Environmental Education - A Conservation Project Tool (and a cautionary tale) | eePRO @ NAAEE

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Environmental Education - A Conservation Project Tool (and a cautionary tale)

A well-planned and executed conservation project meets the triple bottom line, benefitting the natural environment, the human community, and the local economy. These projects can be bridge builders, bringing diverse stakeholders together, cutting across political and economic differences.

However, conservation projects can be messy. They often involve direct changes to the land and waterscape, impacting the local community. Furthermore, they may involve many stakeholders, each with their own individual goals. Threats to the project can emerge at different times and in varying forms.

In many cases, the difference between success and failure is dependent on communication between different partners, both the content and relationships of these exchanges. This is where Environmental Education can play a critical role facilitating conversations, making ecology and other sciences accessible to support these projects. See the diagram below, developed by Richard Margoulis and Nick Salafsky, noting "Education & Awareness" as one of four tools at the interface of institutions and threats (a link to the full document is below).

However, I have failed to communicate effectively to my audience several times in my career, impacting project success and community relations. In one situation, I did my homework on the project, listing all the benefits and developing counterarguments to any concerns from residents. I practiced and finally presented my case to the town that was to host the project. The response was not what I expected.

During a recess, the town's mayor pulled me aside and said, "we agree with everything you've said, but we're not going to support the project." I was shocked, but she explained, "you came into our town as an outsider, presented all of the pros and cons and took away our voice in the project. In essence, through my planning and diligence, I had effectively preempted any community discussion on the matter. My approach had sent a strong message that the resident's views weren't valued.

Despite this, the project WAS a good idea, serving as a value outdoor public resource for numerous stakeholders in the region. A few months later the mayor invited me the the town's Friday happy hour and I learned my second important lesson - it's all about the relationships, and strong, working relationships are built on trust. I spent the next year getting to know the town and its residents - understanding their motivations, concerns, areas of disagreement, but most importantly, our shared values and goals.

Fast forward a decade and the project is long complete, dedicated with the governor, local officials, numerous conservation organizations, and of course a proud and included community.

Where have you succeeded (or failed) in conservation projects or inspiring behavior change and what have you learned?