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MICHIGAN CITY — Interest in the environment is strong in the Region, with people asking for training in how to get involved, according to Save the Dunes Executive Director Natalie Johnson.

“The public is asking to have this training,” Johnson said. “People are hungry to have these skills. They want to know how they can raise their own voices.”

A group of these wilderness warriors honed a few tools to put in their advocacy tool belt recently at a special workshop at Save the Dunes headquarters.

Environmental Advocacy 101 gathered 30 volunteers who learned how to make their opinions known in state and federal environmental issues.

Hosted by Save the Dunes, the Hoosier Environmental Council and Northwest Indiana Green Drinks, the training was designed to give everyday citizens information and techniques to make their voices heard.

Johnson said Save the Dunes partnered with HEC to provide the training as the groups witnessed an uptick in interest when budget cuts to agencies like the EPA, NOAA and the National Park Service were proposed.

“Once people found out about the cuts, they made that connection that we could lose protections in those areas,” Johnson said. “Everyone has a connection to environmental issues.”

Amanda Shepherd, HEC outreach coordinator, led the training and outlined the role of HEC, which focuses on issues including clean energy, sustainable agriculture, land use, transportation, clean water, climate and environmental justice.

Shepherd said the first steps to becoming an environmental advocate are to stay informed through the HEC website and social media, particularly with current and proposed legislation, and to identify and engage elected officials.

“Your first homework as an environmental advocate is to get to know lawmakers and develop a relationship with them,” Shepherd said. “The best way to get a lawmaker to listen is to meet with them face to face.”

Shepherd conceded that many people might find these intimidating, so she suggested advocates make a “coffee date” and look for common areas of interest to spark a relationship.

“Find something that you are both very passionate about,” Shepherd said.

For those who can’t find the gumption to meet, Shepherd suggested attending town hall meetings, making personal phone calls or sending personal letters and emails. She encouraged volunteers to make contact with legislators once a week during an active legislative session.

Although she said she herself signs petitions, they “usually don’t make a whole lot of difference.”

“You need to go above and beyond that,” she said.

Next, she encouraged volunteers to host “Greening Your Community” house parties in their homes, in schools and in churches to “bring in people beyond the fold.”

“Our goal is to build a grass-roots network of environmental advocates across the state who are trained and ready to advocate,” Shepherd said.

Volunteers can also staff HEC information tables at community events, such as local Earth Day celebrations.

Shepherd reviewed the path of a bill through the House and Senate and current bills in the 2018 legislative session, including those involving redistricting reform, stormwater pollution control and solar panel restrictions.

She encouraged the group to contact their U.S. representatives to support $300 million in the budget for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for fiscal year 2019 and federal investments in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure near the Great Lakes.

Shepherd said volunteer advocates are needed statewide, and the time commitment is “totally up to you.”