I recently sat down with Aneka Sweeney, the Education and Outreach Manager to talk about how the Whatcom Conservation District has been assisting landowners with conservation choices since 1946 in Whatcom County and how environmental and sustainability education plays an integral role in the success of their mission.
“We sit at the intersection of people and place, balancing the ecological integrity of the land with the economic viability, recognizing that our natural resource economy is also a huge part of the community. We provide the tools, the education, technical assistance and financial assistance for private landowners to steward their land,” said Aneka. The WCD builds an understanding of how our resource based economies can steward the land, water and soil in a way that is in balance with the needs of our ecosystem. The intertwining stories between humans and the non-human world make their work even more important knowing that whatever happens upstream, ultimately affects anything downstream.
The WCD supports landowners in wildfire preparedness, farm planning, salmon habitat enhancement, and stormwater infrastructure. They help landowners maintain healthy water quality with the goal of maintaining commercial and recreational shellfish harvesting as well as ensuring local salmon habitat not affected by land practices happening upstream. One of the key pieces to their long-term success is “motivating the next generation of land stewards” through their school based watershed education program.
Their Whatcom Explorer: Mobile Watershed Program has become so successful at school districts across the county because of its experiential nature and ability to model ecological processes. This 4x6 foot trailer consists of a removable topographical map set on table legs and shows a birds eye view of the Whatcom Watershed spanning from Komo Kulshan/Mt. Baker to Bellingham Bay. The main part of the trailer is filled with sand and a water pump that actively streams water into the model. Students are able to manipulate the sand to create streams, rivers and oceans that give them insight into the way land is formed as well as interpret different ecosystem concepts. Students learn alongside their teachers and chaperones about the watershed that we live in, what happens to stormwater and what affects our water quality. With the ability to flexibly tailor their lessons to classroom learning as well as the cultural experiences of the students they're serving, the mobile watershed model brings experiential, environmental education directly to your school yard.
The WCD’s Mobile Watershed Program is purposefully designed to build off lessons or prepare students for experiences that are taught by other organizations in the Coalition. Their collaboration with Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) and their Students for Salmon curriculum has given teachers the ability to check student understanding of scientific concepts because their lessons build upon each other, overlapping content and creating a fuller understanding of our ecosystem to students.
“There are no political boundaries represented in the watershed model, making it a great way to talk about our ecosystem as a whole and not limiting it to land ownership,” says Aneka. Many of the students they serve have families that are employed by a resource based economy which makes it especially important to communicate the ways in which this type of economy can support sustainable land practices. Tied in with this conversation is the important piece of understanding that this land has been stewarded since time immemorial by Native peoples and that the Lummi and Nooksack tribes are still playing an integral role in the stewarding of the Whatcom watersheds.
With a continually growing population in Whatcom County, she’s starting to see new homeowners arrive and not know about the resources available through WCD or the effects that their land management practices have on the surrounding ecosystem. Aneka sees the value in WCD’s involvement in the Coalition, noting that it provides them the opportunity to continue to build off each other’s work so that together they can create this fuller picture for students and the community about the environment in which we live. She mentions that it is also nice to have a community to talk about some of the tougher moments and learn from each other’s failures in order to better serve the community of Whatcom County.