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Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed

Landscape Connections

John Parodi

A fifth-grade class (with teachers and parents, led by PRBO restoration staff) restores a creek on a ranch. Within a few years this site’s flowing water and streamside vegetation will host increasing numbers of nesting birds. PRBO photo.
Working farms and ranches provide us with food and also much of our open space, water, and wildlife habitat. Families that have worked their properties for generations hold vital connections with the landscape’s past, as well as abiding commitments to stewardship.

Sometimes, the demands of production from agriculture based on antiquated technical support result in compromises to the soil, vegetation, water, and habitats. With our growing understanding of how to balance food production with environmental health, there is now a huge potential for restoring the ecological function of these landscapes. Restoration projects on farms and ranches can rebuild watersheds to ensure their ability to meet our food, water, and wildlife needs. And with public participation, they can connect farms with communities and help preserve local agriculture.

These goals guide the work of educators and restorationists in STRAW—Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed, an established program that became part of PRBO Conservation Science in 2011. Along with exceptional classroom and field activities for students, STRAW restorationists are on the ground helping design and implement projects suited to individual properties.

When designed carefully, restoration can keep agriculture viable, protect and restore critical habitat, and build the resiliency necessary for landscapes to adapt to the uncertain climatic conditions ahead. Landowners have various motivations for engaging in restoration. They often hope above all to regain the functions of their waterways. Streams that lack vegetation experience increased erosion, decreased water quality, and lack of productivity both for agriculture and wildlife. Many landowners also hope to regain wildlife diversity of the past and to satisfy regulatory pressures that call for landscape improvements needed to keep the operations viable and providing resources to the greater communities.

Addressing these challenges is the mission of a large and highly successful collaboration among local resource conservation districts, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, University of California Cooperative Extension, local land trusts, and PRBO Conservation Science. Once a landowner’s project is prioritized, the partnership takes action to provide funding, design, implementation, and monitoring.

STRAW team members confer at every stage. To help implement the plan, we take school groups on site, with the children placing native plants into the ground! And PRBO biologists have long provided expertise in assessing the results for wildlife, by monitoring the responses of bird populations.

Once these projects are in the ground, multiple benefits appear. Not only does restoration help to keep ranch and farm operations viable, while improving water quality; there is also strong positive value for wildlife. PRBO data show that response is quick and pronounced, with often a five-fold increase in the number of bird species present in less than ten years.

Initial projects often catalyze watershed-wide planning and new efforts, which quickly result in landscape-level changes that benefit wildlife far beyond what each individual project provides.

A vital component of restoration projects such as those we implement through STRAW is community involvement. It builds connections between the agricultural community and nearby urban and suburban communities—essential for sustaining agriculture on our landscapes.

Restoring habitat on private land cannot occur in a vacuum. For this work to keep growing, broad-scale support is necessary. Involving the community in implementing more restoration projects will result in strong, resilient watersheds that can sustain all of our food, water, and wildlife needs—and withstand the climatic uncertainty we face in the years ahead.