Geographic Launches Project to Promote Protection of U.

Andrew Jones
National Geographic News
June 27, 2001
Officials of the National Geographic Society gathered along the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to kick off a nationwide campaign to promote public awareness of the need to safeguard U.S. rivers.

Conservationists, business leaders, teachers, students, and community volunteers were also present for the launch of "Geography Action! Rivers 2001," a six-month project that will provide information about river issues and encourage Americans to become involved in activities aimed at preserving rivers and conserving water.

The event was held at Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization that provides young adults with the opportunity to become involved in environmental initiatives through community service.

John Fahey, president of the National Geographic Society, described the new project and reported on the findings of a "River IQ" survey that was conducted as part of the program.

"The purpose of 'Geography Action! Rivers 2001' is to encourage Americans to become responsible river stewards," he said.

"The campaign is a key component of the Society's commitment to conservation, helping people find tangible ways to turn their concern for the planet, and specifically our rivers, into action," Fahey said. "We hope people will also gain an appreciation for how important geography is to understanding rivers—and how compelling a topic it can be when experienced in the real world."

The poll, which was conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates Inc., was designed to determine the public's attitudes and knowledge about rivers and their willingness to share responsibility for river protection.

Limited Knowledge

The results of the poll showed that while rivers provide society with innumerable benefits, most Americans have little awareness of that importance and usually don't think about the need to protect the nation's waterways.

The findings also indicated that much of the public fails to recognize the interconnected relationship of humans with their environment and how daily human activities affect the overall health of watershed systems and rivers.

Yet respondents expressed overwhelming support for the protection and conservation of rivers, which the new campaign will work to promote.

"What we need to get across is that everyone's small actions have greater impacts downstream," said Rebecca R. Wodder, president of American Rivers, a national river conservation group. "We're connected by rivers to each other, to our proud history, and to the people who will enjoy these rivers long after we're gone."

In the survey, only one in seven respondents (15 percent) knew that the greatest source of river pollution is damage to watersheds from human activities such as land change and urban sprawl. Nearly three times as many (44 percent) said industry was the biggest culprit polluting waterways.

"The accelerated development of land across the country and its impact on our rivers is a major problem facing us today," said Larry Selzer, senior vice president of The Conservation Fund. "Through this partnership we have the unprecedented opportunity to protect our rivers across this great land we call America."

The survey showed a strong willingness on the part of most Americans to make some adjustments in everyday actions that could help improve the health of rivers, such as turning off the water tap while brushing their teeth or doing dishes.

Respondents also indicated they were willing to act in the home to help ensure the quality of rivers through actions such as disposing of household chemicals safely and not down drains or sewers (83 percent), inspecting and repairing leaky sewers and septic tanks (81 percent), minimizing the use of fertilizers (57 percent), and starting a compost pile (47 percent).

Yet many indicated they were less willing to change behavior in ways that would perceivably alter their lifestyles and preferences, such as landscaping with native plants rather than grass (38 percent) and giving up the luxury of driving to work, even if for only one day a week (22 percent).

Willingness to Participate

A positive finding was that two-thirds of the respondents (65 percent) said they wanted to become more personally involved in conserving and protecting rivers, while nearly one in five (19 percent) said they were interested in becoming an active "river advocate." They cited lack of sufficient time, information, and awareness as the major reasons why they are not more personally involved in river conservation.

More than a third of those surveyed (35 percent) expressed the sentiment, "I don't know how I can help," and six in ten (60 percent) that they did not know where to acquire information on river conservation issues.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said Larry Selzer, senior vice president of The Conservation Fund. "Americans are eager for knowledge about rivers and how to protect them."

The poll found that the respondents were most motivated to become involved in river conservation projects that were family-oriented. Two-thirds of those surveyed—and almost three-quarters of adults with children at home—said a major reason to get involved in river conservation is because such programs provide excellent educational opportunities for children and are a good way to instill important values.

As part of the new project, an "Aqua Heroes" contest this summer will challenge K through 12 students to investigate an issue concerning a river, devise a solution, and inform their communities about the problem.

In another project-related activity, 53 teachers from across the country will soon attend a four-day training workshop on river and conservation issues at the National Conservation Training Center in Sheperdstown, West Virginia.

National Geographic has established a special website for the project at Geography Action! Rivers 2001.

The "Geography Action! Rivers 2001" campaign was developed in partnership with The Coca-Cola Company, The Conservation Fund and the River Council, a consortium of five river conservation groups: American Rivers, Izaak Walton League of America, River Network, Trout Unlimited, and Waterkeeper Alliance.

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