Students take on stewardship role at Negwegon State Park

Students across northeast Michigan are learning new ways to protect the Great Lakes and its watersheds through the Northeast Michigan Stewardship Initiative.
There are never enough hours in the day or willing hands to do everything that needs doing at a wilderness state park. Luckily, at Negwegon State Park in northeast Michigan, the park staff aren't doing it alone anymore.

A large environmental initiative is underway at the park that is connecting Alcona Community Schools students and teachers to the state park staff, as well as a community volunteer group called Friends of Negwegon, and Michigan State University Extension. With all those hands, some pretty big projects can be taken on.

Over the past several years, students and volunteers at the park have created interpretive signage, helped with beach cleanup and pulling invasive plants, and learned about the park's geology and history with the help of park unit supervisor Eric Ostrander with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Now, they've gotten a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services grant to look for rare, endangered and invasive species in the park, starting with the Hines emerald dragonfly, an endangered insect that can be found in habitat similar to what Negwegon State Park contains.

Ostrander says the students and volunteers are now mapping possible dragonfly habitat as well as keeping an eye out for other rare or invasive species in the park. The data they collect will be entered into the Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

"If there's anything rare or endangered in our park, we want to know so we can help protect them," he says.

If they find any evidence of the dragonfly, like its larvae or distinctive tunnels they make, Negwegon State Park will take steps to preserve and protect the habitat.

"The other thing is to do a better invasive plant inventory during this whole process," says Ostrander. Students and volunteers are mapping and taking GIS data all over the park to give biologists a better idea of what's happening in the interior of the park, which has not been studied as much as its coastlines.

"All in all, we want a better natural resource community out at Negwegon," he says.

And that community is being created through the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, led by coordinator Brandon Schroeder. Schroeder works to connect the educational projects in schools with community resources and partners like the state park.

It's definitely not only the park that benefits from these projects; Schroeder's goal is to help teach students about how to be good caretakers for the places they live.

"The big thing for us is to have future conservationists out there in the park, seeing what there is to do to protect our natural resources," says Ostrander.

In total, the NEMIGLSI works with 30 schools in eight counties. Some other of its projects in the last few years include city beach cleanups by Alpena students, elementary students exploring the Thunder Bay watershed, school gardens, studying microplastics in the Great Lakes, building remotely operated underwater vehicles--anything you can think of that involves the lakes and their watersheds, while at the same time providing hands-on education and connecting to the school’s curriculum.

And they're reaching a large number of kids in northeast Michigan while doing it. In 2013, 6,010 students participated in NEMIGLSI's  projects.

"What's cool about that is it's approximately 20 percent of students in our six-county target area," says Schroeder. That's Cheboygan, Otsego, Presque Isle, Alpena, Alcona, and Montmorency counties. Some students in Iosco and Arenac counties also participate.

"The goal is to develop knowledgeable, active stewards of the Great Lakes and its ecosystems, which includes inland watersheds," says Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative coordinator Mary Whitmore. She oversees a statewide program across Michigan, of which NEMIGLSI is a part. It's funded by a $10.9 million, ten-year commitment from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust.

Whitmore says the initiative approaches Great Lakes education with three strategies: place-based education, connecting students to the places they live; sustained professional development for teachers, so they can be effective environmental educators; and maybe most importantly, school-community partnerships. Each project has at least one community partner, like a land conservancy, local business or parks department.

"We want the community and the school to work together to benefit the students -- in turn, the students can offer real benefits to the community," she says. "We know the stewardship initiative is working when we see a class of students going out into the community and working with a partner."

In northeast Michigan, there are more than 100 community partners, like environmental groups, a math and science education center, and 4H programs, says Schroeder. That enables the hub and the teachers to really connect their students to their communities.

"Everybody's kind of got a stake in the place-based education process," he says. "It's about advancing education and making a difference."

That, it can be hoped, is also what the students get out of the process. And it seems like it's working at Negwegon State Park.

"They feel a sense of ownership in a positive way," says Ostrander. "Students who worked on the older projects still come by and say, 'I worked on those signs.'"

Whitmore, similarly, says the best way to help kids become stewards of their environment is to show them that they can contribute on a personal level in their community.

"A lot of the kids say something like, 'I understand now that I can make a difference in my community.' Or 'I can show my family the trees I planted'," she says. "I think we know, without getting into the gloom and doom, all people understand that we are going to have to solve environmental problems and deal with these situations in the future if we're going to prosper as a society. So the more we can prepare people, the brighter the future will be."

Kim Eggleston is a freelance writer and editor in Marquette, Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @magdalen13.
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