Let’s take this watershed on the road!
Amanda Walker tells us about a unique outreach tool the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is using to meet people where they live and work.
Creating the border between Vermont and New Hampshire before continuing to split Massachusetts and Connecticut, the 410-mile long Connecticut River is a trove of natural and cultural history. Growing up in western Vermont, the Connecticut River seemed a foreign place to me. I’d explore the Lake Champlain Valley and was naively satisfied with my side of the mountain. Any place I travelled away from New England made me miss those emerald-covered highlands.
My association with the mountains and natural world of Vermont developed a desire to share those treasures with others, and so began my journey with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a park ranger. Environmental education programs on refuges aim to employ the surrounding resources to nurture a sense of place and understanding. Each year, over 650,000 students and teachers participate in environmental education programs on nearly 350 different national wildlife refuges.
The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is such a refuge, though it’s method of delivery is somewhat unconventional. Encompassing the entire 7.2 million acre watershed of the Connecticut River, the Conte Refuge has the unique task of reaching nearly 400 different communities within the watershed with environmental education and interpretation. With two visitor centers over 150 miles apart from one another, it seemed like the most efficient way to provide environmental education to the extended community, was to take the show on the road.
Enter the Watershed on Wheels, known as the WoW Express: a caravan-style exhibit that showcases the diversity of refuge habitats, animal life, and management practices – in under 30 feet! Students and teachers uncover the secrets of river formation, decipher why mammals and birds have the adaptations they do, and discover what makes a habitat a habitat (your backyard is home to so much more than you think!). Students leave the program with a new recognition of their national wildlife refuge system, a sparked curiosity about their surrounding local environment, and marveling about adventures in their backyard to seek out and explore. It isn’t uncommon for schoolchildren to quell fears about creatures of the dark, create and break dams, and compare the chomping power of a beaver and coyote.
The WoW Express provides a small-scale environment for translating the world around us. On a return visit, one student spoke of her newfound exploration of her backyard’s vernal pool: “The pool habitat that we saw? I have one of those! I even saw that wood frog.” I could see those connections being made, and it reminded me that my real job isn’t just what I do from day to day – it’s what I’m inspiring my students to do beyond my face-to-face time with them.
As Rachel Carson put so eloquently, “if a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” I’m glad I jumped over the mountain.