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‘Helping something other than ourselves:’ Petaluma kids save wetlands

On any given day, the waters and shrubs that surround the trails of Shollenberger Park shelter egrets and sandpipers, harvest mice and jackrabbits. Over the next few months, visitors may also spot dozens of rain boots, work gloves and shovels among the grasses, as hundreds of students from across the city help restore the wetland habitat.

The effort is led by Petaluma-based nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science and is part of its STRAW program, short for Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed. Nearly 2,000 students and parents are expected to lend a hand in restoring the Shollenberger watershed in the next four years, planting 3,200 native plants over 32 restoration days.

“The more marshes we can bring back, the better we are in dealing with climate change,” said STRAW Restoration Manager John Parodi. “These restorations are also really good for wildlife as well.”

To kick off the project, about 50 second-graders from Grant Elementary School assembled at Shollenberger last Monday. With parents and teachers nearby, the kids gleefully wielded shovels and hoes, planting dozens of saltgrass and creeping wild rye on an embankment.

These native plants offer habitat for abundant wildlife, stabilize the wetland, act as vegetative buffer for rising water levels and help the habitat store carbon.

“It’s great because we’re helping the environment and the animals, which is good because it’s helping something other than ourselves,” said second-grader Isabelle Bondoc.

The STRAW program’s Shollenberger project will restore approximately 32,000 square feet of critical wetlands, which host marsh species that includes the endangered Salt Marsh Harvest mouse and near-threatened Ridgway’s Rail bird.

Teacher Pamela Cratty said the field day is a culmination of hours of work in the classroom, for both students and teachers. The local nonprofit hosts a summer workshop for educators to learn about conservation, and Point Blue staff visited the second-grade students earlier this month to teach them about Shollenberger and other area watersheds.

“It connects them to the experience, it’s not just theory anymore, this makes it real for them,” Cratty said. “I think it also empowers them.”

Point Blue has been taking students and teachers out of the classroom to help heal damaged landscapes for 28 years, and Parodi said the effort at Shollenberger is especially significant. Not only is the park in Point Blue’s backyard, but the program is funded by a local tax measure passed in 2017 that funds restoration projects in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Measure AA, also called the San Francisco Bay Clean Water, Pollution Prevention and Habitat Restoration Measure, is a 20-year $12 parcel tax to raise up to $500 million. Four North Bay counties that include Sonoma receive at least 9% of the Measure AA funds, and in addition to the Shollenberger project it also supports restorations in Steamer’s Landing along the Petaluma River and in the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

As the second-graders splintered off into small groups to tackle their planting duties, Point Blue CEO Manuel Oliva recalled his first school field trips that helped spark his interest in the environment.

“I remember in elementary school they would take us to local streams and we would just learn about them,” Oliva said. “But these kids here are actually working to change and restore it.”

The STRAW program was created to bridge this very divide between traditional, observational learning methods and the more hands-on approach that the Grant Elementary second-graders were experiencing.

The program’s beginnings can be traced to a Marin County Elementary School in 1992, according to Parodi. Unsatisfied with simply learning about a watershed and wanting to take action to preserve it, a group of fourth-graders successfully raised money for a restoration project. Parodi said it then blossomed into a concerted effort throughout Sonoma and Marin counties to focus on wetland restoration and preservation by partnering with students and educators.

For Oliva, the program’s deep-seated connection to kids and teenagers mirrors a similar relationship currently dominating conversations about global climate change and activism.

Youth-led strikes, campaigns and discussions this year cemented the role of young voices in the global movement, which includes strikes held throughout Sonoma County and in Petaluma. Multiple parents and educators chaperoning the group of second-graders last week said the day at Shollenberger was more than just a fun field trip, and was instead a way of showing the kids they can do small things to help their local environment.

“Action takes different forms. Greta Thunberg and other youth are taking one kind of action, and these kids out here are taking another,” Oliva said. “It’s all a way of engaging.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the students’ grade.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @KathrynPlmr)

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