Learning to Heal the Earth in the Time of COVID

FORT SMITH, Ark -Interested in learning how to help make your corner of the planet a healthier, more sustainable place? You may want to check out the Rutgers Environmental Steward (RES) program, coming soon via your favorite digital device.

If you have a passion for the environment, a desire to learn, and the willingness to pitch in and make a real difference where you live, this program may be just what you’ve been looking for — as I recently discovered myself, but more on that later.

Since it launched in 2005, the RES program has trained nearly 800 volunteers in subject areas including climate change, soil health, alternative energy, water resource protection, invasive species, habitat conservation, pollinator health, environmental policy, and lots more.

Here is how it works.

It’s a two-part program that requires a total commitment of 120 hours on the part of participants.

The initial segment consists of 60 hours of classroom work focusing on science and the public policy that’s based on that science. Weekly classes feature presentations by leading researchers from Rutgers University, government, and the nonprofit sector.

Stewards-to-be learn about the techniques and tools used to monitor and assess environmental health. They also gain an understanding of the research and regulatory agencies operating in New Jersey that focus on environmental issues and are introduced to a network of expert individuals and organizations who can be of service to them in the future as they wrestle with solving local environmental problems.

Part two gives participants the opportunity to put the knowledge gained in the classroom sessions to practical use by completing a 60-hour internship project of their own choosing. RES program volunteers take action to help identify, tackle, and resolve issues in their communities. An RES mentor assists each participant with formulating their project and provides guidance and support through to project completion.

Examples of past projects include protecting Pine Snakes in the Pine Barrens, reducing plastic waste, and protecting local rivers and streams through the design and construction of rain gardens.

Rutgers Environmental Steward State Coordinator Michele Bakcas says the focus of the RES program is on gaining a practical, versus theoretical, understanding of critical issues, “The program is not about training participants to be scientists. It’s about imparting the understanding of key concepts and preparing people to go forth in their community and apply what they’ve learned and ideally spur a life-long commitment to environmental issues.”

In past years the program also included an array of optional field trips guided by experts in their respective disciplines. Destinations ran the gamut, from an exploration of the Pine Barrens to an in-depth look at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission waste water treatment plant that serves the city of Newark.

Things changed considerably after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, of course. In the pre-COVID world, classes were offered in a traditional classroom setting in a growing roster of counties throughout the state, typically in joint partnerships between Rutgers Cooperative Extension division and county government.

Mercer County was added in 2020, and much to the delight of Margaret Pickoff, program administrator and County Horticulturist, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Mercer County, demand for the program exceeded the number of available slots.

“There has been a huge interest (in the RES program) in Mercer County,” Pickoff says. “We actually had to turn people away because we had to cap enrollment at 25 to ensure that each participant received their proper share of attention and support.”

Pickoff also noted that participants in the first Mercer County class covered a broad range of the educational and vocational spectrum; from high school students to retirees, scientists to freelance writers (including yours truly).

Just four traditional classes had been conducted in 2020 before the onset of COVID-19 necessitated a transition to the virtual classroom. It was a surprisingly smooth transition, according to Bakcas. “Being a smaller program than most (Rutgers programs) made it easier for us to adapt,” she notes.

Going virtual also had some advantages. As Bakcas says, “Coordinating RES classes statewide has not presented major hurdles. An online class presents new opportunities that we did not have access to before, and we are excited to take full advantage of those opportunities. For example, cross-state engagement, breakout sessions on specific environmental issues, learning from the best of the best content experts, virtual field trips, and better training in online environmental mapping tools and software.”

For the 2021 sessions, virtual classes are scheduled to run statewide for 20 Tuesdays, beginning on Tuesday, January 26, from 4 to 7 p.m. and ending on June 1. The cost to participate in the program is $200.

As to completing their internships, current Rutgers University guidelines have restricted in-person activity due to COVID-19, but participants have plenty of time to complete their individual volunteer projects, which must be pre-approved by their program coordinator. Completed projects will be critiqued before a final sign-off is issued, leading to participation in the annual graduation ceremony, held every November. Graduates receive a certificate of completion.

The graduation in November, 2020, was a virtual event. Bakcas says, “The November graduation worked out so well. About 90 RES alumni and current graduates presented their projects and interacted online. It truly was a celebration of everyone’s accomplishments.”

My spouse, Helen, gets full credit for pulling me, reluctantly at first, into the Rutgers Environmental Steward program. Although I had volunteered at a local land conservancy for a number of years, the thought of committing to 60 hours in the classroom and a 60-hour project gave me pause.

That said, I freely admit that by the end of the first hour of the first class, I was hooked. Not only did program coordinator Pickoff make participants feel welcome, but interacting with 24 like-minded, enthusiastic folks with a wide range of ages and backgrounds was amazingly energizing.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that soon moved the RES sessions online only served to increase our appreciation for the program, offering a welcome diversion in the uncertain and unsettling months that followed.

When it came to devising a project to satisfy a requirement for RES certification in our case, it was dumb luck to the rescue. Through a conversation with a friend who is involved with Friends of Princeton Open Space (www.fopos.org), a nonprofit devoted to acquiring and preserving open space in Princeton, we learned that FOPOS was in the early stages of a forest restoration project within the Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes preserve.

That led us to meet with Anna Corichi, natural resources manager at FOPOS, and participation with the planting and care of more than 3,000 native trees and shrubs within the restoration area. Fortunately, social distancing for a few people in a large outdoor space was easy to maintain.

The final phase of our project took place early this fall, when we collaborated with Anna to devise a sampling and evaluation method to determine the survival rate of those 3,000 plantings and spot potential problems. We were pleased to discover that over 80 percent of the (mostly tiny) bare-root beauties were alive and well, a higher percentage than expected. The results provided Corichi with the information she needs to plan for enhancing the site in 2021.

“As the only full-time staffer for the Friends of Princeton Open Space, I rely heavily on the support of our volunteers and dedicated board members to execute conservation projects at the preserve,” Corichi says. “When the pandemic hit, restrictions on large gatherings forced us to re-think how we were going to get 3,000 plants in the ground this year.

“The RES partnership proved integral to our success, and provided steady and focused support throughout these uncertain times. Not to mention, we had a good time! We look forward to hosting many more RES projects at the Billy Johnson Mountain Lakes Preserve.”

Interested RES participants — in fact, anyone with an interest in performing satisfying outdoor volunteer work that makes your corner of the planet a better place — can email Corichi at info@FOPOS.org to learn more and get involved.

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