According to a research team at Penn State University, local watershed organizations are influencing community dynamics—and the nature of environmental stewardship—in rural Pennsylvania. The Center for Rural Pennsylvania commissioned the study of rural watershed organizations, which drew on 27 in-depth interviews and questionnaires completed by 172 watershed organizations across the state.
“We got into this because we realized that community watershed organizations were really proliferating across the state,” said faculty member and researcher Frank Higdo. “There are literally hundreds of them, and we didn’t know that much about them.”
The study found that the role of watershed groups reached beyond the stream corridors. By forging new partnerships with conservation districts and other stakeholders, the organizations support water resources and community development as a whole.
Forty-four percent of watershed groups formed within the last 10 years, with more than 100 benefiting from Environmental Stewardship Fund (ESF) grants. Water-quality concerns were a leading cause for the formation of groups. But a number of concerns ranked as secondary causes, including environmental education, habitat restoration, recreation opportunities, land-use planning, mining impacts, agricultural impacts, and water supply.
ESF topped the list of funding sources for rural watershed organizations. Sixty-four percent had applied for ESF grants, and 52 percent had received them.
Local watershed organizations in Pennsylvania play a vital role in community education as well as on-the-ground stream restoration. In recent years, local projects supported with ESF funds have:
- Planted more than 188 miles of streamside buffers
- Restored 4,200 acres of wetlands
- Reclaimed more than 2,000 acres of abandoned mines
- Plugged 770 abandoned oil and gas wells
- Supported the assessment of 153 watersheds
Sportsmen were often among the organizations’ founders. “Hunting and fishing groups, like Turkeys Unlimited and Trout Unlimited, were often the catalyst for getting these groups started. They got to talking among themselves and established a common interest,” said faculty member Kathryn Brasier, who also collaborated on the study.
“These groups actively distance themselves from the conventional image of environmental activism,” said Richard Stedman, another member of the research team. “They don’t want to be seen as radicals on the fringe of their communities.”
The relatively smaller size of rural communities makes it especially difficult to be productive through a confrontational or divisive approach. Instead, groups build support through community education and hands-on projects that show positive results for their watersheds. Most raise community awareness through letter-writing campaigns, public meetings, and media interviews. They focus on voluntary conservation practices and changing attitudes through environmental education with citizens and students. This approach allows the organizations to maintain relationships with diverse groups and act as legitimate facilitators on public issues.
“But they aren’t shrinking violets,” Brasier said. Watershed organizations work closely with local, regional, and state agencies to address problems. When they find regulatory violations, they report them.
Many local watershed organizations also impact their communities in ways that reach beyond environmental concerns. By collaborating with citizens and local governments, they create positive relationships and a network of people who want to be active in their communities. This network can be especially effective in rural settings, where one strong network can influence multiple aspects of the community.
“Community watershed organizations can have a variety of impacts within a community beyond water quality. They also contribute to leadership development and awareness of other issues like land use and how the community all fits together,” Brasier said. In several cases, watershed organizations have spawned efforts to address public health and recreation issues. “I’ve been struck by the number of people who, because of their interests and learning through the watershed organizations, have sought out workshops on their own and started teaching other people.”
The study also showed that education was one of the most visible and oft-cited roles for community watershed groups. Groups offer a comprehensive vision of environmental quality that includes both the ecological and social significance of local waterways. Along with presentations for adult community groups, watershed organizations work closely with local schools on curriculum and field studies.
“Watershed organizations are providing teachers with resources, like watershed models, and giving students a very hands-on experience of their local resources that the schools couldn’t offer themselves,” Brasier said.