For the past 15 years, Mark Lewis, service forester with DCNR’s Cornplanter State Forest District has been using partnerships to engage youth in protecting water resources in and near Crawford County.
He accomplishes this by working with students and partners to plant numerous riparian buffers that benefit wildlife, add beautification, and improve water quality.
Riparian buffers are areas of vegetation along the edge of a stream bank which help shade and partially protect the stream from the impact of adjacent land uses. The shade from the vegetation cools the stream temperature, increasing oxygen supply available to fish and other aquatic organisms. They help stabilize stream banks and are important for good water quality.
These riparian buffer projects have targeted French Creek and Conneaut Creek watersheds that feed into Lake Erie, improving water quality one student at a time.
A typical riparian buffer project includes identifying a landowner who is willing to improve a buffer on their property. A plan is created and mapped out to determine how many trees, tree shelters, and species are needed.
While this is happening, local teachers educate their students about the importance of riparian buffers and prepare them with the knowledge of why they are needed in the local watersheds.
A variety of grant sources are secured including Growing Greener grants to purchase equipment, plant material, bussing and substitute teachers for the day.
Lewis surveys the location and determines the best tree species for the growing conditions. He prepares the site for the students by painting color coded dots on the ground where the corresponding tree and shrub species should be planted, sometimes marking the area with more than 2,900 seedling locations.
On planting day, the students gather at the site and again discuss the importance of riparian buffers, why each species has been selected for each site, how to plant the seedlings, and why they are doing what they are doing.
The landowner also is present to engage with the students and to lend a face and hand to the project. Once completed, the students are tired and satisfied that they have participated in a local project that benefits the natural resources in their community.
Partners – it takes a village!
This program thrives due to cooperation and partnerships. From determining the project need, to securing money, educating the students and handling the logistics, this is not a one agency effort.
DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry, Crawford County Conservation District, private landowners, the departments of Environmental Protection and Transportation, the Game and Fish and Boat Commissions, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, Allegheny College’s Creek Connections, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, French Creek Project, and many others work together to accomplish many projects.
Without this cooperation, the program would not exist.
Mark Lewis’ involvement has resulted in astounding measures of success.
Over the past 15 years, it is estimated that the number of trees and shrubs planted totals more than 75,000 with the help of 4,500 students from 12 local middle and high schools completing 97 different conservation projects! Notably, Maplewood High School has been involved every year since 2000.
When Lewis was asked why this program has been successful, he immediately responded, “Engagement of the teachers! We try to make it easy for them by handling the logistics in order to keep teachers involved, really good teachers with good administrators who are engaged and see the benefit and value of what the students are learning and doing.
As impressive as the numbers are, this effort is not about the numbers. The success is also measured by the connections that the students make with their local natural resource.
Engaging students in a community effort, connecting to local natural resources and serving as a pathway to employment are also measures of success.
One student participant became the erosion and sedimentation specialist in the local county conservation district and another student is now a local forester.
Lewis also said that this year saw the participation of a child of one of the first project participants, making it the first, second generation participant to continue the conservation.(Written By: Jean Devlin, Natural Resource Program Specialist for DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry, and reprinted from the Jan. 20 DCNR Resource newsletter. Click Here to sign up for your own copy.)