I read this week about the work of conservationists on Lake Norman who are cleaning up and taking care of the dozens of small islands scattered throughout the lake. We’re all familiar with the Adopt-A-Highway program; this is Adopt an Island.
The program is pretty simple, and aptly named. Individuals, families, community groups, or businesses sign up to take care of one of the lake’s islands. They visit regularly, clean up trash, and try to make the islands hospitable for both people and wildlife — in particular, there are many waterfowl who inhabit the islands. Some folks have even set up habitat boxes for birds to help with nesting.
But here’s the major, and important, difference between Adopt-A-Highway and Adopt an Island. The former is run by the NC Department of Transportation (DOT), so it’s administered by bureaucrats and the costs are borne by taxpayers. Yes, it’s a volunteer program, but you and I pay for the overhead.
Not so with Adopt an Island. It’s administered by the Lake Norman Wildlife Conservationists, a non-profit group. Those doing the work are volunteers, and the overhead costs are borne by sponsors, many of them local businesses that are located on the lake or are related to fishing and boating in some way. There are some large companies, but there are also a lot of very small ones involved — lakeside restaurants and the like.
There is nothing fancy about the Lake Normal Wildlife Conservationists or their Adopt an Island program. And that’s precisely what’s so great about it. The Charlotte Observer story says, "…when it comes to keeping Lake Norman clean for themselves and all who enjoy it, Marshall and Swinehart (two participants in the Adopt an Island program) have no problem doing their part."
I suspect the same could be said about all the other volunteers, as well as the corporate sponsors. In fact, I’m certain of it, because this is a voluntary program run by a non-profit. There’s no compulsion here. If you’re a business on the lake, then a clean environment right outside your doors is good for you. If you’re a large company with a local presence, your employees benefit from a well-maintained lake, and the community appreciates your involvement in this sort of project. People are happy to get involved, because they see the value. They and their communities benefit in tangible ways.
We talk a lot at the John Locke Foundation about the private sector, about the things that individuals, families, communities, businesses, and charitable organizations can accomplish without the government. I make the argument over and over that, if the government would just get out of the way, people are able and willing to accomplish remarkable things on their own. The Adopt an Island program is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Yes, it’s small scale, but it’s an effective, organic solution to maintaining natural resources and preserving the environment. It requires no bureaucracy, no government compulsion, no taxes, and no involvement from anyone who doesn’t value the lake.
I’d love to see what could be accomplished, particularly at this sort of local level, if governments — both state and local — would step back and allow individuals and groups to really invest in their communities in this way. I suspect we’d find more targeted programs with enthusiastic participants. Lake lovers would clean up the lake, hikers would take care of mountain trails, parents would chip in to maintain playground facilities. The list goes on.
Not only would it mean that resources would be directed to the areas most valued by people in communities, but it would also create a sense of ownership as communities came together to meet needs and protect their environments. That’s a win for everyone involved. Local governments should look to groups like the Lake Norman Wildlife Conservationists as a model of what can be accomplished by people and communities simply left to invest in the things they already care about.
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