I returned to my childhood neighborhood this week for a few days with family.  For me, such trips are always mixed.  I love spending time with my mother, catching up, and my little sister with her unbelievably adorable daughter, Ava, who just passed her one year mark. I’ll spend the days chasing Ava in the gravel driveway, picking up rocks to put in her wagon, or watching the horses in the field. What can beat that? Unlocking all the adventure that nature has to offer with a child is one of life’s greatest joys for a nature nut like me.

But each time I come home, something else is gone – forever.  The blackberry brambles along Old Farm Road were particularly tragic for me.  I walked that dirt road every summer as a child, even as a teen, picking those juicy gems. Once where they lined a shady path is now a cookie cutter housing plan. But that was decades ago now. I thought maybe the suburban sprawl would slow up, if not cease. After all, this was just a small town south of Pittsburgh – way south!  What would be the draw here?

Old farms were the first to go, easy targets with their dilapidated weathered barns and vast open fields.  They are now big box stores, outlets, even a casino. I can no longer deny that sprawl happens.  Everywhere.  And the impact upon the landscape of our childhood is inevitable.  For me, it is simply erasing the birthplace of a memory.  The impact of that experience cannot be undone.  I consider myself lucky that way.  But for Ava – there are higher stakes.

For Ava, there are robins to chase, roadside tiger lilies to pick, and woodland pools to collect tadpoles from.  My sister lives even deeper in the country, but in the year since Ava was born, the dirt road she lives on is now paved to make access easier for the big rigs removing waste water from the hydraulic fracturing pads. A mall has appeared not far away. Seems no one is too far off the beaten path. There is always “opportunity for growth” somewhere, and the rural areas are not immune, just cheaper to develop.

I’ve reluctantly resigned myself to the fact we cannot stop it.  America is now more urban than not, and census data proves it, with 80% of the population now living in urban communities.  Instead, I now wonder how to nurture a new conservation ethic in this society no longer intimately connected to the land.  That is the challenge I believe is worth taking.  Kids, parents, folks of all ages may enjoy nature differently – value it very differently than me – but still can find joy and rest and their own gems within it.  We need to find out what matters to our urban neighbors, not assume we have that answer, and then help them.  Sounds easy when you put it that way, doesn’t it?  Ava’s generation is what’s at stake.

And Ava’s generation holds the key to what tomorrow’s conservation ethic will ultimately be.

This blog was written by Marcia Pradines, Division Chief, Visitor Services & Communications. Marcia is a co- chair for the Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative Implementation Team.

The Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) as outlined in Recommendation 13 in Conserving the Future, is addressing the need to connect the NWRS with urban communities around the country.  We will connect people to nature by developing Standards of Excellence for urban wildlife refuges, nurture partnerships that create a presence where we have no land, and convene an Urban Summit in 2013 to build momentum and share our findings.