By: Tess Finke ’24 (she/her), Staff Writer

Treasure Tree in Charlotte, NC.  Photo by Chris Chao ‘22.

“Data: Americans Care Less About The Environment Than The Rest Of The World.” “Why Don’t Americans Give A Damn About the Environment?” “Exclusive poll: Amid COVID-19, Americans don’t care about climate change anymore.” 

Sound familiar? Sentiments about American apathy towards the environment are nothing new to the media, as the United States continually expresses less concern than the rest of the world when it comes to responsible environmental actions. 

However, the pessimistic superlatives offered by these headlines certainly do not tell the whole story — not all Americans are indifferent about sustainability and environmental stewardship. Need proof? Look no further than the Davidson students working diligently to change their community’s behavior and outlook towards sustainability and environmental conservation. 

Azella Markgraf ‘21, one of these environmental change-makers in the Davidson community, serves on the board of Davidson Land Conservancy (DLC), a private land conservation organization aimed at protecting land “in perpetuity” from future development. 

According to Markgraf, “the board collectively identifies pieces of land in Davidson that have high conservation value, which are pieces of land in the town that are important to certain species or important for migration for certain animals or protection of certain waterways.” 

The DLC currently consists of 11 volunteer board members and two paid staff members, all of whom are passionate about promoting environmental stewardship. Markgraf joined the board three years ago as a student representative of the college to help the board make decisions with a younger perspective from the Davidson community. 

Currently, Markgraf is working to define “what lands conservation means for social justice in the town of Davidson, and how the organization can balance promoting conservation and environmental preservation in the area with a just and welcoming Davidson community.”

Markgraf is also responsible for starting a land acknowledgement initiative, which asks those that use and value any piece of land to recognize and defend not just the environmental importance of the land, but also the cultural significance that it holds. This land acknowledgement means “acknowledging the colonial legacies of the land that [we] are residing on — it is not just open space that exists without history,” Markgraf said.

While Markgraf works to promote environmental justice awareness in the DLC’s preservation efforts, Ethan Landen ‘21 is spearheading one of these efforts, known as the wildlife corridor project. A wildlife corridor is an area of land used by animals in their migratory routes and are essential for preserving the rich variety of wildlife in and around Davidson.  

A part-time intern for the DLC, Landen spent his summer gathering informational materials to inform landowners in the area about the process of qualifying their backyard as wildlife certified. Part of this research included utilizing Geographic Information System (GIS) software to identify areas that could qualify as wildlife corridors. For the pilot program, Landen is focusing on the Schenck Creek area, which is vital for the survival of many species important to the Davidson ecosystem.  

Protecting trees is critical to conserving wildlife corridors — a project which Chris Chao ‘22 has undertaken as the Sustainability Scholar for the Office of Sustainability at Davidson. Chao was tasked with restarting the Mecklenburg County Treasure Trees Program, and he “spent all summer tracking down trees and tracking down people who live there now and know about [the trees’] past, like when they were planted. The program launched with all new information.” 

According to Chao, “a treasure tree is any tree in town that is really rare or one of the top three largest of its kind, or any tree that is historically significant to the town—with the town having so much history that is so well documented, it is actually a lot of trees [in the program].” 

Chao, like many Davidson students and community members, feels that, “Trees make the town and the campus feel the way that it is.” In fact, Chao was especially excited to share the fact that Davidson has been a certified arboretum since 1986, essentially meaning that it is a tree museum for the rare and old hardwoods for which North Carolina is renowned. 

In the process of tracking down trees that might qualify for the program, Chao was disheartened to find that, “there were a lot [of] trees that were removed because of lighting or decay, but also those that had been removed for gas stations and parking lots. About 55 percent of the Mecklenburg County trees either died or were removed.” 

However, there is still hope for the trees still standing in Davidson and the surrounding areas, and that hope comes in the form of a small diamond tag created by the Treasure Trees Program. 

“Davidson is so close knit, so we want [the program] to be people-focused,”  Chao said. “Every tree is going to have a picture of the homeowner included with the tree, or if it’s on public property or campus it will have members of the community posing with the tree.”

In this way, the trees will forever be connected to the communities of Davidson, generation after generation.  

However, despite all of the efforts being made to conserve the various habitats and ecosystems in Davidson and the surrounding Mecklenburg County area, there is still much to be done. 

Raul Galvan ‘21, who serves on the Town of Davidson’s Livability Board, commented, “It is amazing how many other cities in North Carolina are miles ahead of us in terms of progressive sustainable policies, and it really would not be that hard for Davidson to take similar steps which have already proven doable.” 

The Livability Board is an advisory board consisting of many different subcommittees focused on sustainability, mobility (walking and biking), trees and natural assets, and parks and recreation. 

“We are working on defining sustainability for the town and naming some priority action items that the town can take to really advance sustainability,” Galvan said. 

Currently, Galvan is researching the best ways to incorporate efficient energy standards into the Davidson College campus and in the town, as well as ways to engage with the community on sustainability topics like renewable energy sources. Galvan commented on the positive environmental behavior he is already seeing.

“It is really exciting to see how much momentum the whole idea has right now, it feels like we are in a place where we can really kick Davidson into high gear in terms of sustainability and making progressive actions,” Galvan said. 

Nonetheless, Galvan would like to see sustainability and climate action be a priority not just for the administration, but for the community as a whole. “

“Addressing sustainability can address a lot of other problems,” Galvan said. 

These problems are the very same ones that Markgraf has brought to the attention of the Davidson Lands Conservancy, including social justice, environmental justice, and land acknowledgement issues.  

In other words, pay no heed to misleading headlines proclaiming nation-wide apathy toward the environment, Davidson students are proving that there are those who care, and care deeply, for the wellbeing of the natural world. And with their work, they are drawing in more environmental stewards and sustainability superstars—all of whom are working to change the way the community engages with and preserves the environment.  

Galvan sees a bright future for Davidson if the trend towards sustainability continues, and “would love to see Davidson be a community of conscious citizens who are willing to make some harder decisions and take some harder actions to see sustainability, equity, and environmental justice in the community.”