More than Birds and Bunnies

August 1, 2013, Department, by Paul Gilbert

Paul Gilbert drives an electric cart at an NVRPA park.Parks have always had a role in nature education. They are where the public goes to experience and learn about the natural world. Many agencies have nature centers, guided hikes, paddling trips, nature-focused summer camps and more. But most of those programs and facilities are focused on local flora and fauna (birds and bunnies). There will always be some demand for this. However, if parks and recreation is to remain relevant and important in our communities, we need to address the important issues of today. And, in the environmental field, nothing is bigger than global climate change. From extreme weather events to rising sea levels to reduced crop yields, the effects of climate change are front-page news.

These planet-altering impacts are caused by greenhouse gases like carbon pollution heating our atmosphere. It may all seem too global to address on a local level, but it is not — and park agencies can be local leaders in promoting sustainability and educating people about what they can do.

Reducing Your Footprint

In 2005, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority adopted energy conservation plans for each park. At the same time, we started tracking our carbon footprint. Using the accounting system, instead of just recording utility costs, we also recorded units of consumption for all fuels so we could calculate our carbon footprint. Every year, the facility that has the greatest reduction in energy consumption is recognized and awarded at an all-staff meeting.

Results: While carbon emissions in 2012 were virtually the same as in 2005, our park system has grown dramatically from 19 to 25 parks and from $10 to 16 million in enterprise revenues. With enterprise revenues as a good measure of activity, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has been able to go from 350 tons of carbon per $1 million of enterprise revenue to just 235 tons. That indicates a great increase in efficiency!

How it was achieved: While many methods were used, the real answer to how it was achieved is the same answer to how anything is achieved…focus. In all aspects of life, you will go where you place your focus. In this case, focus has meant tracking results, creating plans and making many small decisions that collectively moved us in the direction we wanted. These small steps included:

• Having a policy that the “life-cycle costs” of any energy-consuming system is considered. This means that you may not buy the cheapest equipment if that equipment uses more energy in the long run.
• Addressing “low-hanging fruit” like lighting and insulation to improve the energy consumption of existing buildings.
• Building new structures with green elements that improve efficiency.
• Using a wide range of technologies like geothermal heat pumps, electric and hybrid vehicles, solar panels and programmable thermostats.

Educating the Public

Reducing your carbon footprint is just a small part of the answer for park and recreation organizations. At least as important is our role in educating the public so they can learn how to be more sustainable in their lives, too.

In 2009, Potomac Overlook Regional Park in Arlington, Virginia, revamped its aging nature center. The new center has an energy theme throughout the exhibits, from the solar power that creates plant life through the whole chain of life up to humans and how we use energy. This center connects how we live to all of the life on our planet. It is a different approach from the dusty, taxidermied beavers of traditional nature centers. And it is an approach that connects nature to people in more relevant ways.

In 2013, the two all-LED holiday light shows that the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority operates will have renewable energy credits purchased to offset their power consumption. This initiative has come from a sponsorship deal with Dominion Power for the light show. It’s yet another opportunity to educate the public about carbon footprints and sustainability.

Park agencies have always had a key role in connecting people to the natural world. In a world where our natural environment is changing rapidly as a result of climate change, we need to change just as fast in how we connect with the public on these issues and offer leadership on how to be part of the solution.

Paul Gilbert is Executive Director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.