Students don waders, form Delta Restoration Team

Eight high schoolers from across the nation collect for PWSSC’s experimental learning camp 

Did you know that Dusky Canada geese are two-to-three times more likely to have successful nests when they’re located on islands? Or that salmon rearing is more successful when they have access to bundles of brush?

This past week, eight high school students from all over the country joined forces to form the first ever Delta Restoration Team to work on related restoration projects.

This weeklong outdoor experiential-learning camp revolved around the ultimate goal of creating, as Prince William Sound Science Center Education Coordinator, Lauren Bien describes, “great ecosystem stewards.” Bien was the trip leader of D.R.T Camp, and throughout the development of the camp, she partnered closely with United States Forest Service fisheries biologist Andrew Morin and aquatic ecology and outreach technician Nemesis Ortiz-Beclet. She also garnered support from a wide range of Science Center and U.S. Forest Service Cordova Ranger District employees, including the fish, wildlife and recreation crews and education personnel.

Bien noted that she didn’t think many of the students knew that they could have careers that involve spending all day in waders catching juvenile salmonids, restoring nest islands or building bridges to improve trail access. Through this camp, however, students gained experience with all of these outdoor restoration jobs.

A rising senior from Maine, Ben Wyman noted that “it has been a really eye-opening experience,” because he now better understands what biologists and ecologists do, and is leaning toward a similar career. Another rising senior from California, Sophia Crawford-Hayes, said that “doing things like this helps you picture yourself actually doing it for a living.” She’s an aspiring writer and hopes to incorporate outdoor work into her career.

The students’ enthusiasm for the work they completed was evident when they talked about their favorite experiences. For Crawford-Hayes, her favorite activity involved donning waders for the first time and restoring Dusky Canada goose nesting habitat at Alaganik. The Copper River Delta is among a handful of places in the world that these birds breed, but after the 1964 earthquake, their nesting grounds were compromised. The land that rose made them more susceptible to predators; their nests became more accessible to terrestrial predators and the consequent increase in tree growth facilitated increased perches for aerial predators like eagles.

So what’s a bird to do? Use an island. Since the 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service has facilitated their nesting success by maintaining close to four hundred nesting islands, which reduce land-based access and visibility from the air. Students worked together to add shrubs and sod to two of these nest islands, and as Crawford-Hayes noted, “it was cool to see how quickly we could make a difference.”

For Wyman, his favorite day was “fish day,” through which students’ monitored streams for juvenile salmonids to nominate appropriate streams to the Anadromous Waters Catalogue. When added to this catalogue, streams are afforded increased protection, which consequently protects resident fish. This was a new experience for all of the students, including local Cordovan 10th grader Abby Bourgeois, who had never been to Snag Lake before and enjoyed learning about how the U.S. Forest Service fish crew sets up minnow traps and gathers data for research.

On another day, students gained insight into what it’s like to work on the U.S. Forest Service recreation crew. Campers packed tools into the Pipeline Trail, where they tore down an unstable bridge to replace it with a new one. As they helped lay the groundwork for increasing trail access, learning how to use log tongs and other hand tools to move giant logs was a real thrill for students. Though it was hard work, Bourgeois said that she would “really like to do something like that again.”

Each night, students and leaders engaged in leadership and stewardship discussions to help put the day’s activities into a larger context. This bigger picture aligns well with both the U.S. Forest Service’s and the Science Center’s missions, to help build resilient communities and ecosystems. Bien built the camp around the idea that “we’re not just conserving things how they are now, but we’re making them sustainable for future generations.” This message hit home with Crawford-Hayes, as she said her biggest takeaway from the camp is that she now has “a more solid idea of what stewardship is” and she said that aims to personally practice it and tell other people about it at home.

This impactful camp was made possible by a generous grant from Wells Fargo and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and through the hard work of employees from the Science Center and the U.S. Forest Service. Future camps are in the works, and Bien encourages more Cordovan high schoolers to participate next year. Because she’s from Cordova, Bourgeois admitted that she didn’t expect to learn so much about the region, but after a week of new experiences, she made it clear that she is “definitely doing it again next year!”

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Amy Brodbeck is a science communication intern for the Prince William Sound Science Center and teaching assistant and Master’s candidate for the School of Environmental and Marine Affairs at the University of Washington. She can be reached at amyb2015@uw.edu.