July 12, 2001
Environmental education: Knowing what’s in your backyard
By BEVERLY ISENSON
Governor’s Council on Environmental Education
In December 1993, an Olympia High School environmental science class on its monthly water quality monitoring trip spotted an unusual seep above Percival Creek. Students took a sample, tested it in their classroom laboratory, and found a high count of fecal coliform.
The students called the Thurston County Health Department, which discovered that vandals had blocked the sewer main. The health department then cleared the blockage and installed a locking manhole cover.
Gregg Grunenfelder, county environmental health director at the time, told the local newspaper, “This case really highlights the benefits of citizens stream monitoring.”
The students were part of South Sound GREEN, a popular youth environmental education program based at the Thurston Conservation District, with supporters ranging from Olympia Rotary to individual landowners, businesses and government agencies.
South Sound GREEN is just one of many environmental education programs being taught through out the state.
In the Seattle area, Larry’s Markets wanted to reduce waste, conserve water and same money. The administration analyzed employee practices, developed a printed guide to waste reduction and efficient water use, organized classes for employees and offered the program to other markets.
On Anderson Island in Pierce County, residents have learned to monitor their wells for salt water intrusion, with support from the state Department of Ecology.
In Olympia, more than 400 realtors, developers and contractors learned techniques for low-impact development, to minimize soil erosion, avoid bluffs sliding away, protect water sources and other sound land development practices. The classes are organized by Washington State University Cooperative Extension.
In Skagit County, farmers learned to plant barley as a winter crop, to reduce soil erosion, prevent nitrates from leaching into waterways, lower their fertilizer costs and provide winter forage for migrating birds. Western Washington University, Ducks Unlimited, Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team and others collaborated with the landowners to establish the program.
These examples show that people of all ages and walks of life are learning about their environment through formal classes, and are taking practical steps to reduce business costs and prevent pollution for themselves and their communities.
The common denominator: environmental education.
In the process, young people are learning how to make positive contributions to their communities, and to take the first steps toward careers and higher education.
‘Students in the Watershed’
In Belfair, a small Hood Canal community, North Mason High School students worked with the Department of Natural Resources to monitor silt run-off into streams in Tahuya State Forest. DNR had spent over $1 million to fix the trail system, and halt erosion into streams which have wild salmon runs.
Lacking money to monitor the project, creative DNR managers turned to the community for assistance. Agency administrators and scientists created a partnership with teacher Karen Lippy and her high school environmental science classes, and called the effort “Students in the Watershed.”
The students monitored the streams for three consecutive winters, making trips to the sites on every day of heavy rainfall. When students needed transportation to the sites, employees at Reid Realty took the state test to get chauffeur’s licenses, and did the driving.
There were multiple benefits.
DNR got the information to show that replanting was successful, at a minimal cost in staff time. DNR official Vicki Christiansen estimates the students saved DNR $260,000.
Student interest in science soared. Several students won college scholarships and paid summer internships, and decided to become scientists. One young biologist, Lee Boad, returned with a bachelor’s degree and now works for the local Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.
The sediment monitoring success led to other DNR-student collaborations. Each year, high school students set up a day-long set of outdoor lessons in Tahuya State Forest for fourth graders. They recently completed a biological assessment of a parcel of school trust land, to augment scientists’ knowledge of what is living there.Learners from all walks of life
Environmental education is providing many with the practical information they need to keep their own environments healthy and productive.
Real estate professionals, contractors and developers are flocking to “With a Water View” courses offered by Washington State University Cooperative Extension. The classes cover the up-to-date issues and techniques in protecting water resources while developing land. The program provides real estate professionals with certified clock hours needed for their professional license certification.
Other similar classes have been offered by the Adopt a Stream Foundation in Snohomish County, Master Builders Associations, and by WSU Cooperative Extension in other counties. Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team’s Public Involvement and Education program has been a consistent support source for these programs.
On Whidbey Island, where WSU Cooperative Extension offers an annual beach watchers course, a graduate started Island County’s recycling program. Others offer community education about the beaches, bluffs and the rest of the island from a base at the lighthouse at Fort Casey State Park.
Island County planner Michael D. Morton commented, “It made my job of administering the shoreline program much easier.”
Several counties and the Department of Ecology educate lakeshore property owners about their lakes. In some instances, troublesome alien weeds such as milfoil, were discovered by shoreline dwellers before they became widespread.
“Citizens know the lake’s health is in good hands, their own,” says Maggie Bell McKinnon, who coordinated the Ecology program.Learning about their communities
Environmental science students of teacher John Kinney at Selkirk Junior/Senior High School operate the school wastewater plant and monitor the discharge. The students also monitor drinking water. The lab is self-supporting.
The cities of Metaline Falls, Metaline and Ione, and operators of the Boundary Dam hydroelectric project pay to get analyses performed locally, instead of sending samples to Spokane. The lab has been certified by the departments of Ecology and Health.
Along the coast and Hood Canal, trained volunteers routinely check beaches and intertidal areas for incursions of spartina grass, green crabs and other intruders which could damage the shellfish industry and homeowners’ private beds.
And in any given year, dozens of salmon habitat restoration projects are completed by adults and youth who have taken environmental education classes. Some King County locations are Thornton and Longfellow creeks, Denny Creek in Kirkland, the Duwamish River and Hamm Creek.
In all these instances, environmental education is enabling people to know and understand what is in their own backyards, businesses and communities — and to do positive, practical things for their own benefit.
Beverly Isenson is a special assistant with the Governor’s Council on Environmental Education.
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