For many Americans, hearing the word Appalachia elicits images of both enduring poverty and environmental degradation.
New research published in Society and Natural Resources paints a starkly different image of the mountainous region by focusing on an emerging movement of citizen volunteers working to clean up watersheds polluted by abandoned coal mines and sewage-clogged streams.
The study finds that people share a common motivation to improve highly polluted places. The researchers also found that people were further motivated to participate in cleanup projects if they saw how other volunteers’ efforts had restored previously polluted areas.
The researchers’ findings about how these “remade places” encourage other projects could help organizations elsewhere recruit and motivate volunteers more effectively.
“Our research highlights the positive feedback loop between watershed group restoration efforts and volunteer participation,” says lead author Heather Lukacs, a graduate student in Stanford University’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources.
“When restoration projects and their results are visible, people are motivated to become involved in community action. Seeing others working to clean up their stream and community motivates volunteers to improve their place.”
Putting the fish back
Throughout Appalachia, a lack of resources, infrastructure, and government oversight has led to toxic waste sites and household sewage being discharged directly into waterways. More than 3 million people in West Virginia live within one mile of an abandoned mine designated by the US Department of the Interior as a “threat to health, safety, and general welfare.”
All 13 of the watershed cleanup groups that Lukacs and coauthor Nicole Ardoin, assistant professor of education and center fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, studied operated in areas with rivers and streams deemed “impaired” by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
In recent years, some local residents have banded together to restore fish to streams that had, for generations, been too dirty to support them. They have also raised funds, supervised mine cleanups, tested water quality, and advocated for basic wastewater services, among other projects.
What the volunteers say
In response to open-ended survey questions, volunteers expressed motivation to further enhance once-polluted places that already showed improvements through the efforts of other people.
Among the respondents who expressed a new desire to pitch in: a fisherman who was inspired by the return of fish to a once heavily polluted creek; a retiree who was moved by his grandchildren’s work to clean up a waterway; and a teacher who saw tourism potential after volunteers removed debris from open trash dumps.
Volunteers also expressed motivation to be part of an inspiring social experience that “remakes” a place with more personal meaning. Of the more than 200 volunteers surveyed, 66 percent reported attending events such as stream cleanups, tree plantings, or group meetings that provided social interaction.
These social spaces provide an opportunity to be around people with shared values, to feel appreciated, and to encourage community engagement among the young.
“Although the visible outcomes of watershed group efforts may seem small relative to the massive impacts of coal and gas development in the region, remade places served as powerful symbols of local collective action to address pollution caused by others,” the study’s authors write.
Watershed groups elsewhere could learn from Appalachia’s example, the study suggests.
Volunteer recruitment and motivation efforts could benefit from opportunities to “observe and showcase the results of place remaking” through demonstrations of restoration project results, interaction with other volunteers, and natural systems education opportunities.
Source: Stanford University