An Interview with Lynn Leopold
Last month I met with Lynn Leopold, a long-time Cayuga Bird Club member, at the home that she and her late husband, plant biologist and conservationist Carl Leopold, built in the woods above Cayuga Lake. Lynn is well known for her work on Recycling in Tompkins County and is now President of Finger Lakes ReUse. I asked her to tell me more about Finger Lakes ReUse, birding, and other interests. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
I know you’ve been involved in lots of environmental projects—
Mostly things to do with trash. I worked for the Tompkins County Solid Waste division as a recycling specialist, which meant I did a lot of education and outreach and tours. I was kind of the one who harangued everybody to recycle. I was going into classrooms, teaching about recycling. I did that for about fifteen years.
Then I sort of stepped upward in the hierarchy of managing materials to the Finger Lakes ReUse Center. I am President of the board of that now. We have a store in Triphammer Mall and a store down on Elmira Road.
I became aware of the ReUse Center when someone was helping us on a remodeling project and they took things to the ReUse center. It’s a wonderful idea.
You know, even with remodeling, we will come and strip stuff out for you. We do deconstruction; we’ve actually taken buildings apart board by board, and salvaged as much as we possibly can, including things like fiberglass insulation, flooring, windows and doors, appliances, fixtures, all of that. If it’s usable, we’ll sell it. We will charge for the deconstruction, but then you get the write-off for the materials being donated. It’s a win-win situation. We keep those materials local and the money pretty much stays local. It’s a fabulous project!
How did the ReUse Center start?
We started in one store at Triphammer Mall and then very quickly we realized that we couldn’t possibly accommodate everything we were getting…. We knocked out a big hole in the wall and now two stores at Triphammer are joined… And we’re about to build a four-story or more addition to the building down on Elmira Road. It’s a big joint project with Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services and Tompkins Community Action. We have a huge state grant from NYSERDA. We can build it and then turn the actual housing and management of it over to the local agencies that do housing. We would use at least two floors of the building, sales on the ground floor and administration on the second floor. Part of our building plan includes a big pole barn that will be accessible by forklift for all of the lumber and building materials.
People are just donating so much stuff. We’re now at around 80 percent self-supporting. We still take a lot of grants. We’re about to go into a capital campaign to raise the rest of the money to both pay off the building we’re in and for the rest of the money we’ll need to build this new building.
How is what someone brings to the ReUse Center different from what someone would bring to the Salvation Army, for example?
We certainly differentiate ourselves from the Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, and any of the other ReUse operations. Significant Elements is another one— a project of Historic Ithaca. Our mission is enhancing community, economy, and environment through ReUse. We have this triple bottom line. The economy for us is local and regional- keep this money local, where it can do the most good. And it’s about reducing the amount of material that goes to the landfill, and also cutting back on the environmental cost of making new things— which is huge. And then there is the community, the people we serve. We now have a workforce of 24 people, a lot of them full-time; many of them never had jobs or were very unemployable. We have a training program, called ReSET Tech, where they learn how to diagnose computer problems and work on electronics. We take electronics, we take them apart, we salvage what we can, we pirate stuff and use it in other things. We will strip down computers, wipe everything off the hard drives, reload software, and sell them. So these people are learning these kinds of skills. We work with Workforce New York- we’re training people to get into the workforce. It’s small, but every little bit helps. And there is the housing that we’re going to do— supportive housing, we think, for people who have no homes, or they’re coming out of incarceration. There’s not enough of that kind of housing. We’re really interested in serving the under-served. We do it both through our job skills training and we hope through the housing project. In that way we differentiate ourselves from the other parts of the ReUse community. But we’re all in it together.
How did you first get interested in birds?
I started birding in Colorado, where I lived, with a couple of really close friends who were avid birders. I had noticed birds growing up and my mother knew a few birds but “birding?”— as a sport, as an activity, as a pastime— that didn’t cross my radar until I was probably about 30. Then I got really, really interested and I took the old Cornell Home Study course [in Ornithology], back in the days when you got sent a packet of pages in the mail, and you filled them all out and you sent them back. Somebody up there at the old lab actually went through and graded your pieces and sent them back to you! And then I got more and more interested in it. I ended up working at a nature center in Colorado Springs for a couple years, so birding was one of the things that I got better and better at. I got very active with the local Audubon chapter. I remember meeting Steve Kress. Back in the old days Audubon used to have this lecture tour system, before people saw all the nature films on television. You saw them by going to a theater, and the lecturer would come and talk to you about this marvelous place that they had been and they’d have this beautiful film. Well, Steve came and talked to us about the Puffin Project. So I met Steve in probably the early ’70’s… he was just starting on the Puffin Project then.
Then I came here for grad school. My husband Carl was already a member of the Cayuga Bird Club, when I moved here in ’79, and then I joined. We’ve always been involved in the Christmas Bird Count, since I first came here.
I was also a trip leader for Steve, for the Spring Field Ornithology class. Now I’m on the board of the Greensprings Natural Cemetery, which is where my husband is buried. He helped found that cemetery. Spring Field Ornithology comes out and spends two days at Arnot and they come up to Greensprings because we’re right next to Arnot. I’m usually out there when the groups come so they can get a little orientation to the place.... The birds out there are fabulous. We’ve got Bobolinks over the meadows, and lots of other birds. I’m trying to develop a decent species list for what’s seen there in terms of breeding birds, and what passes through— why the habitat is important.
What are some of your favorite places to bird locally?
A lot of the [Finger Lakes] Land Trust holdings are wonderful places to bird. Lindsay-Parsons is probably my most favorite, because there is the most variety there and Carl and I loved going there. You hit so many different kinds of habitat; it just a very rich place. I remember when Chris Tessaglia-Hymes found the first Worm-eating Warbler out there. And apparently they’re out there almost every year, up on the hillside…. That’s pretty amazing to me— that’s got to be the northernmost spot for them.
Of course, the idea behind Lindsay-Parsons really came from Tom Eisner. He was a fantastic insect ecologist at Cornell, and a very dear friend of Carl’s. Tom wanted the scientific world that’s doing all this biological prospecting in the tropics-- looking for the next cure for cancer, the next wonderful antibiotic or something-- to do prospecting like that in temperate forests. He managed to get a grant from one of the big pharmaceutical companies to help fund purchasing that land. He had some grad students who went out there looking at fungi and all kinds of insects and a lot of different things. I don’t know how much research is actually being done out there anymore. But that was the main idea.
Are there other activities that you can tell me about?
I am also a musician. Music was my first love; I majored in it in college. I left music to go into environmental education when I came here. It was kind of a big switch around for me. But music has always been part of my life. I sing. I used to be in an early music group, Luscinia, for about five years. I’ve been sitting in on a bunch of different choral groups; I actually joined a group with one of my friends who moved to Washington. I went with her in the fall, with a choral group out of Washington DC, to Berlin and Gdansk, and sang in cathedrals. That was really, really fun. We learned some wonderful choral music.
I saw the shopping bags you’ve made from birdseed bags- what a creative reuse idea!
I think of all the birdseed bags that get thrown away every year. It makes me crazy! I love creative reuse. There is no limit to the goodies that are out there in the waste stream that you can play with.
Even something small like that gets people to think more about what they might be able to reuse instead of throwing away.
We’re just not thinking very much about the nature of stuff and the life of materials that we buy and where they come from. That’s what a lot of this is about, is getting everyone to think a little more deeply about the part that they play in our consumer culture, and the ultimate negative impacts that all has.
Thank you so much for talking with me today.