Foresters’ Fund Helps Connect Youth and Nature

What if a national forest or national park were more than just a source of timber or recreation, respectively, for timber-dependent rural communities? Could these federal lands also serve as outdoor, hands-on classrooms for the communities’ youth, places where they could connect with nature and explore STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers? And could federal lands bridge the divide between urban and rural communities? On the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington State, a new partnership between the Glacier Peak Institute (GPI) and the US Forest Service is showing that the answers to these questions can be “Yes.”

Although Oak Rankin doesn’t have a formal title with GPI, you wouldn’t be wrong to consider him the executive director. That’s because he’s responsible for transforming his vision into after-school programs for students and leading these programs; developing STEM lesson plans with Darrington School District teachers; and shepherding GPI through the process of becoming a formal nonprofit with a board and 501(c)3 status. Although developing GPI programming was one of his job duties as a 4-H extension coordinator with Washington State University (WSU), the administrative work of leading the volunteers and partner organizations, such as WSU and the Forest Service, to develop an administrative structure of GPI is on Rankin’s own time.

Samantha Chang, one of Rankin’s partners in developing a recent field trip to the Darrington Seed Orchard, remarked that she is amazed at all Rankin does. Chang, an SAF member, is a silviculturist for the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest.

For Rankin, a fourth-generation Darrington native, seeing GPI succeed is personal. After spending time abroad, with intermittent visits back home, he’s returned permanently to assist with the long-term recovery efforts following the tragic March 22, 2014, Oso mudslide, which killed 43 people and temporarily shut down SR 530, the main route from Darrington to the nearby community of Arlington and Interstate 5.

Even prior to the landslide, Darrington had a number of social and economic hardships. As a timber-dependent community, 20 years of diminishing timber sales on federal lands resulted in community statistics that aren’t a source of pride. Of the cities in Snohomish County, Darrington, with a population of approximately 1,400, plus about 1,200 in the surrounding area, has the highest percentage of at-risk youth and students with special needs, and students who qualify for free and reduced student lunches.

“With the road shut down after the landslide, it was a sudden change in the community,” Rankin recalled. “When you’re suddenly reflecting back in at who you are, sometimes you need a break like that to occur to choose a new path.”

After the landslide, organizations and agencies, including North Counties Family Services, Washington State University Extension, the Darrington School District, and the Darrington city council, came together and collectively addressed the question of “How do we start to make long-term change within our community through the resources we do have, which is our phenomenal location, forests, and our youth, and community?” Rankin said.

Out of these discussion arose the Darrington Youth Outdoor STEM Pilot Project, now known as GPI. When Rankin searched for examples on which to model GPI, he found similar environmental education programs, but their approach to nature was from the urban perspective. “[They] look at the landscape and they see preservation—‘You can’t touch, you can’t interact,’” he explained. “I’m more into ‘How do you have a sustainable, reciprocal relationship with the landscape?’…. We are dependent upon the local resources for sustenance. It’s not just a pretty place to look at.”

The reason for incorporating STEM into the project was borne from the realization that these subjects were missing both in the school and within the community at large. “If you look at the response of the loggers and the know-how community who have the tools and the equipment and the knowledge to go out there and put in [the temporary SR 530] road, that was phenomenal,” Rankin said. “But if you look at the knowledge that isn’t part of our community, it’s the scientific knowledge—that endemic understanding of geology or other parts of the landscape. How do we start getting some of that into the community?”

During 2014, in consultations with Darrington teachers, Rankin worked with Mike Town at Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, Washington, to develop GPI STEM lesson plans for the Darrington middle school. These lesson plans addressed such topics as the energy value of salmon and water quality. Their goal was two-fold: introduce youth to STEM concepts and get them out into nature. You might think that youth growing up alongside a national forest wouldn’t be disconnected from nature, but even rural kids can live an urban lifestyle. Rankin said that teachers knew their kids were no longer getting outdoors and that was a shame, considering where they live.

Through the partnership with Tesla STEM School, Tesla high school students traveled to Darrington for school activities, and in return this past year, Darrington youth visited the Google and Microsoft campuses, located in Kirkland and Redmond, respectively. Of this reciprocal relationship with Darrington’s urban counterpart, said Rankin, “It’s been really great to see this mixing of demographics, where basically they’re the opposite school of us. They’re bringing up their STEM, their engineering, their computer coding, and sharing it with us, and we’re sharing the outdoors, the environment.”

With Rankin based at the Darrington Ranger Station, local Forest Service employees were aware of his work with GPI, and several participated in community discussions. Chang saw an opportunity for a collaborative GPI project. Established in 1981, the Darrington Seed Orchard was intended to provide a seed source for reforestation on the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest. However, without active logging, the seeds for species that include Douglas-fir, western white pine, and Pacific silver fir have languished in storage, and the orchard has fallen into disrepair due to budget cuts. This fate never sat well with Chang because of the effort originally invested into establishing the seed orchard.

“How can I get some of this work done [to reestablish the seed orchard]?” she recalled wondering. Chang approached Rankin and asked, “Do you think we could make a project out of this? The kids could come out and learn why there is a seed orchard—why does it matter where you get your seeds from? And make it a learning project and build some interest. Showing them there are these fields of study and they’re related to real things.”

Rankin agreed, and Chang pursued funding opportunities for the inaugural project of hosting the middle schoolers and their teachers at the seed orchard for two days, where they would assist in light maintenance work and participate in STEM activities. There would be two separate sessions, one for the boys and one for the girls. Funds were needed to pay for transportation and substitute teachers for the students who couldn’t attend. After being denied funding from one grant source, Chang turned to SAF’s Foresters’ Fund. SAF staffer Lori Rasor, who manages the Foresters’ Fund and is involved with the review process, said that when Chang’s funding proposal was reviewed, approving it “made a lot of sense.” In addition to the $1,400 Foresters’ Fund grant, the SAF North Puget Sound Chapter and Washington State University Extension also contributed funding.

“This project introduces students to careers in forestry and other scientific fields in an outdoor, hands-on learning environment, and also promotes SAF as a leader in forestry education and in the community,” Rasor explained. “It’s the type of project we like to fund.”

For Chang, GPI’s mission to reconnect youth to nature is also personal, because she’s had so many encounters with people not recognizing what is real in nature. “When I go to the Mt. Vernon High School Science Night, I have a Forest Service table. I have different kinds of conifer cones, antlers, skulls, and pieces of fur, because I want students to touch and have a tactile, sensory interaction with a real thing. One of the questions I get every year—all night long from young and old—they’ll look at a pine cone and say, ‘Is that real?’. The fact that someone would look at a pinecone and assume it’s probably fake really bothers me—that’s how disconnected we are. That it would be equally normal to hear that ‘No, it’s a fake cone. We made it for this [event].’ It’s like equal odds for them that it’s a fake thing.”

The two-day field trip to the Darrington Seed Orchard exposed students to just how real nature is. On day one of the girls’ session, they experienced the sting of stinging nettles, tasted a Douglas-fir needle, watched the removal of debris that beavers piled into a culvert, analyzed tree cores to learn about the effects of climate and forest health, and used a crosscut saw under the tutelage of Bridget Wisniewski, a forestry technician at the Darrington Ranger Station. The second day had the girls building slash piles of unwanted cottonwood for burning in the fall, testing for water pollution, and developing a mitigation plan to address climate change. Also on the second day of the field trip, SAF member Phyllis Reed discussed the beaver deceiver project, which the girls could watch being installed.

“This field trip brings what we’re talking about in the classroom to life,” said Melissa Cumming, one of three teachers who participated in the field trip. “Even though the kids live here, they actually don’t get out and experience it.”

With the success of this first collaboration, Chang and Rankin are optimistic that future projects, such as seed collection or inventory work, could also be offered if the funding is available. “I’m hoping, at least with the seed orchard project, that over time it helps the kids in town develop more of a sense of ownership of the public lands,” Chang explained. “[Public land] is a tremendous resource, and there’s a lot that we could be doing with it that can support the community—and it’s their land.”

She also appreciates Reed’s and other SAF members’ support of this project and sees this collaboration as an example for SAF members who want to engage with youth, but are unsure of where to start. There is plenty of opportunity for engagement, she said, and as Darrington has proven, it’s likely right in your own community.

As GPI matures, Rankin envisions the organization serving as a model for other struggling rural communities, helping to bridge a divide that has only been magnified in today’s political climate. “There’s so many of these youth and struggling communities in Washington State,” he said. “We want to create a model that’s not isolationist-based, that’s bringing in urban and rural so they’re working together, connecting communities across urban and rural landscapes.”

In addition, “the Forest Service is a natural fit [with GPI],” Rankin said. “It’s been great having Samantha and the other Forest Service employees. They’re very knowledgeable and great to work with. Everybody in this office really cares about the community.”

Chang also sees the value of the partnership as a way to introduce the youth to natural-resources careers: “The Forest Service has been trying to figure this out for a long time, about how you get people interested in working here. Well, first they have to be in those [natural-resources] majors you want to recruit from at the universities, but how do you get them into the universities? You realize that you have to start farther and farther back, to build that interest."

-Andrea watts, The Forestry Source
   Society of American Foresters