What are challenges to environmental leadership and park maintenance within JRPS as a whole?
The biggest challenge to any company or system is a lack of support from the greater community. This is especially obvious in the history of the James River Park system. Since 1972, the parks have struggled with pollutants from power plants and factories, litter from oblivious park goers, and rebuff from the city government when all but one employee was fired in the 1980s. The challenges that environmental leadership and park maintenance of the James River Park System face do not stem from those in charge, but from the shortage of people who actively support them.
The support of and work done on the James River Park System results from its history. One can see the progress that has been made based on the people who swim in the river today with abandonment, whereas in the 1950’s and 60’s, large efforts made to keep people out of the river due to the dangerous contaminants. This started to change in 1972 with the opening of the park system. However, the city had little interest in helping the river, which was made apparent in the 1980’s when all of the park employees were fired except for Ralph White. In their opinion, there was no benefit in investing money and time into employing people to work for the park system. Despite this major set back, White was able to pull volunteers to help keep the river clean. For the past few decades, the Mayor and city council have taken an increased interest in the river, but not all for the right reasons. The city funds part of the park system because there are financial and political advantages for them to gain from it. Although there is support today from the greater community and local government, it is not necessarily stable nor guaranteed in the distant future. If the river stops benefitting the city, the James River Park System cannot count on its active support.
Before environmental leadership and park maintenance can think about the future of the James River Park System, they have to backtrack and correct past mistakes that have been made, specifically pollutants that still create problems today. When the Clean Water Act of 1972 was passed, the water was dangerous to swim in or to use at all, and great strides have been made in improving water quality. However, there are still issues that do not comply with the Act, and park maintenance and environmental advocates have to handle this with little help from the government. For example, our paddle trip to Dutch Gap in part revolved around the Dominion coal plant, which “looms ominously on the horizon” (Dutch Gap Notes). The coal plant releases steam and toxic coal ash, both of which keep the river warm year round and make the plant a danger for the environment around it. Higher temperatures mean the water can dissolve more minerals from rock and have a higher electrical conductivity, and it holds less dissolved oxygen than cold water. Additionally, some compounds, including arsenic, mercury, lead which come from coal ash, can be more toxic to animals at higher temperatures. The amount of these pollutants that are released do not meet EPA standards, but the plant is still allowed to operate because it is making strides to meet its goals. Improving or not, the toxic pollutants are a big issue and make it difficult to keep the water clean. The environmental leadership and park maintenance are challenged by plants and factories who do not comply with safe water practices and the government agencies that allow them to stay open.
An apathetic community is another obstacle that park leaders face. Park management cannot effectively keep the James River Park System clean when people come every week and leave behind beer bottles, plastic bags, and other trash that contaminates the river. An apathetic populace lacks the sense of community that is built on awareness, appraisal, and action. Many of the people who use the James River Park System go to college in the area or are visiting from out of town, or even live in Richmond and are just uninformed about the environmental issues of the James. When they are unaware of how their actions of littering, using too much water in their homes, overfishing, etc. affect the river, they do not give a second thought to their unsustainable practices. More people need to be aware of the issues of The James because taking care of it is hierarchical in nature. People who visit the River are important because they can help reduce pollution by picking up after themselves. Less litter helps those who are dedicated to service that helps the environmental leaders and park maintenance, and those who are dedicated to the river may eventually become leaders of the Park System. If no one at the bottom of this hierarchy cares, the leadership struggles, and we could revert back to the times of the 50’s where it was necessary to keep people out of the River.
One person cannot build an empire, or protect a River System, on his own. He needs sustained support from the community and government to ensure that the health of James River Park System is at least maintained, if not improved. In the past, local government agencies have made decisions with detrimental impacts on the park system, such as firing all but one employee of the Park System. As if that were not enough, James River Park employees, volunteers, and advocates have also fought pollution ranging from big coal plants to litter, all of which reverses some of the progress made on the river. Environmental leadership and park maintenance require support from the community to effectively do their job, and the lack of this support is the biggest challenge that they face as a whole.