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Students Restore Watersheds

Brita Dempsey

Student restorationists learn about the value of birds as ecosystem indicators, with PRBO biologist Viola Toniola. PRBO photo.
In a dynamic program involving PRBO as the "bird partner," more than 1,150 students from 45 classrooms all over Marin and Sonoma counties worked during the 2002-03 school year to restore 9,550 linear feet of creek bank. Under the guidance of restoration professionals, these students planted more than 3,800 native plants and pulled up 23 cubic yards of non-native vegetation. Afterward, they set about educating the general public-posting signs about the newly planted natives or creating a demonstration garden to show landowners how to correctly restore their own riparian areas.

This is the STRAW project-Students and Teachers Restoring A Watershed. Now in its twelfth year, STRAW is a program of The Bay Institute in collaboration with many partners. It began when a fourth-grade classroom in San Anselmo, California, wanted to help the endangered California freshwater shrimp. Currently the program trains and inspires hundreds of teachers and thousands of students.

For the past four years, PRBO education specialists have taught STRAW participants about the importance of improving riparian habitat for birds through restoration. Using research from PRBO and Partners in Flight, and working with restoration specialists from Prununske Chatham Inc. and the Marin County Stormwater Pollution Prevention Program, STRAW has redesigned restoration projects in Marin and Sonoma counties to create more appropriate bird habitat. Our efforts now involve dense, diverse understory species and clumping of trees to provide good nesting habitat. Thanks to monitoring by PRBO biologists, we have found an increase in native songbirds in areas restored by STRAW.

The STRAW project is essentially a network. Teachers and students receive scientific, educational, and technical resources to prepare them for hands-on, outdoor watershed studies. We help teachers create classroom units that incorporate science, literacy, and math. PRBO has designed and taught lessons about the ecology of native birds. Students learn about the importance of ecological restoration, what they will be doing in the field, and the land use history and ecology of the nearby watershed where they will work.

Professionals select the restoration sites, and then, from November through February, students restore creeks with help from teachers, parents, and community volunteers. In the 2002-03 school year, on rural and suburban creeks, students from 17 classrooms removed non-native plants such as English ivy and Himalayan blackberry, planted native plants in the newly cleared ground, and observed birds in their natural habitats.

The work of these students and volunteers is helping bring much needed balance back to our creeks, not only improving the habitat but strengthening the community as well. For more information on the STRAW program, contact Laurette Rogers at 415-506-0150 or