The gray-haired conservationist

How I answer the question of legacy

“Yeah, but who is going to keep this going when you’re dead?”

Now there’s a question you don’t hear every day. But there it was, recently directed at me from a group member during a recent tour of West Linn’s White Oak Savanna -- a natural site my husband and I have been working to restore since 2005.

Blunt but interesting, I thought. Because when think about it, this question is something that all of us in the Intertwine (not just those of us with gray hair), should probably ask ourselves more often.

After all, legacy hits at the core of why we conservationists do what we do. Whether we get paid for our work, or volunteer our time, our shared motive is to leave something worth protecting over centuries. While fundraising, politics, and community organizing are certainly important, the ultimate key to our success (or failure)  is whether we can spark a fire in the bellies of our children to serve as stewards of the land after we’re gone.

Especially if the land you’re protecting offers them something in danger of vanishing forever. For over 10 years, many volunteers have helped our small nonprofit, Neighbors for a Livable West Linn, begin to restore the upper 14 of the 20 acres of a rare and majestic spot called the White Oak Savanna.

Today, only two percent remains of the 600,000 acres of White Oak habitat that once stretched up and down the Willamette Valley. Of those 12,000 acres, just one percent is publicly owned -- like our little patch of Savanna. Conserving this beautiful Savanna has to date entailed over 6,800 hours of restoration work, dozens of fundraisers, and plenty of tours -- like the one I mentioned above -- to get the community excited.

But yes, we’ve also taken care to weave kids into our effort. They have worked with us on school plantings, Scout and NW Youth Corps projects, PSU work parties, SOLVE events. They’ve had first sightings with us of coyotes and blue camas. They’ve hopped on tree swings, and come to love this land with us. They are quick studies.

And lately, they show us how it’s done. Young students at a local after-school Camp Fire program at Trillium Creek Primary are now busy doing their own fundraisers for the protection of the lower six acres of our White Oak Savanna. They call themselves the White Oak Savanna Committee.

As a social worker and teacher for more than 35 years, what gives me hope at the end of the day is the potential of our kids to make things better. In classrooms today, I hear kids who are more liberal in their thinking and more accepting of each other than the students I went to school with dozens of years ago.

So when a young person serving me at the local pizza spot remembers me working with their class two years ago, to plant a thousand blue camas bulbs, I feel reassured that we gray-haired conservationists will be leaving The Intertwine in good hands.

Because as I told the site visitor who asked about legacy that day in the Savanna: “It’s the kids who are going to keep things going.”

Roberta Schwarz is the co-founder of Neighbors for a Livable West Linn.  She has had 35 years of experience as a social worker and teacher, and has been working to conserve and restore the White Oak Savanna for over ten years.

Add new comment