Q&A with Kurt Moser: The 2019 Ellen Pickering Environmental Excellence Award Winner

June 26, 2019

Keeping Alexandria beautiful isn’t something that happens on its own. It takes people and organizations willing to roll up their sleeves and put in the hard work to make our city a cleaner, healthier place for everyone. One of those individuals is Kurt Moser, president and co-founder of the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation. 

You may have heard that Kurt also is this year’s winner of the Ellen Pickering Environmental Excellence Award, which, as its name aptly describes, honors a local individual for their work and dedication to improving our environment. 

We spent a few minutes talking with Kurt about his work with the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, the progress we’ve seen throughout the city and what else we all can do to continue this improvement.

Could you tell me a little bit about the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation’s mission?

Over the last decade or so, a lot of people in the local community have done projects in the park [Four Mile Run]. When the city first acquired the business property along Mount Vernon Avenue, a number of community members helped improve the grounds for what would become the Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market. 

About three years ago, a few of us felt it would be helpful to form a more official organization to take on projects and be more continuously tied to the vision that’s outlined in Four Mile Run’s master plan. We’re a group of volunteers who get out and do conservation work in the park and encourage people to come out and enjoy the park. The more we’re able to foster stewardship and the more people who love the park, the happier we are with the outcomes. 

We really try to promote nature, culture and community – specifically at lower Four Mile Run. There are four main areas we focus on: restoration activities; advocacy (improving park infrastructure and community practices); recreation (getting people out to the park); and education (helping people learn more about the natural history of the site and the trajectory of what it’s taken to get where we are now). It’s a far cry from where we were a half century ago when Four Mile Run was in really poor shape. 

Much of your work has involved educating local students about the importance of being an environmental steward. What do you find to be the most effective ways to get younger generations interested and involved in environmental stewardship?

The most important thing is to incorporate youth voice and participation. We do this with the conservatory in various ways. For example, we have interns work with us on research projects. Last summer, we looked at microplastics, which we’re continuing this summer as well. This problem is especially close to our hearts because we do a lot of cleanups throughout the park, and most of the items we pick up is plastic. 

Another way to incorporate youth voice is with signage. About a year and a half ago, we worked with a George Washington Middle School student to develop signs about some of the birds you see along the wetland trail. This student wrote all the text for these signs, which are fantastic. 

There’s also a group from TC Williams called the “Watershed Warriors,” who we approached and asked if they could help with signage about the importance of wetlands, which will be completed soon. 

In general, for me and through my work as the co-chair of NoVA Outside's Student Environmental Action Showcase, it’s really giving young people an opportunity to express their viewpoints, show the research that they’re capable of, and really have them to be equal participants. Not just people we teach to, but also people that we learn from. 

Alexandria has received a number of distinctions for being a “green” city over the years. In your opinion, what are some of the reasons for this?

What really counts is the impact of the actions that we’re taking. It is not uncommon to see bald eagles flying over Arlandria. Beyond a decade ago, that was a rare occurrence. This is a relatively recent development, and something that hasn’t happened in more than 50 years. In our neighborhoods we’re seeing this too. I’ve been in my house for 20 years, and I’m seeing hawks that we didn’t have 10-15 years ago. This definitely suggests we’re getting some things right. 

There’s more habitat that we’re providing, and we’re friendlier to native plants, species and wildlife in general. We’re doing a better job of co-existing with nature, but there is plenty of room for improvement. I don’t think we’ve come close to seeing how far that can go. 

What should Alexandrians remain focused on?

The things that come to mind are conservation and efficiency based. We’ve become too comfortable with technology being our go-to problem solver, to the point that we aren’t as attuned to the fundamentals of conservation. We’ve gotten really good at recycling, but you can’t recycle your way out of a wasteful consumption problem. The same is true with energy. You can’t generate or drill your way out of a wasteful energy problem. 

Last year, we pulled 2.5 tons of plastic out of Four Mile Run. Every time we go out, we pick up a more than 100 pounds of plastic, most of which is single use. There is no way to recycle our way out of this problem. We have to address consumption – the reduce side of the reduce, reuse, recycle equation. 

Simple things like making sure we’re not wasting resources aren’t as exciting, but they are the most important. We have to use resources more wisely. That means, we have to waste less plastic, less energy, less water.

What’s one thing the average person could start doing that would have a big impact on the environment in and around Alexandria?

The one thing is to be really mindful and aware of single-use packaging because that is the most conspicuously wasteful thing we can do. There certainly are times when single use is necessary, but it shouldn’t be our default for most circumstances. 

Part of this includes making it easier for people to make good choices in the first place. For example, getting water fountains and bottle fillers in Alexandria parks – that gives people access to water in parks. They don’t need to buy a bottle of water, and it can save themselves money in the process. If those fountains and bottle fillers aren’t there, then people are left without a choice. Infrastructure and policies that support good, easy choices are absolutely critical. 

What are some of your favorite outdoor spots around Alexandria?

Of course, No. 1 is Four Mile Run Park, but the city certainly has other gems like Dora Kelley Park, which also is right along a major stream corridor, and Monticello Park, a well-known destination for birders. 

Slightly further afield, but part of greater Alexandria, is Huntley Meadows, which is astounding for being close to water and allowing visitors to observe so much wildlife. It’s a beautiful place to take a nice walk around. All of those are ones I enjoy tremendously. 

Many thanks to Kurt for taking the time to speak with us and for all that he does for the Alexandria community. You can read more about Kurt Moser’s Ellen Pickering Award here! For more information on the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, you can visit fourmilerun.org