Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Role of Parks in Global Climate Change

Nature is more than Birds and Bunnies
The Role of Parks & Rec in Global Climate Change
By: Paul Gilbert, Executive Director
Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority

Parks have always had a role in nature education.  They are where the public goes to experience and learn about the natural world.  Many agencies have nature centers, guided hike or paddling trips, nature-focused summer camps, and more.  But most of those programs and facilities are focused on local flora and fauna (birds and bunnies).  There has always been and will always be some demand for this.  However, if parks and recreation is to remain relevant and important in our communities, we need to address the important issues of today.  And, in the environmental field, nothing is bigger than global climate change.  From extreme weather events to rising sea levels to reduced crop yields, the effects of climate change are front page news.

These planet altering impacts are caused by greenhouse gases like carbon pollution heating our atmosphere.  It may all seem too global to address on a local level, but it is not, and park agencies can be local leaders in promoting sustainability and educating people about what they can do.

Reducing your footprint:

In 2005, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority adopted energy conservation plans for each park.  At the same time, it started tracking its carbon footprint.  Using the accounting system, instead of just recording utility costs, it also recorded units of consumption for all fuels, so it could calculate its carbon footprint.  Every year, the facility that had the greatest reduction in energy consumption is recognized and awarded at an all staff meeting.

Results: While carbon emissions in 2012 were virtually the same as in 2005, our park system has grown dramatically from 19 to 25 parks and from $10 to 16 million in enterprise revenues.  With enterprise revenues as a good measure of activity, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has been able to go from 350 tons of carbon per $1 million of enterprise revenue to just 235 tons.  That indicates a great increase in efficiency!

How it was achieved: While many methods were used, the real answer to how it was achieves is the same answer to how anything is achieved…Focus.  In all aspects of life you will go where you place your focus.  In this case, focus has meant tracking results, creating plans and making many small decisions that collectively move you in the direction you want.  These small steps include:
·         Having a policy that the “life cycle costs” of any energy consuming system is considered.  This means that you may not buy the cheapest equipment if that equipment uses more energy in the long run.
·         Addressing “low hanging fruit” like lighting and insulation to improve the energy consumption of existing buildings.
·         Building new structures with green building elements that improve efficiency.
·         Using a wide range of technologies like geothermal heat pumps, electric and hybrid vehicles, solar panels and programmable thermostats.

Educate the Public: Reducing your carbon footprint is just a small part of the answer for park and recreation organizations.  At least as important is our role in educating the public, so they can learn how to be more sustainable in their lives too.

In 2009, Potomac Overlook Regional Park in Arlington Virginia revamped its aging nature center.  The new center has an energy theme throughout the exhibits, from the solar power that creates plant life, throughout the whole chain of life up to humans and how we use energy.  This center connects how we live to all the life on our planet.  It is a different approach from the dusty, taxidermied beavers of traditional nature centers.  And it is an approach that connects nature to people in more relevant ways.

In 2013 the two all LED holiday light shows that the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority operates will have renewable energy credits purchased to offset their power consumption. This initiative has come from a sponsorship deal with Dominion Power for the light show. This is yet another opportunity to educate the public about carbon footprint and sustainability.

Park agencies have always had a key role in connecting people to the natural world.  In a world where our natural environment is changing rapidly as a result of climate change, we need to change just as fast in how we connect with the public on these issues and offer leadership in how to be part of the solution.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Healthy Government Retirement Plan

Government based retirement plans are sometime in the news, and rarely in a good light. So here is some good news! Since 2008 the retirement plan run by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) has grown its assets by over 75%. That works out to an average of 15% per year for that period.

The reason this is important is that more than half of our operating expense for a park system is the cost of people (employees). And a significant percentage of the cost of a full time employee is the contribution that the organization provides to that retirement plan each year to offset a future withdraws someday when that employee is retired.

Here are some facts that help to explain why this plan is healthy while others are still trying to recover from the hit in value that resulted from the recession:

  • NVRPA employees contribute 5% of there pre-tax income to the plan.
  • There is an actuary study done on the plan every year to determine what the contribution should be. This is essentially an outside audit of our assets and obligations, and how they balance out over time.
  • The plan Trustees have worked to diversify the range of investments working with our third party plan advisers.
  • Several times during the worst days of the recession (2009 - 2010) the NVRPA Board wisely invested additional funds after extensive study to shore up the plan. These investments when the value of stocks was low may prove to be one of the best long-term financial decisions made by the Board.
The financial health of any organization has a direct and powerful affect on the ability of that organization to achieve its mission. So if you appreciate open space, natural resources protection, history, and fabulous destination parks, you need to also support the financial health and vitality of park systems like NVRPA.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Expanding Parkland!

Anne Webb (former owner) and Lisa Alexander (Executive Director of ANS) at the Webb Sanctuary

More parkland is always a great thing, and I am pleased to announce that the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has recently added 4 new properties to our portfolio of parkland! The new additions bring our total acreage up to 11,262!

·         Many people know that the Rust Sanctuary in Leesburg was added by way of a long-term lease. We celebrated this addition of 68 acres with an open house at the end of September. This is a partnership with Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS).

·         In addition to Rust another part of our partnership with ANS is the addition of the Webb Sanctuary a 20 property in Clifton. We just added Webb Sanctuary as a new NVRPA property last week!

·         Mt. Defiance is the central property for the Battle of Middleburg. We have been working on this deal for some time, but just this week we acquired ownership of this property from the Civil War Trust. This gives us another important piece of Civil War history.

·         At Gilbert’s Corner Regional Park, across from Mt. Zion a 66 acre property that we have been leasing from the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) will be owned by us next week. Kate Rudacille successfully put together many different federal and state grants, so that our investment in this property will be less than 10% of the value, a remarkable accomplishment!

In addition to these great successes, we have a number of other great land acquisition deals in the works that will continue to grow our base of parkland in the region. I look forward to being able to announce more good acquisition news in the months ahead.

An important measure of success for any park agency is growth. Like the trees in our forests you are either in a state of growth or a state of decline. We should all take pride that the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority continues to grow and develop in wonderful ways! We measure this success and growth in many ways: new and improved facilities, and programs, number of users, customer service, and expanding revenue to support the agency and our mission. All of these measures are important, but growth of parkland is one measure of success that almost everyone can appreciate. This gets to the core of why we are here, to conserve land for current and future generations.