STRAW: Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed

Fourth-graders' desire to save an endangered species brings together NGOs, government bodies, schools, and ranchers.

straw students and teachers restoring a watershed

On a crisp late-January morning in 2001, I'm on my way to Paul Martin's ranch in southern Sonoma County, California.

The ten miles from Petaluma (a city of about 50,000) to Martin's ranch, and the ten from there to the coast, traverse rolling grassy hills, dotted with stands of oak, bay, and buckeye. Dairy and sheep-ranching country. I bicycle here sometimes, and the endless undulations are familiar. These hills know only two colors, golden brown and green. Since it's winter, the land is emerald.

Past Two Rock Presbyterian Church, large cardboard "STRAW" signs mark the ranch's driveway. I park by an open structure sheltering 10- or 12-foot-high stacks of hay bales. Laurette Rogers, director of STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed), greets me. "Listen to the meadowlarks!" she exclaims. "I don't recall ever seeing so many here."

From where we're standing, Stemple Creek's route through the pastureland is easy to trace by the lines of willows, interspersed with oaks, extending several feet on either side of the creek. The foliage is high and thick at the east end of the property, where STRAW did its first planting in 1993. Farther west, where the students will be planting today, it thins out considerably. "When we came for our first planting," Rogers says, "I didn't realize that that was the creek. It looked more like a drainage ditch."

The day's workers, fourth- and fifth-graders from Lagunitas and Wade Thomas Schools, arrive. I had envisioned big yellow school buses, but a line of sedans, station wagons, and SUVs, driven by parents, pulls in. About forty kids pile out and run to climb the hay bales. "Off, right now," yells Rogers. "We've been doing these projects for years without any injuries, and we're not going to have the first one today." Later she confides, "When I'm in the classroom, I'm very mellow. Out here, I get intense." Her carefulness is one reason Paul Martin trusts STRAW on his property.

Rogers directs the students' eyes to the lush growth in the original planting. "See those trees? The sprigs you're planting today will be that tall by the time you're in high school." The students pull calf-high rubber boots over their shoes, and line up for work gloves. They're divided into groups of four, each accompanied by a teacher or parent. Each team is issued a heavy digging bar, about six feet long and an inch in diameter, with one pointed end. After a final reminder, "Last chance to use the portable toilet," students, parents, and teachers trek across a muddy field to the creek. They're led by Boone Vale, a staffer from Prunuske Chatham, Inc., a design and construction firm specializing in restoration that is overseeing today's restoration. Staff members from Prunuske Chatham and STRAW have already been out to the worksite, to lay temporary board bridges across the creek and double-check that Paul Martin's electric fences are turned off. On the other side of a barbed wire fence, a herd of Holsteins turns its full attention to the noisy newcomers.

The creek is three or four feet wide, a few inches deep, down two-foot embankments. The Prunuske Chatham workers have placed flags at the places they chose for planting the willows. Boone Vale shows the students how to use the digging bars, three or four people at time, pounding them into the ground, wiggling them around, pounding again, until they've dug a narrow hole a couple of feet deep. He hands out three-foot-long willow sprigs, a half-inch in diameter, cut from trees on the property. He shows the students how to tell which end is "up," how to plant them and tramp down the earth. Recent rains have left the ground soft, making digging and planting easier. The children invent songs and chants to accompany themselves as they take turns with the digging bars. They work for about ninety minutes, break for lunch, then get back to work. By the time they leave, they've planted more than willow 300 sprigs.

How It Started

STRAW's origins lie in 1992 at Brookside School in suburban Marin County, about 25 miles north of San Francisco, where Laurette Rogers taught fourth grade.

She had showed her class a National Geographic film on rainforest destruction. "It was filled with haunting music and pictures of chain saws," recalls Aaron Mihaly, a fourth-grader in 1992 and later a member of Harvard's class of 2005. A depressing discussion about endangered species followed, until one student raised his hand. "But what can we do?" "I looked into his eyes," says Rogers, "and somehow I just couldn't give him a pat answer about letter writing and making donations."

Because Brookside School had recently made a commitment to environmental project-based learning, Rogers had the flexibility to propose to her class that they choose and design a project around which to organize lessons. She turned to Meryl Sundove, a trainer for a now-defunct California State Adopt-A-Species Program. Rogers gave her a couple of criteria: she wanted the species to be local, and she wanted it to be obscure, to counter the bias toward beautiful and charismatic species being the most worth saving. Sundove suggested a trout, a salmon, and the California freshwater shrimp, (about the size of a child's little finger), now found only in fifteen creeks in Marin, Sonoma, and Napa counties. The students voted for the shrimp, but they weren't that enthusiastic. "We didn't expect to like it," Rogers says.

In retrospect, "the shrimp were perfect," says Aaron Mihaly. "We weren't joining someone else's campaign to save a distant cuddly animal. No one had ever heard of them, so we had to use our creativity to interest other people. They fit our image of ourselves...we were just a little fourth-grade class. If we didn't work on them, no one else was going to."

Meryl Sundove offered Rogers the key: "Pick any species. Go into depth about its life. Find out all about it, and you'll fall in love with it." The class did. They found that the shrimp are beautiful, almost transparent creatures. The males are up to 1-1/2 inches along, the females up to 2-1/2 inches long, with rust-colored spots. They've been in local creeks since the time of the dinosaurs (a fact the fourth-graders loved). They are the creeks' garbage collectors, feeding on dead and decaying plant material. Because they are terrible swimmers, they must cling to riparian roots in order not to be washed away.

Rogers learned an important lesson the first year. Most people think that nine- and ten-year-olds need to see immediate payoffs. But her students worked for six months on the shrimp before they ever saw one. (When they did, "There was this big, 'Ahhh.' You'd think they had seen a movie star.") They kept focused even after learning it would probably take fifty to a hundred years for the restorations to have a significant impact on the shrimp's habitat. They talked about taking their grandchildren to see their work, and telling them, "We did that."

Rogers refused to predigest material for her students. She gave them original scientific papers on the shrimp; each fourth-grader was responsible for understanding and accurately reporting the most important information from one to two pages of a paper, including figuring out the scientific jargon. Students analyzed the data for each of the fifteen creeks where the shrimp live. They worked in class two hours a week, but frequently put in more time on weekends or after finishing other lessons. Other classroom lessons kept coming back to the shrimp — shrimp drawings during art lessons; shrimp poems, songs, and fairy tales during language arts sessions.

The students learned that the shrimp are threatened primarily because of habitat destruction around the streams where they live. Dairy, beef, and sheep ranches are the agricultural mainstays of west Marin and Sonoma Counties. In former years, agricultural agents used to advise dairy farmers to build their pastures near creeks to water their stock. Now, the students discovered, the shrimp habitats were pressured by the damming of creeks, petroleum and chemical runoff, manure in the water, and sedimentation from soil erosion caused by stock trampling the creek banks and grazing the foliage that could otherwise stabilize the soil. It wasn't just cows, though. It was also off-road vehicles, and dumping of trash, and damage by potato farmers. And it wasn't just shrimp that were affected. They turned out to be one strand of a web that includes trees, grasses, aquatic insects, songbirds, creeks, estuaries, and the entire San Francisco Bay. The students began to understand the "shrimp problem" as a watershed problem.

They learned that Native Americans used to eat the shrimp, which are now so rare that no one, including scientific researchers, can even touch one without a permit. They also saw how the story of "their" shrimp was repeated over and over again for other endangered species. (The only other known Syncaris species, Syncaris pasadenae, became extinct when the Rose Bowl football stadium was built over its entire habitat in the early 1920s.)

The class chose to focus on Stemple Creek, one of the most deteriorated, which flows from the hills of Petaluma, through about ten miles of cattle ranches, before passing into the Estero de San Antonio. They made presentations to meetings of the local Resource Conservation District and the Stemple Creek/Estero de San Antonio Watershed Program. Liza Prunuske, cofounder of Prunuske Chatham, introduced the class to Paul Martin. He was concerned about erosion, and wanted to improve his pasturage, but he also remembered the Valley quail he had grown up with, and hoped to see them again on his land. However, he didn't know if he wanted a lot of fourth-graders running around on his property, or environmentalists descending on him and dictating how he could run his business. As he tells the story, "I wasn't sure what they were up to. Then Laurette told me that she had told her students to imagine what it would be like if someone came into your bedroom and said, 'From now on, you can't get anything out of your closet — none of the toys, clothes, or anything.' You can imagine the kids saying, 'But that's our property, what do you mean?' Then Laurette told the kids that's how unfair it would be if they went to the rancher and started telling him what to do. After I heard that story I knew it would be all right, and we started working together."

Martin, now coordinator of environmental services for the Western United Dairymen, had another goal. He wanted "citified people" to know what his life was like. When the class came to his ranch, he brought out milk and ice cream, and reminded the students where they had come from. He helped them understand the economic pressures on family farmers, workdays that begin at 2:00 a.m., and why ranchers sometimes don't have the time or money for restoration work that they would like to do. "See that man?" he once asked a group of students who had come to a ranchers' meeting. "He'll be eating beans tonight. Five nights a week, that's all he can afford."

In March of 1993, the class did its first planting on the Martin ranch. Martin had already fenced off part of the creek, to keep the cattle from returning and undoing the work. The class planted willows and blackberries along the creek banks. "In our area, you get more bang for the buck with willows than anything else," says Rogers. "Students can see results. In four months, the sprigs they plant will have branches three to four feet long. In two years, they'll look like little trees. They stabilize the soil. They provide shade to cool the water and reduce evaporation. Birds nest in them, and bring in seeds of other trees like alders and oaks."

Students have returned to Stemple Creek every year since. The first plantings are now a tall, dense growth that blocks sight of the creek. Five years after the first plantings, the Valley quail, which Martin remembered from his childhood, came back. Songbirds are nesting in the trees. And, to everyone's surprise, California freshwater shrimp — which were not expected to reestablish themselves for decades — had migrated downstream by 1999 and begun clinging to the roots of willows planted by students six years earlier. It's many years too early to know whether the shrimp will establish long-term residence at the restored sites, multiply, and eventually be rescued from their endangered status, but the results from the first few years are encouraging.

"We Need to Go to Scale"

For the Brookside fourth-graders, the natural ecology of shrimp, cattle, willows, and streams overlapped with the social ecology of schools, agricultural economics, politics, and conflict resolution. Their "let's help a species" project eventually evolved into STRAW, a network of teachers (eighty to a hundred in three dozen schools), students, parents, ranchers, businesses, public agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and foundations. About 3,000 students participate yearly in rural and urban STRAW projects ranging from riparian restoration to insect and bird monitoring.

The first year's project didn't end with doing one planting. The fourth-graders wrote letters to government officials, testified at hearings before local government bodies and Congressional committees, addressed educational conferences, sold "Shrimp Club" T-shirts, arranged media coverage, painted a gigantic mural featuring a six-foot-long shrimp at the local ferry terminal. They won Anheuser-Busch's "A Pledge and a Promise" award as the environmental project of the year for 1993, and increased the $32,500 they had won from the prize into a total of $100,000 for shrimp protection, all of it raised by the students.

The project gained an ally when the Center for Ecoliteracy, then a new foundation, became a sponsor. "The Shrimp Project was an ideal model of an integrated curriculum," says Fritjof Capra, "Lessons were organized around an issue kids were passionate about. They developed ecological values out of first-hand experience. They got excited about shrimp, which led them to learn about the problems caused by cows. They had to take into account the ranchers' ideas. To write letters to City Hall, they had to learn to spell well."

The Shrimp Project continued, on one or two ranches a year, until 1998. More ranchers were approaching Prunuske Chatham, requesting kids and projects. By then, Rogers had left Brookside. Ruth Hicks, who had taken over the Shrimp Project, told her, "We need to expand this thing. We need to go to scale."

At that point, Brookside students' networking paid off in an unexpected way. Grant Davis is executive director of The Bay Institute. (TBI) was founded in 1981 to promote work from the then-novel perspective of seeing the entire Bay-Delta ecosystem (which covers 40 percent of California) as a single, independent watershed. TBI uses scientific research and advocacy on behalf of protecting that watershed. In 1998 TBI had just begun working with local schools. But five years earlier, when Davis was on Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey's staff, Shrimp Project students at Brookside School called to invite the Congresswoman and him to events. He remembered those calls — "How often do you get a call from a fourth-grader?" — and offered a base for expanding the Shrimp Project. The Center for Ecoliteracy stepped in with additional support. STRAW was born, initially as a joint project of The Bay Institute and the Center for Ecoliteracy. Laurette Rogers became its director.

Urban Restoration

In 1999, Liz Lewis, director of the Marin County Stormwater Pollution and Prevention Program (MCSTOPPP) approached Laurette Rogers to suggest that STRAW add an urban component (which is possible since most of the county's urban streams are still above ground). Half of STRAW's projects are now urban.

MCSTOPPP — a joint effort of Marin County's cities, towns, and unincorporated areas to prevent stormwater pollution and enhance creek and wetlands quality — plays the same role that Prunuske Chatham does for rural restoration: it serves as liaison with property "owners" (e.g., parks, schools, and open space districts); plans projects; identifies and prepares sites; orients and oversees students; provides plant materials, equipment, and follow-up maintenance.

Urban projects have the added advantage of close proximity to students' neighborhoods and schools (students can walk to half of them from their classrooms). "It's important," Lewis says, "for students to see they're caring for their own neighborhoods. They'll think twice next time about throwing trash in the storm drain. It's also important that they learn where their water comes from, that water doesn't magically get treated on its way to them, how it must be filtered, that it's habitat for native animals, and that the health of the creeks affects the health of the people living near them."

The STRAW Network

STRAW follows the same basic format as the Shrimp Project — hands-on student projects related to watershed restoration, integrated into overall classroom work, intended to influence the culture of the whole school. The main difference is the extensive network that supports STRAW. The existence and maintenance of that network — a prime example of using ecological principles to promote sustainability — is as central to STRAW's story as is its restoration work.

Sponsor: The program, now formally known as "The Bay Institute's STRAW Project," is one of TBI's three major programs. TBI's strategies include advocacy of water policy reforms; scientific monitoring of government water projects; design, leadership, and evaluation of large-scale river and wetlands restoration projects; and annual assessments of the estuary's health. It works simultaneously at multiple levels, from projects on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers costing billions of dollars to STRAW-directed restoration at a local community and school level, where impacts are more quickly visible to participants, while the next generation's citizens learn about the values and needs of their watersheds. Among its contributions, The Bay Institute houses STRAW and takes responsibility for program administration, coordination, and outreach, and assists with some of its fund-raising.

Schools: The day a typical class spends on a project site is "one of the last steps," says Prunuske Chatham ecologist Denise Fisher. Before that, representatives from STRAW and Prunuske Chatham or MCSTOPPP visit each class to describe the work the class will do and its importance to its watershed. They get the planting materials, tools, and portable toilets to the site, train the students, and supervise their use of equipment. "This was the easiest field trip I've ever done," fifth-grade teacher Molly Whiteley told me. STRAW handles the logistics, freeing teachers to concentrate on integrating the project into their teaching. For instance, Whiteley studies the life cycle of the coho salmon in a creek near her school, conducts laboratory simulations of erosion, and combines the study of native plants with study of Native American culture (including building and testing boats made of tules).

STRAW charges teachers nothing. It requires only a commitment to do a watershed project, attendance at "Watershed Week" during the summer (on teachers' own time) and at two dinners and a culminating activity where participants present their projects. The Watershed Week and dinners are partly orientation and training, partly inspiration, partly chances for teachers to share with each other. "When we started the Center for Ecoliteracy," says Fritjof Capra, "we thought we would be helping teachers design educational curricula. We didn't realize that so much of our work would be building personal relationships among teachers." Rogers tells program veterans, "Even if you already know how to do the program, we want you there to help the others."

The events are also a place to honor teachers for working above and beyond what their jobs require. Says Sandy Neumann, Laurette Rogers's old principal and inspiration, and now a consultant to STRAW. "We find the most respectful place we can (e.g., a beautiful site on the edge of the Bay), we get the best food we can, we give the teachers lots of time to walk by the water, we ask them what they want."

She says the program really works when it enters the culture of the school. Teachers come and go, but the principal provides continuity. It's very difficult, for a teacher to take the risks that teaching in a different way requires unless she or he has a supportive principal. So STRAW also sponsors events to give its principals recognition and opportunities to share experiences.

Students and Parents: STRAW requires one parent or teacher for every four students on a project. The 4:1 ratio is partly a safety precaution, but it also draws parents intimately into their children's education and reaffirms the importance of the projects in students' eyes. "Parent involvement is key," said Bill Bryant, the father of a Wade Thomas fifth-grader participating in the restoration at Paul Martin's ranch. "We talk with the kids on the way out and back. We participate in field work with them. When it's time to fund-raise for the PTA, we're already committed."

Ranchers: Projects like this are rare on private land. They couldn't happen without cooperation by ranchers, who offer access to their property and contribute their own labor. Ranchers bear the cost, or must find funding, for installing and maintaining fences to keep their herds away after plantings.

"This is our land," Marin rancher Al Poncia reminds me. "We want to maintain it too." Says Rogers, "You can't help the shrimp without helping the ranchers." For many ranchers, the chance to give suburbanites a taste of their cultural heritage is an important bonus. At the time he and his wife married, says Al Poncia, "most of the parents or grandparents of everyone we knew were farmers. Now most young people are two or three generations away from the farm."

The Professionals: The need for expertise and advice extended the project web to include private consultants such as Prunuske Chatham and governmental agencies such as MCSTOPPP. From the start, one of Rogers's watchwords has been, "Use good science."

"We discovered one time that we were actually pulling out native grasses in order to plant willows," says Rogers. It's not enough either just to repeat a "native good, nonnative bad" mantra. "Sometimes the nonnative blackberries are holding the bank together," says Jennifer Allen, Southern Sonoma County Resource Conservation District watershed coordinator. "Until you've stabilized the bank, you can't start pulling them out." The right action also needs the right timing. "We were going to pull out a bunch of nonnatives one year," says Rogers. "We called Melissa Pitkin, who was then the education coordinator at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. She said, 'This is the wrong time. The birds are just starting to nest in them.'"

About half of STRAW's projects are on rural sites. STRAW hires Prunuske Chatham to work with these, seeing what ranchers want to do, figuring out what is doable, purchasing plants (or cutting shoots from plants already there), choosing and staking out the proper places to plant, overseeing students, and following up with maintenance.

Public agencies are also vitally linked to the network. The Marin County and Southern Sonoma County Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) are special districts of the state. Because they have no regulatory authority, participation by landowners is voluntary. The RCDs offer technical assistance with soil, water, vegetation, and wildlife conservation. They sit down with ranchers, often around a kitchen table, to ask, "What do you see as problems?" A primary role is helping to secure funding from public and private sources for expenses such as fencing, water troughs, and cattle crossings. Grants often require matching funds and/or labor provided by the landowner; STRAW can sometimes count as part of the match.

NGOs: The Environmental Education Council of Marin (EECOM) brings together environmental, educational, community, and business organizations in the county, to make environmental education a lifelong learning process. "It helps us focus and highlight our work," says Rogers, who has served on EECOM's steering committee. "We can get above the day-to-day fray and think together about how to increase our influence."

EECOM helped STRAW expand its human network. Through EECOM, Rogers met Marin Conservation Corps (MCC) executive director Marilee Eckert. MCC is an NGO that combines environmental preservation with job training for 18- to 30-year-old Corpsmembers (ranging from high school dropouts working on GEDs to college graduates considering careers in teaching). With STRAW, Corpsmembers help with classroom preparation and direct students on projects. "They're able bodied, they don't mind getting dirty, and kids really look up to them," says Eckert. "They might have had trouble in school themselves, and it's empowering when the kids treat them as role models." They do heavy work with power tools, such as gas-powered brush cutters and chain saws, which are too dangerous to put into the hands of elementary-school students.

In 1999, another NGO, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) joined the STRAW network. Birds are especially good for student programs, according to Melissa Pitkin. "They are easy to study, easy to see, and easy to quantify. And if birds are healthy, the ecosystem is healthy." STRAW now offers programs such as bird monitoring (partly to measure the success of restorations) and public education about bird conservation.

"The Shrimp Project was like a pebble thrown into the water," Laurette Rogers writes at the end of , her book on the project. "It did many things we did not know it would do. It touched many people we did not know it would touch." As for the students, then-fourth grader Megan summed up her work on the project, "I think this project changed everything we thought we could do. I always thought kids meant nothing. I really enjoyed doing this, it was fun and I felt like our class just knew exactly what to do. I feel that it did show me that kids can make a difference in the world, and we are not just little dots."

Adapted from "Solving for Pattern: The STRAW Project," Whole Earth magazine, Spring 2001.