Banding Together for the Trees

“I believe that you just cannot do work on environmental issues at the local level without the community [being] involved,” says Elaine Chiosso, Executive Director of the Haw River Assembly (HRA). Her organization has spent six years advocating for better environmental protections to be required in Chatham Park, a 7000+ acre planned development community that will be partially situated along the Haw River in Chatham County.

In 2017, HRA formed a committee of community members who have volunteered their time to examine the development plans and identify specific areas of concern. Since January, their focus has been the trees – they say developers are proposing to save as few as 10-20% of the currently existing trees, and they believe that’s not enough. “Everything [being built] is going to involve clear cutting,” says Chiosso. Removing mature forest negatively affects air and water quality, temperature regulation, and storm water control. Numerous Chatham County residents will experience these impacts, but many live outside Pittsboro town limits and are therefore unable to elect the town board members responsible for approving Chatham Park’s master plan.

The community committee’s goal is to educate and activate local residents. From creating interactive displays for street fairs to providing talking points and inviting the public to speak at town board meetings, it’s about bringing visibility to the community’s concerns, especially of those residents who are unrepresented in governance. The committee has also been instrumental in giving a voice to those unable to attend other events; for example, a neighbor who uses a motorized wheelchair suggested circulating an online petition asking the town to require Chatham Park to implement healthier development practices. 1,600 signatures were collected.

But, says Chiosso, “If all activism is just people talking, [that] doesn’t capture people’s attention.”

In an evocative display of collaborative advocacy, Saxapahaw-based Paperhand Puppet Intervention joined with HRA to host “Procession of the Trees” rallies in February and May of 2019. Community activism was at the heart of these demonstrations. The public was invited to a workshop day where they helped create signs and puppets. Over 150 people later gathered to surround the Pittsboro courthouse. Some protesters were inspired to come dressed as trees or animals; others carried homemade signs or musical instruments.

“My goal…has always been [to establish] a direct connection with people and their lives,” says Jan Burger who co-founded Paperhand and also serves on HRA’s community committee. He believes that since the puppets his theater uses are “obviously made by people,” there is an inherently compelling message about community that gets transmitted. He also points out that tangible events like these allow advocates to identify sympathetic town residents who have voting power and to ensure that they hear and understand the concerns of nonresidents.

Chiosso acknowledges “a sense of amazement at how deeply people feel about trees,” adding that she met some protestors who had never participated in any kind of demonstration before. “Something about trees really resonates with people.” She believes the rallies have been so powerful because the “fabulous visuals” connect with people on emotional and intellectual levels.

Burger agrees. “I think that a lot of the traditional methods for getting the word out and engaging with folks can be a little bit dry and uninspiring at times,” he says. “I’ve found that with puppets and beautiful images, that’s one way of speaking to people’s hearts, getting people excited, and having people take notice.” This past spring, Burger also designed yard signs featuring the famous “I speak for the trees” quote from The Lorax. 100 signs were installed. “People [still] haven’t taken them down because [they] feel like this is not something that is going away,” says Chiosso. A new batch is currently printed and ready for distribution.

Success has been incremental. In May the town board approved a new Tree Protection Element requiring a wider riparian buffer and an increased number of trees to be preserved along the Haw River. However, much of the conservation language remains vague, and as the Chatham Park developers continue to haggle with the town board and propose new changes, Chiosso believes the advocacy work will need to continue.

Haw River Assembly is a grantee partner through Triangle Community Foundation’s Environmental Conservation focus area, supported by our Fund for the Triangle. Photos courtesy of Haw River Assembly.