NAU recognized for prestigious environmental award

Illustration Diana Ortega

NAU was recognized for being a leading institution in environmental excellence with a 50th-anniversary award at the Arizona Forward Environmental Excellence Awards in September.

The annual awards presented by Arizona Forward recognized organizations and projects aimed at increasing sustainability in the state. Arizona Forward prides itself on promoting cooperation to improve the environment and quality of life in the state by partnering with business, government jurisdictions and educational institutions.

NAU President Rita Cheng accepted the award for the university and its two peer institutions, ASU and UA. During the acceptance speech, Cheng discussed the culture of sustainability, referencing NAU’s dedication to understanding the natural world and devotion to creating sustainable solutions for the state.

“At NAU, sustainability is about people,” Cheng said during her speech. “It is about understanding the world and shaping the information and practices that can improve life in Arizona, now and in the future.”

Since the inception of the environmental studies degree program in 1973, NAU has positioned itself to become a leader in addressing complex issues, including forest restoration, land management and watershed protection. In her speech, Cheng acknowledged NAU and its commitment to sustainability through the Office of Sustainability and the student-led organizations of Green NAU and the Green Fund.

“NAU students are extremely committed to sustainability, and that can be seen in the many efforts they support as they care for the Earth, but also in the sheer numbers who come to our classrooms to learn how to care for our forests, our water and our land,” Cheng said.

The Office of Sustainability’s main purpose is to engage NAU students, employees and community members regarding sustainable initiatives. Ultimately, these pursuits are designed to fulfill the office’s vision and showcase environmental sustainability.

Sustainability manager Matthew Muchna said he agrees with Cheng that sustainability on campus is about the people committed to environmentalism and call NAU home.

“It’s the people here who make NAU an award winner for environmental excellence,” Muchna said. “The value of stewardship and environmentalism is what draws the right people here, who help foster a green ethos that helps promote the rich history of indigenous knowledge and the intrinsic value of place.”

The Office of Sustainability promotes the incorporation of NAU’s Sustainability Action Plan. The plan promotes environmental stewardship in the areas of recycling and waste minimization, energy and climate change, academics and research, transportation, operations, procurement and water, according to the office’s website.

NAU administration and the Office of Sustainability strives to create a culture of enviornmental consciousness through investments in efficient buildings and infrastructure that reduce environmental impact.

Muchna said that facilities across campus follow Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) requirements that provide steps and qualifications for buildings to be environmentally sustainable.

“LEED silver qualifications help guide us toward sustainable options,” Muchna said. “We are reusing materials and buying local materials rather than sourcing from across the globe to build campus facilities.”

The qualifications for LEED certification allow a much healthier environment while also decreasing utility costs.

Jane Marks, a professor in the College of the Environment, Forestry and Natural Sciences, has dedicated much of her life’s work to studying and finding solutions relating to environmental sustainability.

Marks was one of many faculty members who joined Cheng in representing NAU, along with professors Diane Vosick, Geoff Bernard and Bruce Hungate.

Marks said being recognized for environmental excellence conveys to the university’s higher administration that the efforts around campus are worth the necessary funding and research.

“The award draws attention to everything that NAU’s been doing in terms of our sustainability and research efforts,” Marks said. “We are continuing to do quite a lot of research that’s relevant to environmental sustainability, climate change and water management.”

Marks added that much of the research on campus to help improve sustainability is due to the support of the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society (Ecoss).

“Ecoss is a group of productive and motivated scientists that study the world’s ecosystems and how they will respond to climate change,” Marks said. “We also have a large program to share our state-of-the-art and well-funded research, along with our knowledge, to a large educational outreach program.”

Marks said the next educational event sponsored by Ecoss is the Climate 2020 Summit, which will take place Nov. 15 and Nov. 16. The event is a platform for speakers and attendees to continue the conversation on climate change.

As NAU continues to make strides with sustainability-focused initiatives across campus, it should be noted that in a ranking conducted by the Sierra Club, NAU was No. 101, in comparison with ASU at No. 10 and UA at No. 97. The Sierra Club ranking reflects which institutions offer the best sustainability-focused courses, ecofriendly cafeteria provisions, and carbon-neutral and energy policies.

NAU saw a small decrease from No. 97 to No. 101 from last year’s ranking, which is due in large part to NAU’s failure to meet their Climate Action Plan goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2020.

Although the ambitious plan accomplished various short-term changes, such as changing campus light bulbs into eco-friendly LEDs and switching to alternative plumbing systems, the lack of appropriate technology and strategic planning caused the plan’s goal of zero emissions to fall short. This led NAU to return to the drawing board, as the university continues to find ways to become a more sustainable institution.