03 November 2010

Conversations About Sustainability at Creighton University

Education and dialogue is essential to increasing the extent of sustainable activities in Nebraska was the prominent outcome from a day-long "conversation" on November 2nd at Creighton University. The session was sponsored by the Nebraska Sustainability Leadership Workshop.

At least 200 registrants and facilitators including business people, university staff and interested individuals discussed issues and concerns related to five primary topics areas: energy, food, land, materials and water.

Each "conversation" or period of discussion lasted about 45 minutes, with each participant then going to one of the other topic areas.

There were numerous formal and informal conversations, each adding to the overall furtherance of sustainable practices. Pertinent points were made with each group, and the following are some examples.


The need for bird-friendly building designs was a primary topic of interest. Many local buildings may have received a "green certification" but still have design features which pose a danger to migrating birds. Also mentioned, was that any bird strike is a violation of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Most of the attendees were not aware of the bird-strike issue.

During the discussion, an interesting point was who the "squeaky wheels" for sustainability in Omaha, and how to achieve a critical mass, so that an item becomes part of the public discourse and action can be taken to effectively address a problem or situation.


"Big ideas" for this topic included the Keystone XL pipeline, soil erosion planning, land usage for living, native habitat area, appropriate land and water use, public policy, urban land use and how to reduce sprawl, use of common space, and impact of actions on nature and wildlife.

There seemed to be common agreement that the city parks were being "neglected" by city officials, including little recognition of the natural values of these public spaces.

The item mentioned regarding the impact of actions on nature and wildlife, was the possibility that city officials consider a portion of the Spring Lake Park woodlands with groundwater seeps, to be a viable retention pond for stormwater runoff.


Quantity and quality were the prominent topics. Nebraska is a water-rich state, and there was a consensus that this resource needs to be effectively conserved and managed.

One item of contention was a lack of information on basic natural features, especially no effort to document the bird diversity of lakes and wetlands in the sandhills region. The state and university personnel do not have any information about the region's avifauna, and how it is being impacted by land use, invasive species, and how a changing climate might also impact the habitats used by a diverse array of birds.


A need for further education was the prominent theme for each group, according to closing comments by the facilitators.

"It was a very stimulating discussion," said Jim Goeke, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln hydrogeologist and facilitator with the water group, noting the day's comments which presented a diversity of opinions about water and the need to understand it better.

"We are at a unique point in Nebraska on how we will manage water," he said. "Education and dialogue are essential."

"A lot of people care about Nebraska's water," commented Dan Snow, also from UNL, and the second facilitator with the water group. "It is encouraging that so many people want to learn about water."

During the day, there were several conversations about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and plans to route it through the eastern sandhills with its numerous lakes, wetlands and flowing wells associated with the Ogallala Aquifer.

Dr. Mary Ann Vinton, a biology professor at Creighton, and a facilitator in the land group, specifically mentioned the "diverse and insightful comments." Urban/suburban land use issues was one particular focus. She also mentioned the need to talk with public officials on issues.

Regarding educational options, one facilitator commented that there was a need to "bring attention to sustainability" as a topic. "People need to have conversations on the importance of resources," he said. "Messaging has gotten better," and with individuals taking action, the "bucket is filling up," in reference to people acting to promote sustainability.

A member of the audience, echoed these comments, noting that "small actions can have a big effect," and that people need to "educate in our own small circles," by talking about issues, their importance, and how individual efforts can promote change.

In his summary, Dr. Jay Leighter, the overall facilitator, provided a list of "actionable items" based on comments made among each of the groups:

  • Apply sustainability when making a decision
  • Experts in a topic should get involved with non-experts, to share their knowledge
  • Identify best practices
  • Tap into available resources
  • Publicly and privately commit to sustainable practices
  • Community visioning
  • Develop baseline measurement of all applicable costs
  • Tackle regionalisms
  • Recognize conflict and embrace it, which helps in defending ideas and positions
  • Share resources
  • Research policy; a common level of knowledge is helpful for facilitating discussions
  • Locate experts
  • Bring adversaries to the table
  • Create markets for sustainable practices

Details from each topic group were recorded, and will be available at the conference website. The session was video-taped for future presentation.

Among the attendees, were three people from Senator Ben Nelson's office. The sustainability coordinator of the City of Omaha was not present, nor was there any representative from the mayor's office, the Omaha city council, nor the Omaha Parks and Recreation Department.

The first of the four scheduled sustainability conversations in Nebraska was held at the Harper Center, at Creighton University. Similar sessions will occur at Lincoln, Grand Island and Scottsbluff.

Ironic Bird-strike

A bit of irony prevailed upon my arrival at the Harper Center. After locking my bicycle at a rack, I took the outdoor route towards the main entry to the building at the southwest corner.

Within twenty feet, there was a carcass of an American Robin. It had hit the glass on the north side-west end of the structure, and been killed at the same area where numerous other bird strikes have occurred.

The death readily indicated the dichotomy of green endeavors. Early in the sustainability session, particular mention was made that the Harper Center could be certified green. Yet the place is a known and ongoing hazard to migratory birds, and is not bird-friendly.

This bit of information was mentioned while participating in a materials group session.

Creighton University has made efforts to reduce bird strikes, but more needs to happen to address additional problematic sites. Also mentioned during one of the sessions, is the ongoing University expansion and continuing demolition of many buildings. This has meant the destruction of numerous chimneys, used by Chimney Swifts, which can provide natural bug control. This habitat loss has not been considered by university officials, and the current practices are dramatically reducing the extent of swifts in North Downtown.