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Students adopt project in Rufuge, will watch it grow

May 27, 2004
Modoc County Record

By Lynda Demsher


"So, what do we need to do here," River Center Education Coordinator Laura VanAcker asked the group of secondgraders sitting in the grass.

Nearly all the Alturas Elementary School students circled around VanAcker raised their hands. She pointed to one, than another, and heard the children's ideas for the site they will be working on for years to come as part of the new Pit River Watershed Adoption Project.

"Plant more trees," recommended several students.

"Clean out the bird boxes," a boy suggested, after telling about a dead bird he saw in a nesting box.

"Clean up the dead trees," others contributed. VanAcker explained that dead trees provide wildlife habitat until they decay into the ground, where they help build the soil so new plants and trees can grow up where the old one died.

"It's all part of life," she said as a pair of geese flew up from a nest in the meadow behind her and honked overhead. Squinting second-grade eyes, newly aware of the concept of "habitat," followed the geese across the sky.

The Pit River Watershed Adoption Project is a cooperative effort to give students and members of the community who want to participate, a hands-on opportunity to learn what it takes to maintain a healthy watershed for the animals and people who depend on it. Although the Pit River does not flow through the project area, the site is in the river's watershed, since it provides runoff into the Pit River.

The River Center, Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, Alturas Elementary School, Modoc Middle School, Modoc High School's Natural Resources Academy, the Modoc National Forest, Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Pit River Watershed Alliance, the Bureau of Land Management, CALFED, the State Water Resources Control Board and community volunteers have all had a hand in getting the project going.

Although only students in the Alturas Elementary School have been involved so far, with more than 400 expected to visit this month, the project will be opening to Modoc Middle School and High School and to other school districts in the area as well, once it gets established.

The project is still "getting off the ground," according to the River Center's other Education Coordinator Paula Fields, but plans to expand the number of students involved are being made.

Alturas Elementary School Principal Randy Wise says the program is a great cooperative effort that will provide his students with a variety of experiences.

"They can go back every year and see how things are growing, what needs changing or what else needs to be done," he said. "They can also see the benefits of the work being done out there."

Every grade is scheduled to visit this year, he said, and so far, the kids and teachers are enjoying the experiences.

The area selected for the Adoption Project is on the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, south of the main entrance, where the Junior Hunt is held in the fall. The area is also known as the Sub-Headquarters because it used to have a house on it that was used by the assistant refuge manager. Before that, it was the Sharky Dorris homestead. The Dorris house was eventually moved to a site near the Dorris Reservoir so the area could be encouraged to revert back to wildlife habitat.

A fairy-garden of sunlit orange poppies are the only remnants of the dooryard that once opened onto green fields and the mountain vistas beyond. The 20-acre area, with a pond where coots occasionally complain, a ditch that's been there so long it has it's own habitat, and a forest of mostly dead trees, could use some attention.


VanAcker said she saw the potential of the site when putting the project together for the school children, and "can't thank Steve enough" for giving permission to use it. The whole effort depends on the cooperation of the Refuge, the schools, volunteers and several other agencies, and that has been "wonderful," she added.

Clay says he approved the site for the Watershed Adoption Project because it has a large, paved parking lot for school busses, a restroom, and will provide several projects for the students while improving the area for wildlife.

"The two uses blend nicely it has a variety of projects for the school groups which will all enhance the habitat out there," Clay said. An added bonus will be the additional uses for the public that come with the improvements.

"We wanted to provide more public use other than the auto tour area and this will help us do that," he said. The site has a pond, flowing water, a perfect place to encourage a wetland area, and with a little encouragement, would be more inviting as a nesting area for a variety of birds, from migratory waterfowl to songbirds.

"It would make a great spring-summer bird watching area," Clay said. "We may even construct an observation tower out there for bird watching."

Currently the site is used for hunting in the fall, and that will continue, he said. Hunters use the area Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, so field trips could be scheduled Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the Fall, but usually the weather keeps students indoors that time of the year anyway, he added.

Projects the students will be working on as they progress up grade levels in school include: animal and plant observations and inventories, soil sampling, water quality monitoring, planting projects, stream bank restoration, and other enhancement projects designed to help wildlife habitat as well as provide a serene setting for people to enjoy. The students will create a portfolio of their work, including pictures, graphs, plans and reflective journal entries, that will follow them through the grades so they can document each improvement or learning activity, and monitor progress.

"It's a place-based learning project that the students will be working on each year so they can experience the changes that will be taking place," said VanAcker. "The students will be in on the planning process and will provide ideas for us to get started on," she said. "We want it to be their design and their project."

The Warner Mountains, misty-blue under mounds of thunderheads, provide the perfect backdrop for an outdoor classroom where the second-graders are lead to "stations" providing specific projects for them. At VanAcker's station in the meadow, the students are asked to pick a tree and then report back all they discover about their particular tree. At a station near the water, Shirley Clay leads the students in a variety of exercises to make them aware of all the nature they can absorb with their senses.

"Except taste, we won't taste anything today," she cautions.

At the third station, out in a field, students are made aware of what a biologist does - by a real biologist. Modoc National Wildlife Refuge Biologist Shannon Ludwig shows the students how a biologist uses binoculars to spot wildlife, and demonstrates how quiet one has to be in order to observe.


"There's a special noise you can make to get the birds to come in," he tells the students, who still haven't quite gotten the concept of not walking while looking through binoculars.

"Pssssst, psssssst," Ludwig demonstrates. Then in a few minutes, "See, some birds have landed on that branch over there," he whispers. A dozen pair of binoculars pressed up against eyes swing in the direction he points. Birdwatchers are born.

After another quiet moment around a duck's nest where the second graders marvel over four, dusty-blue eggs, the eager children finally get to make noise again during the last exercise Ludwig has planned for them. Ludwig explaining how several things work together to contribute to the health and welfare of wildlife, the instructs the students to act out their own version of "working together." They line up, then fall back, trying to sit in each other's laps, domino-fashion, without falling over. Being second-graders, they do it with the grace of goslings suddenly pushed backward out of harm's way by a protective mother goose.

Topping off all the learning activities, is of course, a picnic in the grass, in the shade, between the pond and the stream. Happy voices mingle with the sounds of the place: rushing water, complaining coots, distant goose greetings, a meadowlark's trill, and the distant tapping of a woodpecker working on a hollow tree. A teacher calls the morning "awesome" and says she always learns something new on Refuge field trips. A student says maybe picnic tables should be added to the list of things "we need to do out here."

We hope this program will give students a sense of pride in their community and an opportunity to visit and watch the positive changes that they will help create. Anyone interested in helping with the project can call Laura VanAcker at 530-233-4656 or 530-233-5085.

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