John Monroe jokingly refers to himself as a “conservation venture capitalist.” Unlike most investment bankers, however, Monroe is investing for the long term.
The “capital” Monroe invests is his skill as a facilitator. The “ventures” he invests in are conservation projects under the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program of the U.S. National Park Service.
Talking with Monroe came about by chance. In August I was driving west out of Boston on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Just east of Worcester, I saw a sign for “The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.” The area was lush with hardwoods, and the thought of a protected natural corridor caught my imagination.
My mother, who lives in central Massachusetts, knew about the area and had some brochures. I called the Rivers & Trails office at the National Park Service’s regional office in Boston and was connected to Monroe. Little did I expect that our talk would lead me to England and eventually Japan.
Rivers & Trails is an unusual low-cost approach to nature conservation and community revival. On just $7 million a year, less than 1 percent of the Park Service’s annual budget, the program helps local communities conserve urban, suburban and rural spaces.
“As urban and suburban areas expand,” states the National Park Service Web site, “there is growing awareness that the establishment and maintenance of green spaces is an integral part of healthier, more livable communities. Rivers & Trails helps local communities provide inviting environments close to home to encourage regular exercise and neighborly interaction. Walking trails, bicycle paths, preserved greenways and revitalized waterways provide opportunities for healthy and fun activities that can improve health and save lives.”
Rivers & Trails began more than a decade ago and has grown into a network of over 100 conservation and recreation-planning professionals across the U.S. There are now eight regional offices, as well as state field offices.
Monroe is director of the Connecticut state program. He and his colleagues nationwide act as facilitators, helping communities set conservation priorities and achieve conservation goals. All projects are locally led and funded. Rivers & Trails staff simply provide guidance and experience.
Projects come in all shapes and sizes, from multistate and regional undertakings, to small urban parks. Commonly they aim to restore neglected waterways and cultural and historic sites (both natural and architectural), convert abandoned railways and roads into trails that link neighborhoods and communities, and preserve open spaces for recreation and nature conservation.
Because most projects include several jurisdictions and involve numerous groups and individuals, decision making and consensus building can be complex. This makes facilitators like Monroe useful, even essential, in bringing together diverse interests within communities.
Inviting a stranger into the decision-making process might seem counterintuitive. Rivers & Trails staff have found, however, that as “outsiders” specializing in conservation and coordination, they are able to promote objective discussion, ensuring that as many stakeholders as possible, including citizens, businesses and government, are involved in reaching agreement on a plan of action.
Recent successful projects include a nature trail in Indiana; the protection of 22 acres of open space in Pennsylvania; a river walk in Los Angeles; the restoration of a Missouri River tributary in Montana; a pedestrian colonnade linking neighborhoods in Seattle; a wilderness area preserved in Tennessee; and even a new trail opened at a Park Service sister park in Slovakia.
In 1999, in the New York-New England area alone, there were 47 projects underway, said Monroe. Across the region, Rivers & Trails created and/or protected 200 km of trails, 58 km of river and 770 hectares of land. In addition, he and his colleagues “leveraged” $23.3 million for these projects, by helping communities raise money through contributions and grants from foundations and state and federal programs.
Recreation is not the only goal. The Park Service notes that local conservation efforts also produce important economic benefits. Pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, accessible greenways, local trails and clean rivers “contribute to a high quality of life that attracts tax-paying businesses and residents.”
Rivers & Trails began in rural and suburban settings, according to Monroe, then began to diversify. A desire to help in urban settings led the Park Service to investigate a British program called “Groundwork,” which aims to regenerate and reclaim urban sites for parkland and commercial use.
Groundwork was established in Britain in 1981, and calls itself an environmental regeneration charity. “From small community schemes to major regional and national programmes,” states its Web site, “[the Groundwork] network of over 40 local Trusts works in partnership with local people, local authorities and business to promote economic and social regeneration by improvements to the local environment.”
Groundwork’s programs link environmental, social and economic regeneration and promote sustainable development. They pursue physical improvements to the environment, educate and involve the community and integrate the economy with the environment.
“I’m thrilled that the Groundwork idea has taken root in the U.S., but not surprised,” said Groundwork chief executive Tony Hawkhead in a 1999 press release. “The idea that local people should be the driving force behind attempts to improve their own neighbourhoods is one that is powerful and relevant to all countries and cultures. It is one that Groundwork has helped take to other parts of the world.”
Which brings us to Japan. According to Groundwork, a Japan Groundwork Association is now working to establish Groundwork Trusts, beginning in Fukuoka.
From here, it does not take a great leap of imagination to envision an international network of nature corridors and renewed urban areas. All we need is more conservation venture capitalists like Monroe, investing for our common future.