USC Citizens for Land Stewardship
Conservation and stewardship of land and natural resources in Upper St. Clair

Stewardship and the Natural World

by Jeff Wagner

What does our recent face-to-face with the Y2K crisis have in common with the environmental issues that confront us today? In both cases, we have tried to predict how complex systems might behave when one or more parts within the system fail. In the case of the electronic systems under threat from date changes, we made plans and took steps to address the problems. But what do we do when it comes to the systems that maintain life on the planet, systems that are infinitely more complex than the most sophisticated software today? It’s easy to become overwhelmed and confused about the myriad issues before us and more confused about how to help resolve them. Perhaps beginning small with what’s close at hand, tangible, and approachable is the best place to start. Looking at the dozens of environmental and conservation organizations like CLS that have formed over the last 10 years just in Pennsylvania, it’s safe to say that people are looking for ways to be personally and locally involved in addressing a whole slew of environmental issues.

As people experience the natural world, they come to appreciate the complexity and ultimately the beauty of that world. For people like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, two of the philosophical founders of today’s conservation movement, being in and observing the natural world fundamentally transformed them and led them to dedicate their lives to conservation. Although most of us will not attain the same prominence as Muir or Leopold nor suddenly abandon our careers to follow in their footsteps, we nonetheless find within our experience the reasons for caring about the world around us. Simply put, contact and caring are fundamental to the idea of stewardship.

Stewardship as it applies to the natural world finds its roots in the centuries of work that stewards of households and ships performed - taking care of the daily details of managing resources and places, finances, food, and plans for celebration. Today’s natural resource stewards watch over particular places, helping to assure that management policies are followed and resources are protected. Many agencies, organizations, and even local governments employ professional stewards to manage the (living) natural resources of a place. Also, thousands of people volunteer their time as stewards, working closely with the staffs of organizations like the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, and World Wildlife Federation.

Most of us are stewards in the sense that we care for our houses and properties. Collectively, we can substantially affect the quality of water in our streams, the diversity of insects, birds, and other animals in our neighborhoods, and the overall ecological health of our region. In terms of water quality, impervious surfaces (driveways, roofs, patios) often drain into storm sewers. The result is the loss of ground water recharge and greater flooding potential in streams. Stewards ask “what possibilities might there be to allow some of that water to percolate into the ground rather than being removed from the site?” Consider the use of herbicides on lawns. A host of broad-leaved “weeds” may not sit well aesthetically for some, but for microbes, insects, small mammals and birds, a diversity of plants and the freedom from toxic chemicals means good habitat. What are the alternatives both functionally and aesthetically to the use of lawn chemicals? Put it all together, hundreds and thousands of acres of lawn and yardscape - how much water, how much habitat, how much opportunity to change the way we look at the resources that we are a part of and dependent upon? Initiatives such as World Wildlife’s Wildlife Habitat Program encourage transformation of lawns to more diverse and natural habitat and have found support in numerous cities throughout the country.

When CLS selected its name three years ago, we included stewardship in our name to emphasize our belief that any successful conservation effort meant bringing people together with land and resources. We have provided many opportunities for people in Upper St. Clair and surrounding communities to walk, talk, hear presentations, plant trees and shrubs, and be a part of the greater conservation dialogue throughout our watershed and region. In many ways, CLS is a conduit for information about resources and their management. However, and as importantly, we are a link for the community. Through our programs and projects, we want to give people the chance to touch the resources and develop a relationship that will make them, when all is said and done, good stewards of the natural world.