Conservation group aims to inspire a new generation of preservationists.

Lake County’s natural beauty and its precious water resources are two things Peggy Belflower hopes to inspire young people to appreciate. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).’

TAVARES – It’s not easy, in a state known for rapid development, to be stewards of the environment, charged with finding ways to get residents to appreciate what remains of open space, and all it still has to offer.
“Mostly nature is what we work with, and the outdoors,” said Peggy Belflower, chairman of the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District. “We have farmers on our board who have a big interest in the land, and we work to further water conservation.”
The board members, elected by the residents of Lake County to their volunteer positions, do what they can to get area residents to appreciate water and conservation issues – including in the third week of January, around Florida Arbor Day, when they make hundreds of trees available for free to citizens.
“We have a tree giveaway here in Lake County, and we have a huge turnout,” she said. “Hundreds and hundreds of people show up for those trees.”

At the same time, the board members have another group they’re eager to target: students. Their goal is to get Lake County’s youngest residents to appreciate, develop an interest in, and perhaps even a passion for, their local environment.
“The reason is to educate and educate and educate the students,” Belflower said. “Many students today live in cities and towns where they don’t think about these issues much, and they don’t see the need when they are just going about their daily lives.”
The Lake Soil and Water Conservation District is doing that by asking local students to submit entries for its annual poster and speech contests. This year’s poster theme and speech topic is “Where does your water shed?”
Open to grades K-12, the poster contest gives kids the opportunity to tell visual stories that illustrate the importance of conserving water and natural resources. The entries will be judged based on the conservation message, originality, visual effectiveness and universal appeal that each poster provides.
The speech contest is open to grades 6-12, and intended to develop leadership qualities in the students, and stimulate their interest in the conservation of natural resources. Speeches will be judged based on content, composition, delivery and time.
“It’s designed to let the students open their minds and let them know there’s more to just the pavement on the sidewalk that they walk on,” Belflower said.
The submission deadline for all entries is Monday, Oct. 29, before 5 p.m. Entries can be sent by email to pfletcher@ufl.edu, or delivered to the Lake County Agricultural Center at 1951 Woodlea Road in Tavares, where the winners will be announced on Thursday, Nov. 29.
“It goes way back, for decades,” said Patty Fletcher, coordinator of the contest for the Soil and Water Conservation District. “The poster contest is sponsored annually through a national organization, the National Association of Conservation Districts, and they are the ones who actually set the theme for it.”
The winners selected in November, she added, don’t just get local accolades.
“If it wins locally here in first place, then we have a state meeting of the Florida Conservation District,” she said. “If it wins at the area level, it goes to the state, and from there it goes to the national association, which is the original organizer of the contest.”
The theme this year, she said, is getting kids to understand – and appreciate – the importance of a watershed, the line that separates neighboring drainage basins.
“Water all flows into larger waters,” she said. “This is all about watersheds and why it’s important to the kid, that the water goes somewhere else.”
Belflower said these contests are extremely rewarding, because they allow the students to work with adults on learning why a watershed and other aspects of conservation are important, and then putting that knowledge to good use on the posters and speeches.
“They will be working with their parents, and working with their teachers, just to educate them on conservation,” she said. “This year’s theme is ‘What is a watershed,’ and my gosh, I don’t think a lot of kids know that.”
It’s also clear that by the time all the posters get submitted, the kids have learned something about preserving the natural things people sometimes take for granted, including water, trees, wildlife and open space.
“They’re learning along the way, which is really encouraging to us,” she said.
The quality of the posters has also gotten rather sophisticated, she added.
“What we saw last year for the first time is some students are making their posters on the computer, so it’s not just Super glue and Elmer’s glue anymore,” Belflower said. “They’re really getting creative, and that’s okay – whatever sparks their interests is fine.”
The quality of the posters is so good, she added, that “Every year, it’s hard to make the final decisions. This year, we are posting all of our posters and displaying them in the County Administration Building.”
The Lake County Administration Building is at 315 Main St. in downtown Tavares.
“We are going to hang them in the rotunda,” she said. “The parents love to come out and see their kids’ work.”
This is also an event, she said, that lets every member of the board know they’re doing their job – and making a difference.
“A lot of what we do entails working with students,” she said. “This is a feel good committee, a feel good board.”
For more information about the poster and speech contests, call the Lake Soil and Water Conservation District at 352-253-1646 or log on to www.lakecountyfl.gov/lswcd.

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