Finding the best spots to plant live willows took some poking and prodding, but the groups of fifth-graders from Desert View and Highland Hills elementary schools in Hermiston were up to the task Tuesday during Watershed Field Days at McNary Lock and Dam.
Richard Cissel, hydrologist for the Umatilla National Forest, led the exercise to teach kids about the importance of riparian areas, explaining how native vegetation keeps streams cold and clean for fish.
“When the willows grow up, they become these big shrubs and have all these benefits,” Cissel said as students took turns digging into the firm ground.
Hands-on activities are the bread and butter of Watershed Field Days, organized by the Umatilla County Soil and Water Conservation District. More than 150 kids cycled through seven stations Tuesday where they learned about everything from plants and animals to weather and soil, and how they are all connected in nature.
Kyle Waggoner, district manager for the SWCD, described the event as part outdoor school and part job fair, specifically for fifth-graders to expose them not only to natural resources, but potential future careers.
“Fifth grade is just about the age when kids are getting interested in what they want to do when they grow up,” Waggoner said. “(Watershed Field Days) educates them on what’s actually out there, so at least they are aware.”
Each station is represented by a local partnering agency, including the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, Umatilla County Weed Control, the National Weather Service and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
“Pretty much all the natural resources players in the area have a part,” Waggoner said.
Tucked away beneath a stand of trees, Robert Hogg with ODFW watched over a group of excited students as they were introduced to wriggling mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies — three indicator species of water quality — as part of his presentation on macroinvertebrates. The bugs were placed in Petri dishes where kids huddled to get a closer look.
“You can read about it all you want in a book, but until you see them, that’s when you gain an appreciation,” Hogg said.
Just across the way, Joani Bosworth with the Forest Service invited the kids to pick up clumps of wet soil and mold them into balls to determine how much organic matter it contained. From there, they talked about things like composting to improve organic matter in soil, and promote better plant growth.
“I would hopefully like to create a little bit of curiosity in these students about why nature matters, and how nature provides,” Bosworth said. “A lot of kids these days don’t get the opportunity to get out into natural areas. They will be our future leaders. It’s good for them to have a basic understanding of conservation.”
Waggoner said the program has become so popular that he had to turn away some schools in recent years. The SWCD received a three-year grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to run Watershed Field Days, and Waggoner said he would like to seek additional funding to expand the program.
Agriculture and natural resources are a defining feature of Umatilla County, Waggoner said, and it is important for kids to gain an understanding of how the natural world works.
“I’m hoping they take away the importance of agriculture and natural resources,” he said. “This program is a really good opportunity to expose kids to the natural environment.”
Watershed Field Days will continue Wednesday back at McNary Dam for Hermiston and Umatilla students before shifting to McKay Creek on Thursday and Friday mornings for Pendleton and Helix schools.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.