2011 Bethesda Magazine Green Awards in partnership with Bethesda Green
Rock Creek Conservancy
Category: Nonprofit organizations that have created an innovative green product, are selling an innovative green service and/or are promoting a green lifestyle
Each spring, more than 1,000 volunteers fan out across Rock Creek Park, picking up food wrappers, takeout containers, bottles, cans and other detritus tossed from car windows or dropped onto the wooded trails and picnic areas.
When the Friends of Rock Creek’s Environment was founded in 2005, it was intended as a liaison among local, state and federal park agencies.
But it wasn’t long before it also became a grassroots organization with a network of local residents determined to protect the 75-square-mile urban forest that extends north from Washington, D.C., into Montgomery County.
In 2006, volunteers conducted 11 cleanups of the area. Last spring, they conducted 61, lugging out some 2,500 bags of trash. “The interest was already there,” says Beth Mullin, executive director of the group, which recently changed its name to Rock Creek Conservancy. “All we did was tap into it.”
Earlier this year, the Washington, D.C., government named it the nonprofit Partner of the Year and gave the group an Environmental Excellence Award. The Conservancy also landed a spot on the prestigious Greater Washington Catalogue for Philanthropy’s 2011-12 list of the region’s best-regarded small charities.
The nonprofit continues to lobby lawmakers and educate the public about the biggest dangers facing the park—polluted runoff and sewage overflows into Rock Creek and its tributaries, erosion, loss of tree canopy and other factors contributing to a loss of wildlife habitat. It also has fought to preserve Maryland’s stormwater management rules, and advocated banning plastic bags in Maryland and the District. But the cleanups are perhaps its biggest success, spawning dozens of neighborhood-based “stream teams” that watch over patches of parkland nearby.
Though Rock Creek still has its share of litterbugs, Mullin says the teams encounter less “vintage trash,” meaning tires, abandoned refrigerators, old TV sets and the like. Because of that, the total weight of the trash hauled out of the park has dropped from 29 tons in 2009 to just six tons last spring.
With less cumbersome junk to haul, the Conservancy has expanded cleanup areas and added restoration work such as digging up invasive species and building “rain gardens” that soak up stormwater runoff from streets and lawns before motor oil and chemical pesticides are swept into the park’s many creeks and streams.
“There are so many issues that are national or global where people feel they can only make a small impact,” says Tom Smerling, leader of the Meadowbrook Stream Team in Chevy Chase.
“Here, you can make a big difference.”