4-H wildlife program enrolls mother nature at schools


TUALATIN - Some Portland-area schools are bringing a time-honored teacher back to their grounds: Mother Nature.

In just over two years, the campuses of 20 Portland-area schools and two in Salem have come alive with the sights and smells of native plants and wildlife through an Oregon State University Extension Service 4-H program called Wildlife Stewards.

The Wildlife Stewards program allows school officials, parents, volunteers and students to create natural study areas on the school grounds.

Students can see butterflies fluttering onto graceful spires of lupine, watch hummingbirds sipping nectar from a red flowering currant and listen for the morning trill of the song sparrow or the black-capped chickadee.

The program was launched two years ago by OSU extension agent Maureen Hosty and Mary Ann Schmidt, a program assistant. Both work in the Multnomah County Extension Office as part of OSU Extension's 4-H Youth Development program.

The Wildlife Stewards program was developed in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Participating schools, with help from Wildlife Stewards, OSU Extension's Master Gardeners and a grant from Metro's Green Spaces program, can transform anything from a 3-foot-by-30-foot grass strip or a 14,000-square-foot lawn into a combination natural science laboratory and sensory delight.

The new Deer Creek Elementary School in Tualatin is the latest and perhaps most ambitious entrant in the Wildlife Stewards program. The school is adjacent to a wooded wetland. A system of trails through the wetland will lead to natural sites of interest where teachers can combine a walk through the wetlands with stops for instruction about Oregon's natural world.

Students at Llewellyn Elementary School in southeast Portland have seen strips of trampled turf transformed into sunny spots complete with native trees, shrubs and flowering perennials. A larger shaded garden area, complete with benches, creates an outdoor classroom.

"Sometimes it just provides a place to relax and reflect," Schmidt said.

Schools need to raise between $3,000 and $5,000 to start building their schoolyard habitats. But the program requires more than money, Hosty said. The schools must be able to recruit parent and community volunteers and commit three-to-five years to the project. They also must get school district approval and ensure that the project will be planned, designed, planted and maintained by students.

They also must develop a maintenance program for their habitat, including a plan to keep it from drying up or turning to weeds during summer vacation.

The way Wildlife Stewards has worked so far is that a teacher or principal has become interested in establishing the program. The Extension office trains volunteers, who develop a site plan for the wildlife habitat, which is defined as a place that has food, cover and a place for wildlife to raise young.

The plan begins with students learning the difference between cultivated and native soils. Next, students, teachers and volunteers begin to research native plants to identify what species of wildlife the plants could support.

Yet even with the work, organization and commitment involved, more school districts are seeking the information and support of the Wildlife Stewards Program, Hosty said.

"The eventual goal is to assist youth in developing skills, knowledge and the attitudes that will enable them to become good stewards of our natural resources," she said. "The program also hopes to increase the quantity and quality of wildlife habitats."

The Wildlife Stewards program supports the 4-H philosophy of "learning by doing" and the development of life skills, according to Hosty.

The list of schools currently participating in the Wildlife Stewards program in the Portland area includes: Ainsworth Elementary, Binsmead Middle School, Beach Elementary, Environmental Middle School, George Middle School, Gregory Heights Middle School, Hayhurst Elementary, Humbolt Elementary, Kelly Elementary, Kellogg Middle School, Lewis Elementary, Llewellyn Elementary, Margaret Scott Elementary, Ockley-Green Middle School, Portsmouth Middle School, West Gresham Elementary, Woodland Elementary, Highland Elementary in Gresham and Deer Creek Elementary in Tualatin.

Other schools participating: Deep Creek Elementary in Boring, and Walker Middle School and Hayesville Elementary School in Salem.

For more information, contact Maureen Hosty, 503-725-2046, or Mary Ann Schmidt, 503-725-2054.