Guest post from Kyle Miller, kyleeRestoration Program Intern

As a senior in UW Bothell’s Environmental Studies program I often feel like I can sum up what I’ve learned in one word: Depressing. It’s hard not to use this word and I feel like most of my classmates would agree. Every day in the classroom we’re exposed to the myriad of environmental problems threatening the stability of our biosphere. We learn to appreciate the beauty and importance of species diversity only to be reminded that they are going extinct at a rate 1,000 times the normal background rate, with 10-30% of mammal, bird, and amphibian species threatened directly due to our actions.

This past spring, I experienced two things inside and outside of the classroom that have reshaped the way I view environmental problems and solutions. The first was my involvement in an advanced senior seminar titled “From the Cascades to Andes,” a class that examined the environmental and social problems of the Pacific Northwest and parallel stories experienced by classmates in Peru. The second was my internship with Nature Consortium, a community based non-profit in West Seattle, assisting with forest restoration and environmental education in the West Duwamish Greenbelt.

In the classroom, regardless of the topic at hand, it became clear that education and public involvement were the keys to raising awareness of these critical issues and changing the tides of environmental degradation. But despite us learning about issues taking place in our own backyard, they still seemed far too distant for us to imagine having a direct impact.

In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency declared The Duwamish River in Seattle a superfund site, ranking it among the most heavily polluted waterways in the country. This river is crucial to the public, economic, and ecosystem health of the entire Puget Sound area. On the western slope of the river, the West Duwamish Greenbelt has been largely degraded due to deforestation, habitat fragmentation and invasive species as a result of Seattle’s urban growth. Despite my education, I was entirely unaware of this issue myself until this past spring, reinforcing the need to spread awareness to the public, particularly the community living alongside the Duwamish River and the people of Puget Sound who share this resource.

Through my involvement in community-based restoration at Nature Consortium, I realized that the key to addressing environmental problems was no further than a local community green space. Nature Consortium has a mission of connecting people, arts, and nature. By leading weekly forest restoration work parties with a diverse group of volunteers, I felt like I was able to raise awareness of environmental problems in our own backyard and empower the community with technical skills and knowledge necessary to change the trajectory of the surrounding ecosystem. Spending a few hours identifying and removing invasive plants with volunteers not only restored the forest but also restored my faith that a group of individuals, regardless of their background, were able to have an immediate positive impact on their community and ecosystems.

The great thing about environmentally focused community level change is it allows neighbors and strangers to connect with one another and contribute towards a larger goal that improves their immediate surroundings and restores one more component in a healthy biosphere. It allows us to begin a necessary tradition of education and appreciation of the natural world and the services it provides us.  It empowers individuals like me to realize their leadership potential. Most importantly, it reshapes the idea that environmental problems are so large, distant, or impossible to solve.

Living in Seattle and wondering how you can get involved? I invite you to join Nature Consortium and I in restoring Seattle’s largest remaining forest, the West Duwamish Greenbelt! Sign up for one of our weekly volunteer events to learn about the services this forest provides and how you can have a positive impact on Puget Sound!