Environmental education programs that take Skagit County students to areas from the North Cascades to pebble beaches of the Salish Sea are growing, with some programs being started and some existing programs expanding.

“It is so exciting to see more of an emphasis on environmental education in the Skagit Valley,” Skagit Watershed Council Community Engagement Coordinator Andrea Reiter said.

With the Skagit River watershed being the largest in Puget Sound, Reiter said it’s important for area youths to know about the natural resources and how to preserve and protect them.

The council, in partnership with the Skagit Education, Communication and Outreach Network (Skagit ECONet), published a comprehensive list of programs available for K-12 students in the Skagit County area in 2017.

In the two years since, Reiter said a lot has changed. Organizations such as the nonprofit Friends of the Forest, the Skagit Audubon Society and Viva Farms have created programs.

She’s busy compiling what’s new before the start of the next school year.

The Skagit Marine Resources Committee also launched a Kids on the Beach program in 2018 that has grown to include a second school district this year.

Programs ranging from day hikes at Little Mountain with the Mount Vernon Parks Foundation to a three-day camp at Lake Diablo through the North Cascades Institute’s Mountain School have expanded to include additional school districts in Skagit County.

The variety of environmental education programs available in the area has gotten students outside in recent weeks hiking at Mountain School, touring private forest lands and taking a close look at water and pebbles taken from Friday Creek.

“Oh, it’s alive!” Burlington-Edison High School freshman Ryan Luvera said June 5 when what looked like a jumble of small rocks taken from the creek sprouted legs and began to crawl.

He spotted the caddisfly — an insect that creates a cocoon of small rocks to hide in — during a field trip offered by the Young Watershed Stewards program.

“A lot of times you look and don’t think you see anything, then you’re like, ‘What? It’s moving!’” Sasha Savoian of the nonprofit RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, which leads the program, said of caddisflies. “That’s pretty good camouflage.”

The Young Watershed Stewards program expanded to Skagit County this year from Whatcom County.

On June 5, dozens of freshmen from Burlington-Edison participated in the program at Pomona Grange Park.

“We’re going to find out if this would be a good, healthy stream for salmon,” Savoian told a group of students.

During their time at the park, students walked along the creek, examined bugs found in the water and did experiments to test the suitability of the creek for salmon such as those released from a neighboring hatchery.

“I felt like a scientist,” 15-year-old Darrell Stanek said after the field trip.

His friend, Luvera, said mixing chemicals with the creek water to test its acidity and dissolved oxygen content was his favorite part.

Although the students found the water’s temperature and oxygen content favorable for fish, Luvera said the creek’s acidity was a bit concerning.

Savoian said while the acidity appeared to be at potentially harmful levels for fish, there were factors that could have influenced the test results.

She told them a scientist in the field might need to run tests multiple times to verify results or to get an average from several samples.

RE Sources started the Young Watershed Stewards program in 2016 with agricultural science classes at Ferndale and Lynden high schools.

The program, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, covers five days of in-class lessons, a water quality field trip and a culminating stewardship action project, according to a news release.

The focus this year is the decline of the endangered Southern Resident orca population, and for Burlington-Edison students, how the Skagit River watershed is connected with those whales.

“What is great about the program is it takes a phenomenon, in this instance the decline of the resident whale population, and allows students to trace it back to its root cause or causes,” Priscilla Brotherton of RE Sources said.

RE Sources Education Specialist Natalie Lord said the organization hopes to expand to more Skagit County schools.

The teens who recently took turns wearing goggles, using microscopes and looking at creekside vegetation were students of Burlington-Edison’s integrated science class.

Teacher Hannah Smith said the day’s activities brought to life several topics the students had discussed in class.

“We were really excited to be able to go on a field trip and dive deeper into it,” she said.

While much of the freshman science class has focused on the region’s watershed and its salmon, getting their hands wet at Pomona Grange Park was the first time students got to see, during school, some of the habitat that’s important for those fish.

“It’s so important for students to know how their actions where they live affect life downstream,” RE Source’s Lord said.

Mountain School at Lake Diablo shares the goal of connecting youths with the region’s environment during a three-day, camp-like program involving hiking and other activities in the forest and along the lake.

North Cascades Institute School Programs Manager Codi Hamblin said the addition of Burlington-Edison schools this year brought another 260 students into the North Cascades for the program.

“North Cascades Institute prioritizes local participation in Mountain School and works very hard to get as many Skagit students as possible to be able to participate in the opportunity to learn about the ecology and natural history of their own backyard,” institute Marketing and Communications Manager Christian Martin said.

Throughout the spring, hundreds of students from Anacortes, Burlington-Edison, Concrete, Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley elementary schools attended Mountain School.

Mount Vernon’s Washington Elementary School brought the Mountain School season to a close in late May with its three-day, two-night trip.

“These experiences are important because for many students it is their first time in that sort of environment, not only being outside, but also being away from home,” Washington Elementary teacher Carolyn Anderson said. “It is a very worthwhile experience.”

Fidalgo Elementary School teacher Barbara Meaders said she has seen the benefit of local outdoor education programs, from Mountain School in the North Cascades to visits to marine research labs at area beaches.

“From the mountains to the sea our students have such unique opportunities to learn about their world and their place in it,” she said.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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