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Pajaro Valley High School Students Take to the Fields, for Their Future & t

Pajaro Valley High School Students Take to the Fields, for Their Future & the Environment

By Angela Stewart, Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County
Photos courtesy of Angela Stewart

Note: The Pajaro project is made up of two adjacent floodplain easements totaling about 30 acres, and funded through NRCS and the Obama Administration’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Pajaro Valley High School hard at work on an ARRA project near Watsonville.
Getting Outside: Students from the Pajaro Valley High School (above) recently planted wetland trees, shrubs and grasses on a Pajaro River ARRA project near Watsonville.

It’s a crisp clear fall [2010] morning in south Santa Cruz County—the kind that screams "get outside." Standing in a freshly plowed field between neighboring crops of strawberries and dense wetland vegetation, volunteers, docents, and staff from the Resource Conservation District (RCD) and Watsonville Wetlands Watch prepare for the arrival of 28 students from Pajaro Valley High School. While the State budget problems have brought most extracurricular activities and school district-sponsored field trips to a halt—a grant awarded to the RCD is allowing kids to get out of the classroom and into the field—literally.

The ultimate beneficiaries of the field trips are Gary Martindale’s Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Studies students. Not only do they get out of the classroom to stretch their legs, but as Martindale conveys, "they get to see people and organizations working together and applying principles of ecology to manage an ecosystem. They learn that good land-use decisions are based on science."

During this particular trip, students experienced what the daily life of a biologist is like and participated in hands-on restoration by planting young wetland trees, shrubs, and grasses. They saw a demonstration of how wetlands help clean water, observed wildlife through binoculars and listened for bird calls. A rare sighting of a barn owl in a nearby stand of trees was a special treat.

Back in class, students were asked to choose one word that best described their experience. Twelfth grader, Bruny Mora picked "inspiring." "There’s so much to learn about the environment," he said. "And it really connects to many things—problems that are going on right now. For instance, Hurricane Katrina related to how we need our wetlands. [Louisiana] drained a lot of their marshlands and that’s one of the reasons why Hurricane Katrina was able to go into the city and destroy much of it."

Fellow senior Jackeline Castovena-Davila’s choice was "amazing." She was moved by biologist Gary Kittleson’s story of how he came to Watsonville to work in the wetlands. "It’s like it kind of inspires us to reach out for our dreams," she said.

Ventura Vega, a junior, credits the experience with enhancing his skills in other efforts. "I’m also part of a program called Wetland Stewards where I actually teach little kids about the wetlands and the importance of them—that’s my conservation effort for right now—helping kids get inspired and be part of the wetlands."

As many as 28 Pajaro Valley High School students participated in the field trip.
Reaching For Dreams: As many as 28 Pajaro Valley High School students participated in the field trip. Twelfth-grader Bruny Mora called the day "inspiring."

The restoration work the students participated in is part of a long-term plan to help agriculture and the wetlands coexist in a more sustainable way—re-establishing the critical role wetlands play in the environment. The NRCS and RCD helped secure floodplain easements on the two properties visited, one of which is now owned by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. Watsonville Wetlands Watch is currently in the process of restoring native habitat and wildlife corridors on the properties.

"These projects represent a huge opportunity to make critical improvements to Watsonville Slough while improving some of the most valuable farmland in the State. It’s an amazing process for students to be a part of," said Jonathan Pilch, Restoration Director for Watsonville Wetlands Watch.

Martindale summed it up best: "You’re having kids wait to use what they learn, years, and years. But here in this field trip opportunity, we learned it and then we went out and applied it. Working together, they saw community in action. There’s no test question on my AP exam about community and people working together or agencies and organizations forming partnerships, like the RCD and Watsonville Wetlands Watch collaborating with me as a teacher. That’s exciting. That’s community. That’s what’s cool. That’s what I like about it."