Estelle Usunier (NCCC) and Penny Perkins (Whiterock Conservancy) plant swamp white oaks to diversify ash forest.

One of my favorite childhood books was published in 1971. It captures the challenges of economic growth and environmental sustainability. Forty-eight years later, here I sit asking myself “have we as a society made progress”? The book is The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A young boy follows the street of the Lifted Lorax to the Once-ler’s house to ask the Once-ler a series of questions about the Lorax.

For me at least, even a classic like the Lorax has taken on a different meaning depending on my life circumstances. For instance, as a new mother I suddenly was quite traumatized by the idea of this little boy in the story sneaking out of town to visit a strange old man.  I’m in support of multi-generational friendships. I’m in favor of the youth helping the elderly to make the aging process better. But I also realize that the world is full of evil, greed, and bitterness. Just turn on the news!

My life has a tendency to keep circling back around on itself. Recently an AmeriCorps NCCC crew came to Whiterock to volunteer their time and help us make progress on a growing list of projects. We were sad to see them leave early. They were called away to do natural disaster duties and are now in Fremont, Nebraska with flood recovery efforts.

Does anybody else feel like every time you turn on the news it’s a different natural disaster? I don’t remember this constant devastation when I was younger. For me, I don’t get hung up on everybody’s beliefs and emotions as to why we have 100 year floods every few years; why we have water that is filled with nitrates, phosphates, and bacteria; why our top soil is not sitting on the land but flowing downstream, etc. The list of issues that needs attention to provide the next generation a suitable habitat is long. Beyond biases and emotions, my question is the same: what am I and what are you doing to TRY to make things better?

I found myself contemplating the work of these wonderful hard working NCCC volunteers before they left. One of the young ladies, Estelle Usunier, and I were out planting trees. It was refreshing to see in the next generation her love for the worms we saw digging the soil, her tolerance of other generation’s different viewpoints, and her desire to TRY to make things better.  My mind circled me back to thinking about “The Lorax”. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Among a forest of ash trees which will soon enough be decimated by the emerald ash borer- we were planting swamp white oak. As a land manager it’s a constant battle of preservation and being progressive for a sustainable future. In this instance, I’m betting on diversifying the forest of ash with other suitable species as being a sustainable choice.

Estelle Usunier plants future shade trees in Oakridge Campground.

At Whiterock there are many questions on how to balance economic and ecological sustainability. We ask ourselves every day if status quo is good enough. And usually the answer is “- no”.  It is not acceptable for us to watch our topsoil and nutrients wash into the river and down to the Gulf of Mexico. So we build a toolbox of choices to help progress us forward. The list is long but the practices that stick out that I envision being common like no- till, contour farming, grassed waterways, and cover crops turns out to not necessarily be common.  How will people have the quality of clean water we deserve- Unless…… How will farmers have productive soils- Unless……  How will we survive without our pollinators a result of not only a monoculture landscape but a landscape where toxins are status quo- Unless…… We have remnant prairie and savanna at Whiterock Conservancy. Some landowners are still converting these endangered habitats for development or agriculture. We don’t consider conversion at Whiterock, because we recognize the value of a variety of species working together.  But we are just 5500 acres and can’t protect all the species- Unless……

By the end of The Lorax story, everything became clear to the Once-ler.  What the word Unless really meant is, it’s in the power of each and every one of us, of you and me, to make the changes needed for a sustainable economic AND ecological future. ~ Penny Perkins