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Sustainable Missoula: Clark Fork watershed education does more than teach

On a gray Friday morning in late March, with snow topping the mountains and ice flanking the riverbanks, a group of bundled-up fifth graders and several University of Montana students pack into the Milltown State Park overlook site.

Roughly a hundred feet below and to the left is the Blackfoot River. To the right are the S-curves of the Clark Fork River. And directly in front of them, the two rivers join.

Dalit Guscio has the students’ attention. Almost yelling to be heard over the wind, she points to large, rectangular stones faintly visible beneath the rushing water. The students are captivated by the stones. They stare at them, puzzled, then shout: “It was the Milltown Dam!”

The stones mark where the Milltown Dam, built in 1908, once stood. The dam was demolished beginning in 2008, before the fifth graders were born, and before many of the UM students were even in fifth grade. But to the fifth graders, the stones are physical evidence that they live, go to school, and play just downstream from a massive Superfund site — an area that was once an unmitigated environmental disaster.

Dalit is the Missoula Program Manager of the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program (CFWEP), and the UM students are CFWEP interns. Many Missoulians may not be familiar with CFWEP, but its impact on local youth and the UM community has been substantial and is growing in importance each year.

For more than a decade, CFWEP’s Missoula program has reached every fifth grader in the Missoula County Public School (MCPS) system, and sixth graders in Bonner and Clinton — roughly 700 students each year.

A unique aspect of CFWEP is that UM interns, mostly studying science, serve as the primary teachers. I started as an intern with CFWEP during my freshman year at UM, and remain involved as I begin graduate school.

Each spring, Dalit meets weekly with a small class of UM interns who immerse themselves in the CFWEP curriculum. Dalit works with each intern to hone in on using their strengths to find creative ways to teach the curriculum. She also serves as a mentor to the interns and constantly re-evaluates the lessons to make them more impactful.

My experience as an intern has made it clear to me that CFWEP is a model for how a place-based science education can teach critical skills. Skills to address some of the most pressing challenges facing society. 

Before the fifth graders visited the Milltown overlook, they were in the classroom with CFWEP interns, learning about the characteristics of healthy Montana watersheds and the history of the Clark Fork Watershed. The students grappled with how a century of copper mining in Butte brought electricity to the nation and produced bullets to win world wars; but also brought arsenic-laden drinking water to Milltown and led to streams devoid of life.

The students were upset about the state of the river, but learned that Montanans felt the same way several decades ago, when they fiercely advocated for restoring their watershed. This led to the EPA Superfund designation and the decades-long task of restoring 120 river-miles. 

Students then coalesce around a question that seems simple: Is our watershed healthy? Rather than trying to answer this question, Dalit and the interns guide students through using the scientific method to draw their own conclusions. Students beam with excitement as they practice using scientific instruments to test the attributes of Berkeley Pit water, Coke, and tap water in preparation for the field.

At the riverbank, students join the interns for a packed day of collecting water samples, surveying macroinvertebrates, and evaluating the riparian zone. The students get back on the bus with pages of scientific notations and numbers, but they look puzzled. They expected to discover if the watershed is healthy — after all, that’s why they’re at the river. But the students learn that the answer will only come once they analyze the data, an often intimidating prospect.

Back in the classroom, whiteboards are filled with charts and diagrams as interns guide students through using basic statistics to understand their data and put results into perspective. CFWEP casts science in a rare light for students. Rather than memorizing formulas, they study an issue affecting them, ask questions, and collect data to draw a conclusion. Students learn to think like scientists at a time in their academic career when math and science is becoming either exciting or daunting.

Public discourse shows that science is often misunderstood and the line between fact and opinion is blurred. I believe that programs like CFWEP help foster a collective understanding of the scientific method. The students learn firsthand that some uncertainty in science isn’t a sign of weakness, but is inherent when studying natural systems.

The importance of CFWEP also grows each year. A decade ago, fifth graders recalled fishing or boating at the Milltown Reservoir. Today, they view the dam as history. Each year, more of the population views the current state of the Clark Fork River and natural places across the nation as the baseline. Like me, they don’t remember when rivers caught on fire, smog filled the air, and toxic waste was haphazardly discarded into the environment.

However, CFWEP isn’t there to tell students that mining is bad. I always point out that copper makes modern life, including phones and video games, possible. Rather, we want the story of our watershed to foster critical thinking skills to solve real-world problems. In our lifetime, we’ll be tasked with finding a sustainable way to support a global population of 10 billion people. 

I find that one of the most personally rewarding aspects of CFWEP has been forming relationships with students who may pass the UM campus every day, but don’t see college as an attainable goal. For some students, the CFWEP curriculum and conversations with interns about education and career paths seem to spark newfound interests.

As for the question about whether our watershed is healthy — a new group of about 350 fifth graders should have an answer this fall.

Jonathan Karlen is an intern with CFWEP. He recently graduated from the University of Montana (UM) with a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and a minor in Climate Change Studies and is currently working toward a Master’s in Public Administration at the UM. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

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Missoula’s Farmers Markets. Eat local now through the early fall! The original Farmers Market at the north end of Higgins runs every Saturday 8am-12:30 – information here. The Clark Fork Market is now located at 101 Carousel Drive near Dragon Hallow, runs every Saturday 8am -1pm – information is here.

Beyond Recycling: Making Zero Waste Work Session #4 – June 30, 12pm. This virtual panel discussion, hosted by Climate Smart Glacier Country, will feature speakers from PulpWorks Inc., the Loop initiative from TerraCycle, and Sasquatch Fuel—a Montana-based business down in Bozeman! These groundbreaking companies have developed ways to produce and distribute products in the most sustainable ways possible and the speakers on our panel will present the far-reaching impacts of their zero-waste products. Register here.

Fixit Clinics – July 17 & Aug. 21, 11am-3pm. Save the dates for upcoming Fixit Clinics, hosted by Home ReSource! Bring your broken items and work with skilled repair coaches to learn how to fix them. More information and sign ups here.

Montana Conservation Voters Summer Road Tour stops in Missoula – July 8. Imagine Nation Brewing. 5-7pm. All welcome. Details here.

Our Climate is Changing: Are we ready? What can we all do? – July 12, 11:30 – 1pm. Virtual. City Club presentation by Missoula County and Climate Smart Missoula. Details will be posted here.

Wildfire Smoke Ready Week – July 12-17. Brought to you by Climate Smart Missoula, the Climate Ready Missoula Team, Missoula City-County Health Department and Missoula County. Stay tuned for sponsored events where you can learn more about how we can, together, prepare for and stay healthy when wildfire smoke comes our way.

Bike to Barns tour – Aug. 14-Sept. 30. Explore local farms and flavors on a 15-mile bike tour through Missoula’s Orchard Homes and Target Range neighborhoods. Check back here for more info.

Spontaneous Construction – Sept 18th. Missoula’s festival of creative reinvention! Reuse. Compete. Create. Enjoy! More info and team registration here.

Missoula’s third annual Clean Energy Expo – Sept 25. Climate Smart Missoula and Montana Renewable Energy Association are back to hosting this premier event at Caras Park. Save the Date.

Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month break down of world day campaigns.