The Roaring Fork Conservancy’s science and policy work help decision-makers tackle river health issues, their education programs help every local kid take on the great outdoors.
One of the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s founding pillars is education. While the Conservancy hosts programs for adults and environmental professionals, it reserves its biggest impact for local kids. “Every student in the Roaring Fork Valley will have a meaningful experience with us before they leave eighth grade,” says Christina Medved, the Conservancy’s Director of Community Outreach. “Most of them will have multiple points of contact, even during one school year.”
The Conservancy has had audacious educational goals from the start. Their school programs reached 100,000 students during their first 20 years (1996-2016) and over 6,000 students and community members in 2018 alone.
If you’re wondering what the kids are learning the answer is anything and everything to do with rivers. Classes cover topics as diverse as snow science, watershed mapping, wildlife, water law, river ecology, and water chemistry and quality. Students learn about river science, then tie it to daily touchpoints like how river flows affect food production – making local peaches possible in July and August and growing grapes in September. Other topics, like social studies, economics, art, and math are all woven into overarching storylines about how the world runs around water.
The Conservancy has a knack for helping students connect to the material. They even made one particularly charismatic Roaring Fork Valley songbird a storybook worthy mascot. The American dipper is North America’s only aquatic songbird. Yes, it is a songbird that swims for it’s super, kind of like a flying, singing trout.
After 20 years of raising local kids to be environmental stewards, the Conservancy is seeing results. “We don’t need to have every student that goes through the program to become a scientist,” says Medved. “We need informed citizens.” But they’re certainly turning out some scientists along the way.
Dozens of children who participated in the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s programs as kids are now building environmental careers. Two of them came back to Basalt as seasonal employees along the way.
Mike Schuster worked with the Conservancy’s water quality for four summers while earning a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management at Western Colorado University. The work he did with the Conservancy helped him land a job with the City of Glenwood Springs right out of school.
Matthew Anderson attended a Conservancy course in the third grade and returned as a college student to serve as the Water Quality Program Associate for three summers. He’s now in his senior year at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he’s studying Environmental Science and Resource Management.
The Science of Outdoor Education
Natural spaces are important to children, period. Research shows that time outside helps kids learn, improving attention, self-regulation, cognitive abilities, and executive functioning. It is especially beneficial if some of this time is structured, with an adult or educator along. Young people pay attention to the adults in their lives, and if grownups care about protecting the environment, kids are likely to follow suit. Conservation professionals can often trace their career focus to a childhood spent exploring the outdoors with a trusted adult.
Medved says there is evidence that children decide what they want to do professionally by the fourth grade. If they’re not comfortable in the outdoors at that age – intimidated by spiders, ticks, bears, and sunburns like so many of us are – they may miss out on a number of exciting career paths. The Roaring Fork Conservancy is making sure they don’t miss the chance.
A River Science Education
Just steps away from the Roaring Fork, the 3,800-square-foot River Center makes it easier than ever for the Conservancy to get kids and the community outside. The nonprofit moved into the new facility in June 2018. By December, they’d hosted 700 kids there, teaching them everything from river ecology, water quality, and macroinvertebrate life cycles and adaptations, to art.
“It’s been neat because we never had programs on site before,” says Medved. Paths wrap around Old Pond Park, providing fishing, strolling and teaching opportunities. Most of the teaching goes on outside. If students can’t make it to the center, the staff brings lessons to them.
A lot goes into the Conservancy’s classroom-based or River Center educational programs including staffing, preparation time, driving time, materials. The Conservancy relies on grants and donations to help keep costs low and accessible to classrooms. Last year, Forever Our Rivers joined the cause.
“You guys become partners with us, helping students get out to explore their own watersheds,” says Medved. “Having this type of funding helps us give everyone the opportunity to have meaningful experiences with their local waterways.” Every grant they get helps kids and adults learn about river health. All together it adds up, to every single kid in the Roaring Fork Valley.
About the Roaring Fork Conservancy — The nonprofit’s mission is to protect the Roaring Fork and connect the community to its namesake river. It does so by pairing these education programs with science and policy work, including river and habitat restoration, stream management, regional watershed planning, and water resource initiatives.
To build the next generation of river stewards, RiversEdge West takes students to the Colorado River or brings a river education to the classroom.
Intro and Overview
RiversEdge West wants to promote and protect healthy riverside habitat by getting kids excited about it. Since the legendary Colorado and Gunnison Rivers run right through the nonprofit’s Mesa County home base, that means heading to the water. Taking classrooms down to stand on the sandy banks of their home rivers is a powerful recipe to create future river stewards.
“These young people will ultimately take over,” says the nonprofit’s Executive Director, Rusty Lloyd. RiversEdge West wants them to understand how rivers work and why they are important. Loyd also wants them to understand that they can help protect these wild places today and throughout their lives.
RiversEdge West has worked to restore habitat along western rivers for about fifteen years. “We’re really trying to hone in on the legacy and the stewardship of the projects we’ve been involved in,” says Lloyd. By working with professional decision-makers and practitioners, RiversEdge West helps river health today. By educating kids they’re setting rivers up for long-term success.
Educational Building Blocks
RiversEdge West worked with expert scientists and land managers to develop education programs for students of all ages, from elementary school to the university level. As a result, it’s able to tailor the materials and presentations to meet school district standards for each grade level.
Lessons can take place by the Colorado River or in the classroom. Lloyd describes the program as “connecting the community of youth to the river and integrating classroom projects with outdoor river curriculum.” Students learn about science topics, like how important healthy river flow rates are, the need for biodiversity, predator/prey relationships, and habitat health. They also learn a more foundational lesson – that individual actions make an impact.
Learning about Biological Control and Tamarisk Leaf Beetles
Students also have the opportunity to learn about biological control, also known as biocontrol. Biocontrol reduces pests species (whether plants, insects or animals) by reuniting them with a natural predator. For example, the tamarisk leaf beetle coevolved with tamarisk in Europe and Asia, where the non-native and invasive plant originates. The beetle eats the invasive plants’ leaves, stressing them and giving native plants a chance to compete.
In the spring and summer, students can practice monitoring tamarisk leaf beetle populations during riverside classroom sessions. If that sounds complicated, it’s not. It involves sweeping trees with bug nets to catch beetles and then counting them. What kid doesn’t like bug nets?
According to Cara Kukuraitis, RiversEdge West’s Outreach Coordinator, these days on the river really resonate with students. “I’ve had teachers come up to me saying that the most disengaged students were the most engaged that day,” says Kukuraitis. “It’s really cool because this one activity lets them connect to the river and the environment in a really powerful way.”
“After their first sweep or two, when they discover all the little insects and organisms living in the trees, they start to realize that this is something that they love doing,” says Kukuraitis. “You can see the progress throughout the day, from the kids being uncomfortable out there to be really comfortable and happy, which is really cool.”
But it’s not just the bugs that pull kids in. It’s understanding what weedy, invasives species can do to a river system. “When I look at kids’ faces when I show them before and after photos of a restoration project and it clicks, in that moment they realize how important this work is,” says Kukuraitis. “You see them beginning to understand the ecosystem wide-way that it alters the river.”
It Takes A Village
RiversEdge West’s education programs have many supporters, including the Xcel Energy Foundation, Alpine Bank and Forever Our Rivers Foundation. Pooling resources helps to ensure a lasting impact and Forever Our Rivers is proud of its contribution.
“Funding from Forever Our Rivers Foundation allowed RiversEdge West to expand our river education program and engage an additional 350 students to learn about the importance of our Western rivers,” says Lloyd. “This helped us accomplish a critical piece of our mission, to inspire and educate the next generation of river stewards.”
Diné College, Colorado Canyons Association and the BLM work together to immerse Diné youth in nature on overnight trips on the Gunnison River.
Every summer, Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) host one or two overnight rafting adventures on the Gunnison River for students from the Chuska Environmental Youth Camp, which is run by the Diné College’s Land Grant Office. The educational adventure explores one of the more stunning stretches of western rivers, the Dominguez-Escalante Canyon.
“It’s an opportunity to travel through one of the most beautiful places in Colorado,” says Killian Rush, CCA’s Development Director. The two-day curriculum “improves the students’ understanding of river safety and their confidence in dealing with challenges,” says Rush. “It also enhances their understanding of river systems and of environmental science practices.”
Students learn to navigate paddle rafts and duckies, spend a night at Big Dominguez Campground, and practice river rescue and safe swimming techniques. They just have so much fun,” Rush says of the kids. Some are pretty timid when facing the challenge of swimming in moving water. (Note – The kids wear life jackets at all times when in and on the moving water, and you should too!) Seeing them work hard to overcome those fears, “is pretty remarkable,” says Rush.
While gaining practical skills needed to safely navigate rivers, students study and discuss environmental issues based in science, technology, engineering, and math. Instructors use hands-on methods to teach them about land and water ecosystems. Topics include the importance of healthy rivers and clean water in the southwest and the role of native versus invasive species in the ecosystem. The lessons sink in quickly. “It’s fun to see them develop a sense of place,” says Rush of the students. “You can see that they respect these areas.”
The classes also discuss the BLM’s science-based land management tactics and pathways to outdoor careers that protect the same places the kids are learning to love.
Forging Connections and Growing Leaders
Participating students range in age from 9 to 15 and are accompanied by older scholars from Diné College, who serve as youth leaders. The resulting mentorship means a lot to the younger kids, according to Rush, building trust and creating connections between the older and younger students. It also helps the older students develop and polish their mentoring skills.
Every night the college student leaders pose a question for the group to discuss. The kids go around the circle, reflecting on their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. During the talk circle last year, a number of the kids expressed interest in land management and river stewardship careers. That was gratifying for the CCA and BLM leaders, who made that decision themselves.
“With funding through Forever Our Rivers and support from other partners, CCA gets these kids outside and helps them develop an understanding of outdoor careers,” says Rush.
Room To Grow
“I think it’s a really powerful program,” says Rush, and CCA is looking for more funders to expand it. Last year, the program accepted 43 kids, they’d like to grow to 50+ students and add an in-class session before each river trip. This will prepare participants for the safety, learning and planning aspects of the trip.
CCA is also working to support the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Tribes to get students outside on their ancestral lands and rivers. A number of areas within the three National Conservation Areas were ceded to the Ute Nation in 1863 by the Treaty of Conejos. They are now managed by the US federal government’s BLM. The Tribes and CCA are working to make sure that Ute youth have access to those lands. They are also developing an environmental education curriculum to complement the planned river and overland adventures.
A Brief History
While Diné College’s main campus is in Tsaile (Tsééhílí), Arizona, it serves the entire Navajo Nation with five branch campuses, three in Arizona and two in New Mexico. Established in 1968 it was the first college made by and for Native Americans. (There are now 33 similar tribally controlled colleges.)
There are three National Conservation Areas (NCA) in Colorado — Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge, and McInnis Canyons. NCA’s are U.S. public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management to protect natural areas of outstanding ecological, scientific, cultural, historic, or wilderness and recreational value.
One Riverfront and the City of Grand Junction worked with a broad coalition to build a bike park, basketball court, and playground in an underserved neighborhood by the Colorado Riverfront Trail.
One Riverfront, a nonprofit that brings the Mesa County community together to steward its waterways, pooled resources with a broad coalition to help make the Dos Rios community park a better play space. Dos Rios is sandwiched between the Riverside neighborhood and the Colorado River. It’s named for the two rivers that meet in the heart of Grand Junction, the Gunnison and the mighty Colorado. Despite its grand namesakes, the park had room for improvement.
To make it better, One Riverfront worked with GOCO Inspire, Grand Junction’s RIO (Recreation Inspired by the Outdoors) Coalition, local youth leaders from the Riverside Educational Center, and many other partners. Together, they focused on one of the area’s biggest tourism drivers, bikes.
A lot of kids in Riverside don’t know how to ride a bike. The Dos Rios improvement project added a bike park to help them learn. The improvements also include slides, swings, a basketball court, a picnic area, and public restrooms. The park has always been a good resource. Now it’s far more user-friendly. It’s also a jumping-off point for valley-wide recreation.
“We’re excited because it’s getting the children out and on the riverfront trail,” says Michele Rohrbach of One Riverfront. That’s the Colorado Riverfront Trail, which runs beside the park and connects to miles of bike trails along the Colorado River, including a river access point on City property just upstream of Dos Rio. (The river launch is also getting an update from the City.)
Because of this connectivity, One Riverfront sees the park as a gateway to the city’s great outdoor spaces and to the rivers that run through the valley and carve its canyons. “We thought it was important to get kids outside so they could learn to enjoy it and want to participate in rafting, cycling, walking, and just going out and being a part of nature,” says Rohrbach. “Future stewards are really what we’re looking for,” she says.
These Kids are Going Places
Getting comfortable on a bike offers a lifetime of inexpensive, environmentally friendly, and healthy commuting. It’s also a great way to recreate. As kids grow and learn to bike safely, they can switch to road riding or move to the community’s beginner mountain trails in the Lunch Loop area, only a 2.5-mile bike ride away. The City hopes to build a pedestrian bridge across the Colorado so they can ride those 2.5 miles without leaving a bike path.
Helping disadvantaged kids enjoy their own backyard will improve their quality of life at face value. It will also help them gain access to a booming industry. Biking is big business, and Grand Junction, Fruita, and Loma are major mountain and road biking destinations. Getting local kids involved is a great way to support their physical, mental and emotional development while granting them entry into a potential career path.
Learning to ride a bike is a childhood right of passage. For kids in the Grand Valley, it also opens the door to world-class opportunities.
Turning Towards the Colorado River
The Dos Rios project is part of a wave of commercial, residential and recreational improvements along the banks of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley, which starts with Palisade’s peaches and ends with mountain biking bliss in Loma, Colorado. Most of the upgrades are happening in Grand Junction, the Valley’s juggernaut. After years of nearly ignoring the river and lining its banks with salvage and junkyards, the city is turning to embrace and benefit from this invaluable natural resource.
The Dos Rios project benefited from robust nonprofit, agency and foundation networks in the Grand Valley and from savvy funding strategies. One Riverfront used Forever Our Rivers grant funds to leverage other funding for the park. Leveraging money to grow funding potential is one of Forever Our Rivers’ founding principles, and the Foundation is proud to support this multifaceted community project.
Other project partners and funders include the Colorado West Land Trust, Colorado Canyons Association, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Mesa County Partners, Mesa County Health Department, Riverside Task Force, Colorado Health Foundation, Rocky Mountain Health Foundation, and the Junior Service League.