Molly Stevens grew up in nature.
“As a young child, my father used to get us up early in the morning,” Molly said in a recent interview with AEN. “It was kind of like going to church.”
As Molly remembers it, her father would get the family up early and take them along on a little bushwhacking trip through the woods, before stopping at a cluster of virgin white pines where they’d eat their morning breakfast.
“I grew up with a reverence… Maybe when I was four I wouldn’t have called it reverence,” Molly said. “I would have called it, ‘I don’t want to go through those scratchy bushes,’ but I look back on it now and yeah, and the word reverence is the one that I have for that.
And I think that if you don’t have that, if you don’t experience that… how can we expect that this would be a priority for voters when they get to be 20 years old and they’re engaged in public policy? How can we expect that that’s going to be a priority for them if they’ve never had the chance to fall in love with nature?”
As the Executive Director of Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center (a local nonprofit organization that inspires people to develop a lifelong practice of enjoying and protecting nature), Molly has really taken these questions to heart.
“When I came to Westcave I was really interested in the notion that if we don’t raise a generation of adults who are passionate about the natural world and conserving our natural world,” Molly said, “all the work of the last century is in jeopardy.”
After 14 years of service, Molly retired from Westcave in June. Before doing so, she sat down with AEN to reflect on her decades of work in the environmental movement, her accomplishments, and her strong sense of optimism for the future.
(You can listen to the full interview our short summary below.)
One of the many ways that Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center inspires people to develop a lifelong practice of enjoying and protecting nature is by managing Westcave Preserve. Located about 45 minutes west of downtown Austin, the nature preserve is home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and a stunning collapsed grotto (similar to Hamilton Pool, but you can’t swim in it).
As Molly describes it, long before she even arrived at Westcave (in the 1970s), “…It had been sort of like a trespasser’s paradise. It was sort of like Hippie Hollow west. Clothing optional… They would trespass up into the grotto and swim and who knows what all, all kinds of illicit activities happening.”
That’s when John Ahrns came in. He served as the preserve manager at Westcave for 37 years. When he first started managing the land, the legend is that he personally hauled 100 bags full of trash out of the canyon.
“The other thing that John did in his first years here is that he sat down at the opening of Heinz Branch Creek with an unloaded shot gun and chased away trespassers…,” Molly explained.
“So that was sort of phase one, was stopping the chronic trespassing that had been going on here and cleaning up the canyon… And once that was done it was sort of fit for visitors….
My first trip here would have been in the early 1990s,” Molly said. “When I came out here, literally there was a Maxwell House coffee can tacked to a tree that if you felt so moved, you could leave some money in the coffee can. And he [John Ahrns] personally took out two or three tours a day on weekends.”
Today, things have grown and changed a bit. An award-winning environmental learning center has been built on the site and Westcave welcomes about 17,000 visitors a year, both on school field trips and weekend tours (which are open to the public).
(You can learn more about how to visit Westcave Preserve here.)
Children In Nature
Before coming to Westcave, Molly had already been working in the environmental space for 20 years, on issues like climate change and ocean restoration at both the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund.
“One of the great joys of working for Westcave has been that unlike working on climate change and oceans restoration, I’ve really seen the needle move in a big way around the importance of outdoor play and learning,” Molly said. “And that’s been enormously satisfying…”
In the past few years the Children In Nature Collaborative of Austin (a program managed by Westcave) has seen a lot of accomplishments when it comes to outdoor play and learning, including:
1. The passage by Austin City Council of the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, a document that says all children in Austin should have the opportunity to connect with nature
2. The launch of the Green School Parks initiative, a collaboration with the Austin Parks and Recreation department to create nature-rich outdoor learning spaces at 24 AISD schools in areas with limited park access
3. The launch of the Roadrunner Outdoor Adventure Bus, which provides free/low cost transportation for environmental education field trips to underserved children in Austin.
“We would love there to be a day when a family has a Sunday afternoon together and they’re as likely to go rent canoes on Lady Bird Lake and play on the water as they are to go to the mall or to a movie…,” Molly said. “But the idea is that this becomes part of our culture and part of how we spend our time.
And I will say that it is a lot more likely that an affluent family will do that than a low income family will do that. And so another layer of our work has really been around racial equity in outdoor access and outdoor leadership.”
(If you’d like to get more involved with Westcave’s equity work, you can join the “Equity Outdoors ATX” Facebook group and attend an upcoming Children in Nature Collaborative of Austin Equity Series workshop.)
Spending Time Outdoors
Even though Molly spent 14 years as the executive director of a nature-based organization, even she admits that sometimes it’s hard to take the time to go outside and enjoy the fresh air.
“I’ll sit down and begin noodling around on my iPhone and the next thing I know, 30 minutes have gone by, or worse. And I think, ‘what have I been doing? Where did that time go?’. I think that we have to fight for the place called the out of doors and natural areas and we have to fight for time to spend in nature.”
It’s a fight that Molly thinks is well worth our time.
“I am by nature an optimist. I always joke that that’s my greatest strength and my greatest weakness…,” Molly said. “We can’t give up. We simply can’t. We have to be smart, and clever, and creative, and resourceful, and resilient. And solve these problems. We just have to. There’s no other way to go. I think that is in me.”
AEN Editor-In-Chief Amy Stansbury serves on the Board of Directors for Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center.