13 September 2007

CFWEP: The Clark Fork Watershed Education Program

Here is a modified version of my radio commentary that aired on KUFM, Montana Public Radio, last week:

In the Upper Clark Fork River Basin, environmental remediation and restoration consume much of our time. There are environmental pollution and human health problems to understand, feasibility studies to wrestle with, remedies or clean-ups to be implemented, and restoration plans to be developed. With all these technical (and political) issues to deal with, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the social and cultural context of our environmental problems.

Restoration is a social as well as a technical process. The two forms of restoration can go hand-in-hand, so that we restore and renew social functions in ways that connect with and build on environmental restoration.

Biking and walking paths, natural areas protected as open space for public use, and streams rebuilt to enhance fishing opportunities are just a few simple examples of ways in which environmental and social restoration work together.

The Clark Fork Watershed Education Program – “CFWEP” for short – has taken social restoration a giant step further. CFWEP began in 2003 as a way of realizing the Natural Resource Damage Program’s commitment to education. It was a wise investment in our educational and social infrastructure. Since that time, more than 6,000 students and 100 teachers have directly benefited from CFWEP’s work.

The program’s core effort is with middle school kids. It begins with three presentations about what a watershed is, an overview of the Clark Fork watershed, and detailed information about how the activities of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in Butte and Anaconda damaged the watershed. Kids then take field trips along Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River to collect physical, chemical, and biological data. Using watershed science, this data is shaped into information that indicates pollution levels and measures the success of remediation and restoration.

At more advanced levels, CFWEP provides tremendous opportunities for students to engage in scientific research such as benthic invertebrate monitoring, bull trout studies, big horn sheep ecology, beaver dam mapping, and birds as indicators of habitat quality. CFWEP also works directly with teachers to expand their content knowledge of the environmental sciences and ways in which the Clark Fork can be used as a backyard laboratory.

In talking with Matt Vincent, the CFWEP Director and the program’s former Science Education Coordinator, I realized that CFWEP walks its talk. As Matt put it, “There is no better outdoor laboratory than the Clark Fork River.” And just as a watershed ecosystem is built of many closely integrated parts, so is CFWEP closely integrated with other organizations. Partners such as Trout Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Blackfoot Challenge, the Butte-Silver Bow Arts Foundation, our former Senator Pat Williams’ Western Progress program, Governor Schweitzer’s Math-Science Initiative, the University of Montana’s Avian Science Center, and Missoula’s Watershed Education Network all help insure that CFWEP is a dynamic and resilient program that is woven into the social structure of our watershed.

Because of activities like these, the Clark Fork River watershed is becoming a national model for environmental and social restoration.

Like fish populations in the Clark Fork River, CFWEP will grow through environmental and social restoration. For example, there are plans for instituting the Upper Clark Fork Science League. As an extra-curricular program for individual students and teams, science coaches and mentors will guide students as they engage in scientific research.

In 1983, Butte, Anaconda, and Milltown were first declared Superfund sites. A child who was in the 8th grade at that time could be the parent of an 8th grader today. Imagine if we had begun educating children in 1983 about Superfund issues? Surely that would have had a profound effect on us as residents of the watershed today. And surely today we owe our children – and our communities – education about how these environmental and human health problems were caused, the damages that were done to our natural resources, and the ways that remedy and restoration are healing the wounds.

As an unreconstructed liberal, I still believe in education as the key to social progress. Contrary to clever corporate marketing, progress is not about more oil, bigger SUVs, and new consumer technology. Sometimes, progress is about restoring our environment and our society. Progress is about educating our children to be thoughtful citizens of the watershed.

For more information about the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program, see the website at http://www.cfwep.org.

It’s September. The kids are back in school, and it’s time for us to attend public meetings.

There is a series of public meeting on Milltown Park planning at the Bonner School throughout the month, culminating in workshops to design Milltown Park.

Also, please plan to attend the Warm Springs Ponds citizens’ public planning meeting at the Metcalf Center in Anaconda at 7 p.m., Wednesday, September 26th.

You can learn more about these meetings and other Superfund issues at CFRTAC’s website at http://www.cfrtac.org.

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