. Because to him, it meant shallower water at one of his favorite swimming holes.
He stared blankly back at me, as I gave an explanation for why it was dismantled: the detriments to wildlife and streamside habitat, the inability of the fish to swim through, etc. As I spoke, he continued to stack rocks.
He simply wanted his swimming hole, and the other suggestions I made weren’t as appealing. I get it. Perhaps he grew up coming to this spot, maybe it’d been a long-held summer tradition. For many of us, those traditions can lend to a unique sense of ownership of a place, regardless of it being publicly accessible land or a nature preserve.
As Rangers, we don’t hand out fines to make things happen. Mostly, we rely on the hope that education and awareness will help shift behavior. We utilize what’s referred to as ‘the authority of the resource,’ not the authority of the agency we represent. That ‘resource’ is all the incredible land protected by the Conservancy, and what it needs to keep thriving.
It’s the love of these natural spaces that drives our work, and draws visitors to our preserves. It’s also the common ground we hope will unite us in a shared vision of what it means to steward these spaces well.
Still, it’s a vision we can’t take for granted. It’s often misunderstood, and we have to make the effort to engage patiently. It can be a unique challenge to explain to visitors, many who share a long history with the preserves, why suddenly someone in a Conservancy hat is telling them to do something different.
But we choose to be persistent, to know it can take time, and to keep coming back. It’s this commitment to keep coming back that’s key. We engage in work for the long haul–not just the physical work of clearing trails, litter, and invasive plants–but the relational work of presence. Through our intentional presence, many catch the vision and join in. We also discover the many community allies who have undertaken the work before us. Together, we cultivate a more lasting change, and the shifts needed to keep our preserves protected and thriving.