Bill Dochnahl led a group of fifth-graders on a short hike along the rocky banks of McKay Creek, stopping to point out native cottonwoods, chokecherry and yarrow along the way.

“Anything you find out here are native plants, meaning it’s home to them,” said Dochnahl, master gardener with Oregon State University Extension Service. “Sometimes you have to help them out once in a while, like nature helps us out.”

About 150 kids from Pendleton and Helix took part in a range of hands-on activities — including Dochnahl’s plant identification exercise — as part of the 18th annual Watershed Field Days on Friday, hosted by the Umatilla Soil & Water Conservation District, Umatilla National Forest and Umatilla Basin Watershed Council.

Multiple fifth-grade classes participated in the six-day event, with the last two days held at McKay Creek between Pendleton and Pilot Rock. Other trips visited Willow Creek near Lexington and the Umatilla River at Hermiston.

Students broke into small groups led by high school volunteers and spent about 25 minutes at each of eight stations, covering topics from water health to vegetation and wildlife. Shanna Hamilton, education outreach and program coordinator for the soil and water conservation district, said the goal is for kids to understand how all functions of nature work together, and to understand their own effect on the environment.

“It says a lot that we’re making an effort to teach our kids that conservation is important,” Hamilton said. “We’re all working together to make a better natural resource environment for them.”

Presenters from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, OSU and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation each led a station to explain their unique roles in maintaining healthy watersheds. At one station, kids learned to sort aquatic insects and other macro-invertebrates, which make up the diets of most fish. Those fish, in turn, are a culturally significant food source for the local tribes.

“If you have a poor aquatic area, you won’t have many aquatic insects or fish,” said Mike Montgomery, stream restoration technician with ODFW.

At another station, the students planted native trees and bushes that provide habitat and halt stream bank erosion.

Watershed Field Days is paid for in part by a three-year, $50,000 grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. Katy Gray, conservation education coordinator with the Umatilla forest, said it’s important for kids to physically interact with the outdoors to develop a connection and experience with the landscape.

“They will be the next generation of landowners, natural resource managers and voters who help decide how this gets managed overall,” Gray said. “They should understand the environment around them, that there are all these pieces and parts that play together.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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