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7 Questions with Hedrick Belin, President of Potomac Conservancy

Hedrick-headshot.jpgJuly is Parks and Recreation Awareness month and today we welcome Hedrick Belin, President of Potomac Conservancy to 7 Questions!Potomac Conservancy is the region’s leading clean water advocate, fighting to ensure the Potomac River boasts clean drinking water, healthy lands, and connected communities. Under his leadership, the Conservancy has launched several successful initiatives to promote river-friendly land use and to expand the base of volunteers actively engaged in the stewardship of our local green spaces.

What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

I grew up in a rural part of Northeastern Pennsylvania. It was an enchanting place to spend my childhood, with all sorts of outdoor adventures like building forts in summer; raking leaves in fall; grabbing icicles off the overhang of an old quarry in the winter after sledding. But like most kids, I kind of took what I had for granted. All I knew was the stuff in my backyard was wonderful.

Then I went to college and took some classes about the environment. That’s where I learned why my backyard was so full of wonder and adventure. I learned that the local creeks, meadows, and forests I adventured through as a kid were part of a watershed, and that we lived in a watershed of the Chesapeake Bay. I discovered that ecosystems like the one I grew up in were fragile, and that the Clean Water Act and other measures had been enacted to protect them. And I learned that unless people who loved nature protected it, the special outdoor places of my childhood could be in danger.

I have been doubly lucky I was lucky to grow up in a home that let me experience the natural wonders of a watershed, and I was lucky to learn what citizens and government must do to safeguard our lands and rivers.

I got involved in Potomac Conservancy because I want every person to have the opportunities I had– to experience first-hand the joys of one of America’s natural treasures. And I wanted to connect the excitement and joy of that experience to the big picture the need to get involved in protecting the Potomac Watershed.

What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?

Our local rivers and streams did not get polluted overnight. So we need to recognize that we’re not going to restore them to full biological health overnight either.

Fortunately, we have reached a tipping-point where a whole set of factors have been put into place in the last few years that will get us to a clean and biologically-healthy Potomac River if we stay focused and remain disciplined with our efforts.

So, it’s exciting to see these behind-the-scenes pieces come together. We have legally-enforceable pollution reduction goals. There is strong federal and state leadership focusing time and resources on the challenges of cleaning up our rivers and streams. We can point to a number of success stories that demonstrate progress and inspire additional action. And finally, there continues to be growing awareness about how clean streams and healthy green spaces make an important contribution to this region’s quality of life.

I’m excited to be a part of a much larger team that is putting its shoulder to the flywheel for the clean-up. There are lots of little steps being taken that many people cannot see. But over time, the collective impact of those individual actions and decisions will result in people noticing a dramatic change in the region’s water quality.

Who inspires you?

The amazing volunteers that we get to work with on a daily basis. I get paid to design strategy and employ all the resources possible to carry out our mission. But nearly every weekend there are people coming out to get their hands dirty for clean water whether it’s planting trees, repairing trails, removing trash and debris from shorelines, or other restoration activities through our Community Conservation programs. Our clean water volunteers are the real heart of the organization. Their passion and dedication for our local lands and waters motivates me to do my best to advance Potomac Conservancy’s mission and the larger movement for a healthy, restored Potomac.

We want people to see up close and personal how exciting, fun, and inspiring the Potomac River and its tributaries are. That’s why a central focus of what we do is organizing events where people can connect personally with our local natural resources and get their hands dirty, too. We really believe that if we can get people out to experience the wonders of this watershed as I did growing up they will enlist in the good fight too, joining us in protecting the this magnificent watershed.

What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?

We’re fortunate to partner with a number of great organizations on our conservation and advocacy initiatives. Last month we co-hosted an alternative happy hour with National Parks Conservation Association for nearly 200 young professionals on and along the Nation’s River. We met on a Thursday night at the Key Bridge Boathouse in the District for an evening of free food and twilight paddling. It was an opportunity to mingle, network, paddle and enjoy the great outdoors. The weather was spectacular and people didn’t want to come back in as the sun was setting around 8:30. For many, it was their first experience on the Potomac.

In order for people to care about their local rivers, streams, and the lands they have to have a connection. And this happy hour is one way we can introduce people to the Potomac or deepen their existing connection.

Potomac Conservancy seeks to improve the Potomac River’s water quality by building an impassioned base of river advocates to impart change at the local level. We drive the region’s clean water movement by providing the tools that empower local landowners, activists, volunteers, partners, donors and all river champions to lead the charge for clean drinking water, healthy lands and safe access to the river.

What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces, and how are you dealing with this challenge?

By 2030, the population of the Potomac Watershed region will increase by 2 million people. That’s like adding the city of Houston, TX to our area! That kind of population growth and associated development are major threats to our drinking water, green spaces and the overall health of the Potomac.

Nature protects the river from this kind of pollution, with trees and plant growth on the side of streams that keeps polluted runoff from reaching the Potomac. Unfortunately, poor planning can lead to people tearing down those vital streamside barriers which are an important buffer against pesticides, fertilizers and storm water runoff.

Local rivers and streams can also suffer when development adds roads, rooftops and other hardened surfaces. When rain hits soil anchored by trees and plants, the water is absorbed. When rain hits the hardened surfaces, it races into our rivers and streams, taking with it motor oils, toxins, sediment and other pollutants.

You may have read about one of the most dramatic impacts on the Potomac of pollution from land. A U.S. Geological Survey study of fish from the Potomac River and various tributaries found 80% of male bass examined showed characteristics of female bass. This intersex fish phenomenon is not just strange — it’s the canary in the coal mine telling us something is dangerously out of balance.

And we should all be concerned with this finding, as nearly everyone in the Washington DC metro area gets their drinking water from the Potomac. So when you turn on a tap at your home, apartment or business you are drinking Potomac River water.

What advice do you have for other people in your position?

Being an Executive Director can be hard, no doubt about it. So a couple of thoughts.

  • This is not a sprint or even a marathon. This is a long-distance race of epic proportions. Certainly push hard, but not so hard that you burn out.
  • Make sure you have balance in your life.
  • Hire really smart, passionate employees and get out of the way. I’m constantly impressed with what my team is able to accomplish, and I learn something new every day from my fellow merry band of river warriors. And yes, we do call ourselves that!

What’s next/coming up for you?

Our science-based, targeted approach to our water quality protection initiatives is starting to get results. We are seeing improvements in water quality on several different fronts. But those gains could be overwhelmed by polluted runoff from urban areas the only source of water pollution that is growing.

In order for us to win, we must dramatically expand the movement that is serving as the Voice of the Nation’s River. So we are looking for ways to inspire and empower local action for clean water.

We want the next generation to see and experience a Potomac River that from its headwaters in Allegheny highlands to its tidewaters — connects people to nature. Its vibrant rivers and streams flow through a landscape of forests and natural areas, safeguarded by the communities they sustain.

That is what Potomac Conservancy is working toward, but we can’t do it alone. So I hope you will check out and consider joining our merry band of river warriors that is fighting to protect the Potomac through conservation and advocacy.

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