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Environmental Education Conference

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August 10, 1994
Wintergreen, VA
Becky Norton Dunlop

Good afternoon. I'm delighted to be here today among Virginia teachers and educators ... Delighted because I believe that Virginia educators shoulder the ultimate responsibility when it comes to environmental stewardship: the education of our children.

What do we teach young people today about the outdoors...about our natural resources... about the environmental challenges that blare at us from newspaper headlines and television newscasts? It's difficult for the adult public, not to mention our youth, to sort out the facts from the fictions.

As you well know, most of these issues -- whether air pollution, urban runoff, waste dumps, endangered species, leaky oil storage tanks, Chesapeake Bay restoration -- all of these issues defy easy, simple, quick-fix solutions. And so often, we lack even enough science to precisely characterize the problems, much less to develop science-based solutions.

But I don't want to talk about what's wrong with environmental management -- or education for that matter. I'd like to share with you my ideas on how we can make things better. I believe that the right mindset can go a long way toward improving our society.

I know that as school, park, museum and government educators, you must share this conviction, that teaching students to ask questions, to think through challenges, is your most important responsibility.

As Secretary of Natural Resources, I have five guiding principles I use to help steer the Commonwealth through the complexities and competing demands involved in environmental policymaking.

Principle Number One -- People are our most important natural resource. I am a strong advocate of people-based solutions to environmental problems. Is our work benefiting the people we are committed to serve? Are we doing our job for them in the most cost-effective and efficient manner? What policies can we champion that will benefit the people of Virginia? How can Virginians work together to develop solutions to environmental problems?

I have strong faith in Virginia's people... that given the proper incentives...we can work together to solve the most complicated environmental problems.

It's important to remember that our environmental laws grew out of concern over the effect of environmental pollution on people.

Principle Number Two -- Personnel is policy. We in the Allen Administration believe that the citizens of Virginia deserve the most talented, dedicated professionals to conduct the business of government. We want to work with people inside and outside of government who truly care about our beautiful Commonwealth and its people... to find solutions 'the Virginia way.'

Principle Number Three -- A growing economy and a healthy environment are mutually dependent.

If you have ever seen the severely polluted rivers and lands in parts of the former Soviet Union, then you know what I am talking about. Yes, irresponsible companies have caused environmental damage in our own country -- but the failing Soviet economy was a major factor in the environmental degradation that occurred in some areas of that country. A country, a region, a town that struggles to feed itself...cannot afford to prevent pollution either. It's very important that we teach our students to understand the fragile dynamics of a healthy economy and a healthy environment.

In our country, private property rights and responsibilities...the incentives of the marketplace...and the free enterprise system...offer the greatest new prospects for improving environmental quality. Technology is the future of environmental protection. We need to champion the innovation that America's free-enterprise system promotes, not stifle it.

Principle Number Four -- Renewable natural resources are inherently dynamic, resilient and responsive to conservation management. This is an ecological principle. Now, that doesn't give us an excuse to recklessly pollute our rivers and lands, but, on the other hand, we should not perpetuate inaccurate "gloom and doom" perceptions of our natural resources.

I grew up in Ohio...in the coal country. I remember the days when our creeks and streams ran black with coal dust...and the lonely, hollowed-out hillsides. Well, those conditions were unacceptable. And private industry and government worked together to reclaim some of the hillsides and clean up the streams. Today, much of that hollowed-out land is highly productive farmland.

I hear that scientists have figured out how to use fly-ash to make oyster reefs. I got a call last week from a man who says he has found a way to actually eliminate medical waste -- and not by using an incinerator! There are so many creative solutions out there. We must encourage our students to find them.

Proper and effective public policy uses deeds of good stewardship and the art and science of conservation management to improve the quality and condition of natural resources.

And Principle Number Five -- I believe that excessive federal mandates and regulations actually harm the environment more than they help it. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. We must customize our solutions -- make them site and situation-specific -- to fit both the needs of people and the environment. If industry is allowed to try on and choose a solution that fits its economic and environmental needs, then that is a solution that will work because it will be used.

Look at the success we are already seeing in the area of pollution prevention. Virginia companies have collectively reduced by 53 percent the amount of toxics released to the air, land and water since the late 1980's. Why? Because there is both an economic as well as environmental incentive to reducing pollution.

If we step up our efforts to encourage incentives to good stewardship... educate our students...reward volunteer stewardship. Through positive incentives, education and new technology -- this is how we will achieve environmental quality in the future.

The most important thing you can do as teachers is to teach your students to seek the truth…that is the role of education. Our purpose here today is to give teachers information -- not as gospel --but as tools to help young people learn to seek truth. Education is one of Governor Allen's most important initiatives...as is promoting volunteer efforts that demonstrate good stewardship.

And we encourage our students to seek truth...

-- By basing our ideas on sound science in the classroom and in the field.

-- By teaching them critical thinking skills, and to ask the hard questions.

-- And perhaps most important of all, teaching kids to take personal responsibility for themselves and their circumstances. Personal responsibility and respect for other people…this is what environmental stewardship is all about. If we don't instill a strong sense of personal responsibility and good stewardship, then what good are government mandates?

I find, too, that the best solutions are very often local solutions, solutions derived by and for the people most directly involved. And just as states and localities must take responsibility for their own affairs, individuals must accept responsibility for solving their local problems as well.

One person can make a difference, and every one should try. And in dozens of schools across the Commonwealth today there are individual principals, teachers and students who are making a difference in their schools and communities by taking responsibility for trying to solve environmental problems in their own back yard. And they're doing it using the fundamentals of stewardship and science: observing, monitoring, testing and applying what they've learned to manage the resource.

We have students who are monitoring neighborhood streams for water quality and reporting results to state and local environmental agencies ... picking up litter and trash and sponsoring school wide recycling drives ... identifying and counting schoolyard flora and fauna planting gardens ... improving wildlife habitat ... constructing and maintaining nature trails...

Some of these schools I know are represented in this room here today:

-- Schools like Fishburn Park Elementary School in Roanoke, where students and teachers have constructed a wetlands area as part of the school's master plan

-- Flint Hill Elementary in Vienna, where students conduct a wide variety of environmental community service projects.

-- Nathaniel Green Elementary in Green County, where students compost cafeteria waste as part of a school wide waste management

-- and Tandem School in Charlottesville, whose students monitor the Rivanna River watershed in Albemarle County.

These are schools where children are discovering truths, such a that learning can be both rigorous and fun ... that difficult problems can be solved with imagination, creativity, and the willingness to try...that individuals -- even those in grade school -- can be a force for constructive change ... that environmental stewardship is a responsibility that all of us share.

My challenge to you today is to use every opportunity you have to stretch, to test, to ask tough questions, to learn as much as you can, so you can thereby stretch and challenge your students. Use this conference to help discover truth ... and take it back with you.

Thank you very much, and I hope you have a wonderful conference.