Vail Daily column: Program looks to next generation of conservationists
“Hey! I found another item from the scavenger hunt!” yelled an SOS Outreach student from down the trail at the Eagle River Preserve in Edwards. This activity, and many others, forms the core of Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Summer 2014 Future Conservationists program. “What’s that wildflower’s name again?” I yell back. “It’s a skyrocket, right?” the student hesitantly answers. “Right!” I exclaim, running toward the student for a high-five. The student crosses out “wildflower” from her scavenger hunt paper, and writes “skyrocket” next to it, so she won’t forget. I could tell her most people call the flower a scarlet gilia, but if skyrocket (another common name) sticks with her, why not?
The Eagle Valley Land Trust’s mission is “to preserve forever our scenic vistas, open spaces, historic lands, waterways and wildlife habitats that represent the uniqueness of Eagle County and the central Rocky Mountains.” Through 28 easements, we’re protecting 7,300 acres of local land in Eagle County, forever. For many locals, the open spaces, vistas, waterways and natural habitats are the main reason we live here.
The Land Trust holds conservation easements that feature fantastic recreational uses, wildlife habitat and migration routes, splendid views of the Rocky Mountains, and rich historical and cultural elements. By protecting land we also boost our local economy through increased property values, local ranching and a constant flow of visitors from outside the county wanting to experience our valley. So this is the what and why we protect land, but who are we protecting it for?
Think of Our Kids
At Eagle Valley Land Trust, we are constantly thinking about the word “forever”; what it means for our organization and the public. To us, it implies the need for a sustaining legacy of conservation is Eagle County. So who is next in our legacy? Our children, of course! With our kids in mind, the Future Conservationists Program was born.
In 2013, through hands-on, experiential conservation education, we taught over 100 local students how to be stewards of our precious lands in Eagle County. This year, we’re expanding to teach more students through partnerships with organizations such as SOS Outreach, Walking Mountains Science Center and Boy Scouts of America. These lessons will be spread across the valley, working on six conservation easements from the East Vail Waterfall to the Duck Ponds in Gypsum. Through these wonderful outdoor classrooms, we are teaching the basics of Eagle County’s natural and human history, conservation, local economy and land monitoring techniques. Daunting as it seems for a fifth grader, all of these complex terms are easily translated to kids through fun and engaging activities.
The Future Conservationists Program doesn’t follow your typical K-12 classroom curriculum but rather is centered around place-based lessons. If you really want to preserve and protect land, then you have to be able to personally relate to the land. For example, we use lessons like the “Human History Quest” at the 72-acre Eagle River Preserve, which sends the students on a rhyming, clue-filled adventure to find time capsules spread around the property. Each capsule contains an item, picture or toy to illustrate the preserve’s timeline of historical events within the past 500 years.
Sense of Ownership
One of the kids’ favorites is the “100-Inch Trail,” activity which turns the students into mini sustainable trail developers, to emulate the construction of new recreation paths at the 478-acre West Avon Preserve. Another crowd pleaser has been the “Nature Scavenger Hunt,” which challenges students to observe, find and describe a many natural objects on the land. This activity helps the explorers to develop basic monitoring skills and to understand the ecological importance of the area. When the kids are in control of the lesson, there is a sense of ownership, both for the lesson and for the place. Once a lesson becomes personal, it sticks. Skyrockets, anyone?
I always like to frame it as their land, because the Land Trust’s work truly is for the benefit of the public. We have 16 more education days this summer, so keep your eyes open for lots of smiling kids, learning about conservation on their protected land. Here at your local Land Trust, we always try to remember why we protect land and who we protect it for. It really comes down to two words: Our future.
Matt Stern is an AmeriCorps environmental steward for the Eagle Valley Land Trust. Stern is a graduate of Montana State University with a degree in environmental studies focusing on forest management. Stern lives in Vail and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the work of your local land trust and the Future Conservationists Program, visit http://www.evlt.org.