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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: How to be an Environmental Volunteer

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Maria Luisa Boutique, Strawtown Studio and Summer Play Camp at Blue Rock School
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by Susan Hellauer

On April 24, Rockland County Executive Ed Day presented Laurie Seeman, founder of Strawtown Studio (an Earth Matters sponsor) with the 2018 “Outstanding Environmental Volunteer” Award. It was an honor long in the making.

The veteran water advocate has never forgotten the shock of seeing a beloved creek near her upstate childhood home bulldozed for a highway project. When she moved to Rockland  County in 1997, Seeman honored those young, barefoot days by leading hikes with children in Harriman Park and along the Hudson River, a pursuit that eventually led to the formation of Strawtown Studio, her art-in-nature educational nonprofit. And in 2007 she helped begin the successful fight against a massive desalination plant in Haverstraw Bay, a critical “nursery” of the Hudson River.

One day in 2010, one of Seeman’s young charges noticed a problem with the Sparkill Creek. “Laurie, this creek smells nasty,” she recalled the girl saying. “You need to tell the adults that the kids know what they are NOT doing, and if they want to do something, well here it is.”

Those plainspoken words led Seeman to call  John Lipscomb, the Riverkeeper boat captain, who was running a water sampling program for the Hudson River at the time. Lipscomb came and, as the children looked on, took his first tributary sample at the Sparkill Creek. It contained a high level of enterococcus bacteria from sewage. “We made calls, gathered some people together and held the first meeting of the Sparkill Creek Watershed Alliance (SWCA),” Seeman said. “It’s eight years now, and we are all still meeting.”

Laurie Seeman

Rockland County Executive Ed Day presents longtime water advocate Laurie Seeman with the award for 2018 Outstanding Environmental Volunteer. Photo: County of Rockland

An environmental volunteer community

What’s it like to be an environmental volunteer with the SCWA? “It’s just the greatest group you could want to join,” said Seeman. “We have fun . . . we’re like brothers and sisters.”

There are now more opportunities than ever for individuals, organizations, friends and families to have similar fun and comradeship. Commitment is flexible: you can keep polluting trash and plastic out of our waterways by participating in a one-time cleanup, or get trained and certified to perform important citizen science. Here are some of the organizations offering environmental volunteer opportunities for the next “Outstanding Environmental Volunteer.”

Rockland County

Our small county is defined by big water: facing the Hudson River, criss-crossed by smaller rivers and streams, dotted by lakes and reservoirs. It’s no wonder that most of Rockland’s green stewardship programs are water-centric, and depend on community science to monitor and improve the health of those waterbodies.

EM asked Nicole Laible, District Manager for the county’s Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD), part of the Division of Environmental Resources (DER), to tell us about the county’s citizen science projects to monitor waterway health.

In the Stream Biomonitoring Program, trained volunteers conduct physical, chemical and biological surveys of Rockland County’s streams to monitor the current state of streams’ health and assess the level of impairment. 

haverstraw eels

Middle- and high-school students from the Haverstraw Community Center counted seven glass eels in the fyke net. They are led by project coordinator Nicole Laible (blue plaid shirt). Photo: Susan Hellauer

The SWCD—and local watershed groups and educators—collaborate with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Hudson River Estuary Program and the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve (HRNERR) on the American Eel Project at 14 tributary sites, including Minisceongo Creek in West Haverstraw and Ferdon Dam along the Sparkill Creek. Last year, the Minisceongo Creek had almost 90 volunteers dedicate their time to monitoring this great catadromous species.

The Storm Drain Marking Program makes people aware that every storm drain in Rockland County empties into a river, stream, reservoir, wetland, pond or the Hudson River. The program helps citizens and municipalities apply markers to local storm drains with a picture of a fish and the message, “No Dumping—Drains to Stream.” It sends the message that each of us can help to safeguard our water from untreated water entering our rivers and streams.

And we’re excited about the new Wild Oyster Survey program at the Piermont Marsh, in partnership with the NY Harbor Foundation/ Billion Oyster Project, to see if there are any adult or larval oyster populations farther inland than those found in the main stem river near the Mario Cuomo Bridge. The program will start in late summer/early fall.

billion oyster project

More than 50 restaurants donate their oyster shells to help restore marine habitat to New York Harbor. Rather than fill up landfills, these thousands of shells help to build oyster reefs, which in turn filter harbor water, help safeguard shorelines from storm damage, and increase biodiversity. Photo: Benjamin Von Wong

Laible’s volunteers get free training and certifications, internship or volunteer credit hours for school or job, marketable experience in conservation biology, and a connection with and respect for the outdoors, nature and the environment. “That respect can build a new generation of scientists, and improve the health of our environment and our beautiful natural world here in Rockland and beyond,” said Laible. (Check the county’s DER website for volunteer opportunities throughout the year.)

Keep Rockland Beautiful

It started 20 years ago as a roadway beautification nonprofit. But almost from its inception, Keep Rockland Beautiful (KRB), with the support of former county executive Scott Vanderhoef, had an environment goal in mind: keeping our waterways free of polluting trash and debris.

KRB is out and about now with spring “Great American Cleanup” projects throughout the county. You can join one by yourself, with friends, family, or an organization, like the scouts or a school or church group.

Nyack HS environmental club spring 2016

Nyack HS environmental club at Keep Rockland Beautiful spring 2016 cleanup at Haverstraw Bay. Photo: Susan Hellauer

If you miss the spring cleanups, or just want more, you can sign on for their Fall Waterway Cleanups, to unclog our creeks and streams of polluting trash.

But KRB needs year-round volunteers too. As Executive Director Sonia Cairo said: “It’s just me and three part-time employees running things. Volunteers are our life blood.” Cairo’s volunteers run environmental education programs in schools as well as its legendary Rockland Underground Tours. Though KRB is an official contract agency of the county, Cairo said the group needs new members too. “Your modest membership fees help pay the bills.”


This grassroots group of wildlife defenders is helping to end the springtime slaughter-by-vehicle of female snapping turtles crossing Western Highway from the Hackensack River to lay their eggs on higher ground. The effort has morphed from a few concerned neighbors to a large pool of devoted volunteers from across the county who escort turtles safely across the road, and construct nesting areas to keep them from crossing. And it seems to be working. Local governments, police, Suez Water, veterinarians and wildlife experts have all pitched in. It’s a perfect family-volunteer opportunity.

environmental volunteer

Female snapping turtle crosses Western Highway under the watchful eye of volunteer traffic escorts. Photo courtesy Turtles of Western Highway

Kick-Off Meeting, Wed., May 23 (World Turtle Day, no less) at 7p, Blauvelt Free Library. Special guests: live turtles. For more info, email: HVHSNY@OPTONLINE.NET 

Politics and green stewardship: It’s all local

There are plenty of green stewardship opportunities all around the county, but what about right in your own backyard? EM spoke to Nyack’s Sustainability Coordinator Marcy Denker about local folks who keep the area green.

The Village of Nyack’s Tree Project, under Denker’s direction, has been busy obtaining and planting trees all around the village for three years now, enhancing Nyack’s “Community Forest” status. Trees hold back storm water, preventing floods and sewage overflows into waterways.  And they save energy by keeping homes cooler in our warming world. Volunteers have been stepping up, but more are needed for both spring and fall plantings, and to care for young trees.

This year’s village budget also allocates funds to establish a volunteer sustainability task force, to work toward Climate Smart Community (CSC) certification from the DEC. “We want a clear set of tasks to accomplish during this next year,” Denker said. “There are many things in the CSC program that involve preparing for impacts of climate change. Some have already been addressed in the waterfront plan but there’s a lot more work to be done on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example.” Denker also pointed out that CSC certification opens the door to more state help with resilience projects.

To become part of the Nyack Tree Project, or find out more about the new Climate Smart Communities task force, email Marcy Denker.

nyack tree project

Families who dig together–like the Kono clan–took part in this year’s spring street-tree planting in Nyack. Photo: Marcy Denker

It’s up to you

Marcy Denker needs volunteers for her green projects, but she also wants her neighbors to think about environmental volunteerism in the context of local governance. “Volunteer for a steering committee, or a board. Even a short-term commitment can have an impact on long-term outcomes that are good for our environment,” Denker said, urging concerned citizens to “talk to your village trustees; get involved in your village or town government.”

Whether it’s the county’s water task force, or any municipal meeting, “just come and be counted, and speak for the environment,” said Laurie Seeman. “Just be there. Just show up.”


You can still pitch in this spring to clean up our shorelines.
Sign up for the seventh Annual Riverkeeper Sweep on May 5th. Volunteers will be cleaning shorelines in Nyack, Piermont and Haverstraw.

Learn more:

Laurie Seeman

Laurie Seeman, longtime water advocate, is Rockland’s 2018 Outstanding Environmental Volunteer. Photo courtesy Strawtown Studio

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Earth Matters  focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Maria Luisa Boutique, Strawtown Studio and Summer Play Camp at Blue Rock School.

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