Richard Grant honored with lifetime achievement award
Richard Grant has dedicated the last 47 years to helping protect and preserve Narrow River, a lifetime body of work that recently received national attention. As the president of the Narrow River Preservation Association (NRPA), Grant was honored last week by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), being presented with the organization’s 30th anniversary lifetime achievement award at the in Washington, D.C.
“At first, there was a little shock related to it,” said Grant, who was nominated for the award in October by a 20-year NRPA board member. “There were five or six people who wrote something up recommending me for this award and they sent it all in together. I think that was impressive, and they all said good things about me–things I don’t even think about.”
NRPA was founded in 1970 with the mission of preserving and protecting Narrow River and its watershed. Grant joined its board of directors shortly thereafter, in 1972, after graduating from Brown University.
“The president of NRPA at the time, Dr. Bob O’Neil, approached me because we were friendly and asked me to join, and so it interested me that I could give something back to the environment in some way,” said Grant.
Initially, Grant was tasked with fundraising for the organization, a responsibility he still fulfills today. He was named president of NRPA in 1996.
“For more than 46 years, Grant has been the driving force behind all of NRPA’s many fundraisers, increasing NRPA membership, engaging local sponsors, connecting with benefactors, and cultivating relationships with other stakeholders,” a statement from ELI announcing the award reads. “He is also an active member of the NRPA’s Water, Land, and Education committees and is proud of NRPA’s many accomplishments in protecting the river.”
An artist by trade, Grant considers his creative side a plus when it comes to his work with NRPA. As the organization’s president, he oversees each project carried out by its board of trustees and facilitates work when needed.
“I thought that being president of NRPA fit my way of life–creating ideas,” he said. “That was a normal thing for me. Running a meeting is a simple matter of following form. I look at the new board members–what is their vocation? What are they interested in? I try to find a way to tie their personal interests into their work at NRPA; otherwise, they would quickly leave. But if they’re attached to a program, people hang around, sometimes for up to 20 years or so. It makes it easier.”
And people have hung around. Grant notes he has forged multiple 20-plus year friendships with various board members since he began serving with the organization.
“Because people stay on for such a long time, you get to know them as friends,” he said. “The month goes by fast, but when people stay five, six, 10, 20 years, they’re friends. They’re more than just a board member. And I’ve developed not only local friendships, but friendships all over the country. You only have so much time.”
To fulfill its mission, NRPA hosts a series of events throughout the year, including a kayak fishing challenge, a road race, a paddle board race, a swim race, a winter speaker series and additional outreach for children with programs such as “What Lives in the River,” where volunteers from NRPA showcase various wildlife that inhabit the watershed. The organization also awards winners in local high school science fairs and distributes annual scholarships to area students attending college. A favorite NRPA event of Grant’s, Art on the River, sees participants gather along the shores of the Middlebridge area and paint or photograph the surrounding landscape with the instruction of local artists.
“Oftentimes, a president is really the main figure and they’re involved with everything, and they can burn out in about four or fives years,” said Grant. “My role is that I assign everybody the projects, I sit on the committees, and I check in and see that these ideas are getting done. I keep it all rolling.”
NRPA also advocates to minimize development in and around the watershed, and has tested the water quality of the river through its volunteer-run program, River Watch, for the past 27 years. The most recent test results have shown improvement in water quality.
“Everything is now almost overbuilt in the watershed, except perhaps in the North Kingstown area,” said Grant. “But people that own large areas of land, families that have owned it for a long time, some have turned it over to the Narrow River Land Trust or the South Kingstown or North Kingstown Land Trust and it stays legally as open space.”
“The testing of the water we did last year showed the water quality had improved, that’s a good sign,” he continued. “I think that’s satisfaction from my point of view. All the years of fundraising and hard work with the organization are worth it for that.”
NRPA regularly mails its newsletter to over 3,900 interested residents throughout the state, most concentrated in South County, and extends its outreach nationally as well. The group has 400 paid members. The numbers, according to Grant, register just above the national average for interest in organizations representing watersheds.
“The change has happened because of our outreach,” he said, comparing NRPA when it was first formed with how the association runs today. “There is no contractor that would be building anything without coming to us for approval first. And if they don’t come to us, or have a direct line with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, we get the paperwork and what they’re going to be doing and we contact the contractor and we review everything that’s being built.”
To accept the award, Grant traveled to Washington with his family last week, accepting the honor and delivering a short speech. The recognition, he noted in his speech, however, is not solely his, and should be shared with all of NRPA’s board members and the residents who have volunteered to accomplish the organization’s mission.
“I hope this award is shared,” Grant said. “I don’t feel it’s just for me. I feel that it’s for all the volunteers over the last 49 years of the organization. They are sharing this award with me. It’s big. Wow. I don’t know what it really means, a national recognition? It can be staggering.”
Grant also specifically thanked NRPA’s program coordinator, Alison Kates, stating that her dedication to the organization made his job easier.
“I extend whole heartily my thanks to the board of directors, the volunteer work of the residents, the monetary contributions of members and local businesses, grants from the state of RI, appropriations from the three towns through which the river runs, contribution from organizations such as The Rhode Island Foundation and RI Rivers Council,” he said in his acceptance speech. “I extend my thanks broadly and deeply so it includes everyone that has made this award possible. Thank you.”
The National Wetland Awards, which Grant’s lifetime achievement was a part of, have been administered by ELI since 1989, and have honored over 200 champions of wetland conservation. The program recognizes individuals who have demonstrated exceptional effort, innovation, and excellence in wetlands conservation at the regional, state, or local level, and the awards are supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Forest Service, NOAA Fisheries and the Federal Highway Administration. A committee of wetland experts representing federal and state agencies, academia, conservation groups, and private-sector organizations selects the Award winners.
As for Grant, who turned 80 last June, there are no plans to cease in his role anytime soon.
“I don’t see any end to this, and that’s a good thing,” he said.
Despite his age, Grant’s convictions still drive him to make change. The NRPA President believes it is now more important than ever to volunteer one’s time to make a positive environmental impact.
“What’s happening to the environment now is really out of hand,” Grant concluded. “This planet has got to take a real hard look at everything. A lot of people can only do short-term things. They’ll give a few hours for a clean up, a few hours for the road race, and they feel satisfied doing that. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get. In asking, people are more than willing to do what they can do.”
It’s not that complicated, according to the NRPA president.
“To this day, I still feel like everybody should give something back to the environment that gives us life,” he said. “It’s that simple.”