Without personal concern, first responders jump in the middle of a situation to respond to the immediate needs of people. They are there to provide comfort and relief from whatever damage or the danger. "Emergency" as defined two ways by the Mirriam-Webster dictionary:

1: an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action

2: an urgent need for assistance or relief

Many of us have watched situations in which the first responders put their lives at risk, and in some situations pay the ultimate price for their action.

Having been around the environmental situation in this state for a number of years, I would consider several issues to be in the "emergency" status or near to it. They are:

1. Water quality and quantity management

2. Soil loss and erosion

3. Often related to both of these issues are the impairments to the quality of our landscape (litter, debris, public nuisances, weeds, buildings in disrepair, unpainted facilities, signs in neglect, erosion, scars on the landscape, poor forest management or lack thereof, etc.).

Generally it is not anyone’s intent to cause a problem, issue or "emergency," but in spite of all the attention to these issues, they continue to exist. Current history shows our tendency with societal problems is to quickly turn to government for a quick answer or cure to the problem or the emergency. In many cases it may be appropriate, but it certainly is not the only solution. Landowners frequently could use a hand in helping with the issues.

Many of us live in larger communities, and on a daily basis, we are somewhat remote from these three emergencies. In town we turn on the water tap and just assume we will have clear and clean water and in the volumes that we want (and inexpensively). We eat the products of the land three times a day, but don’t equate it to the soil that moves off the land and down the rivers. Lastly – our homes are generally well landscaped and manicured, so on a daily basis we are not exposed to the same elements impacting the quality of the rural landscape.

We have been a nation with a heritage and legacy of taking individual actions without waiting for government. That seems to have changed. We have moved toward becoming a nation of citizens waiting for government to do everything. We are fast losing our sense of ownership, commitment, citizenship and responsibility. We now simply wait for the handouts and governmental action.

Instead of simply pursuing what it is we can do for ourselves - we need to come back to our heritage and commit to what it is we can do for our country. Our motivation for improving our lives tends to overweigh the goal of improving our country – we can do both and achieve even greater benefits. All of us want clean water without flood damages, minimal soil erosion and a beautiful countryside. It is up to us to support and help farmers, landowners and others achieve those objectives.

Iowans need to build ownership in our country and individually do what we can to eliminate the three emergencies. We need to become environmental first responders (EFRs) to our natural resources. EFR’s are volunteers and citizens that adopt areas, youth that meet service learning needs by enhancing their communities or the landscape, volunteers that help to clean up areas, volunteers in parks and wildlands, those working to get rid of eyesores or that are helping and supporting the landowners to get rid of nuisances, stop illegal dumping and to reduce soil loss, etc. Let’s restore our history or personal action and commitment – let’s become a State of EFR’s.

(Gerald F. Schnepf is executive director of Keep Iowa Beautiful.)