K-12 students are taking part in a monarch butterfly project, while 16-24 year olds have been working in the Great Lakes Conservation Corps for years. Both are initiatives through the Superior Watershed Partnership to connect youth with their environment.
Brandon Marsh, an eighth grader at Northstar Academy in Marquette, calls himself an "outdoorsy kind of a guy" who would much rather get outside than sit in a classroom.
Well, Marsh has hooked up with the right class at Northstar, which has joined with the Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Trust
to teach youth to get outside and become involved in a very important ecological project.
In one of a series of meetings and gatherings, Marsh and his classmates got together recently to plant and check on seedlings at Northern Michigan University's U.S. Forest Service Greenhouse. The seedlings will be planted outside once they mature, in areas vital to the migration path of the monarch butterfly. The students will continue on a volunteer basis throughout the summer when planting time comes.
"This was just perfect for me," Marsh says. "I really enjoyed myself."
A mix of pollinator nectar plants is being planted, including common milkweed and black-eyed Susan, that will attract the monarchs to stop along their natural migration route from Canada, over the U.P., then complete the nearly 2,000-mile trip to Mexico with other stops along the way.
"It's just one of a variety of on-the-ground restoration projects," says Jenn Hill, program manager at Superior Watershed Partnership. SWP is a non-profit with the mission to protect and improve the natural resources of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on a watershed basis.
"We concentrate on native plant life, fisheries, environmental education to kids, and so many other things throughout the year that are key to the environmental health of the Upper Peninsula," says Hill.
The SWP is an award-winning Great Lakes organization that has set national records for pollution prevention and implements innovative, science-based programs that achieve documented environmental, economic and educational results.
The recent project at the NMU greenhouse was right up the alley of another Northstar eighth-grader, Justin Huskey, who says he likes spending as much time as he can outdoors.
"I'm a Scout, so to be able to work on a project like this is something I really like," says Huskey. "We're going to plant the native species that will attract the monarch butterfly in its migratory path. We'll also get rid of some of the invasive species. It's cool to know we could make a difference in helping the butterfly numbers increase."
That's what Marsh enjoyed so much about his experience in the greenhouse and what he hopes to enjoy during the planting of the mature plants in the monarchs' migratory path.
"It's actually getting hands-on experience and doing something that will make a difference," says Marsh, who also participated in the program as a seventh-grader. "You're actually doing something, not just talking about it."
The SWP has been "doing something" for years, and its staff includes biologists, planners, technicians and educators who provide creative, science-based solutions for a wide range of Great Lakes challenges facing communities and watersheds across the Upper Peninsula.
There are activities and projects for all ages, but Hill saysthere are particular benefits for the young people involved.
"There are direct health benefits for children," she says. "They are outside, in direct contact with nature, learning at their own pace, empowering their connection with the Earth.
"It's something they can take with them for the rest of their lives."
Hill estimates hundreds of youth volunteers participating in the project have planted more than 100,000 native pollinator plants since the program began in 2008.
"This is just another example of us joining key partners in the area, such as regional school districts, churches, the Seaborg Math and Science Center at NMU and many more."
Another program that is available to older youth and young adults, ages 16-24, and relies heavily on grants and private funding, is the Great Lakes Conservation Corps, which annually gives young people an opportunity to do meaningful conservation work while earning a paycheck.
The organization used to be called the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Youth Conservation Corps, but it is being expanded to offer experiences and jobs to other youth in the area, as well.
In the past decade, SWP program manager Natasha Koss estimates the program has reached more than 300 young people.
"The kids-- I call them kids, but it really is a mixture of kids and young adults--get a chance to meet natural resource professionals, and get a genuine introduction to a natural resource field," Koss says. "What better environmental education could you offer a young person than to give them a job working in the natural resources business? They learn what's being protected and why.
"And another benefit: It keeps them off the smartphones and video games and gets them outside."
There are benefits for the participants, to be sure, but here are some benefits their work has given the environment in past years: native plant restoration, native fish stocking in Lake Superior, stream assessments and road/stream crossing inventory, the building of trails and turtle platforms with the National Park Service, and wetlands education with the Natural Resources Department.
Other tasks performed by the Great Lakes Conservation Corps include invasive species control, forest management practice with the U.S. Forest Service, beach cleanup at Lake Superior beaches, assessed productivity of wild rice beds, and wildlife surveys.
Oh yeah, in their spare time, they even designed T-shirts for the program.
"They stay busy, that's for sure," Koss says. "It's a win-win for both the kids and for the environment."
Speaking of victory for the environment, the SW, partnering with the Earth Keeper church network and the Salvation Army, will be holding a one-day pharmaceutical collection event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 26 (three days after Earth Day). At 18 sites across the U.P.,residents can drop off their expired and unwanted medications.
"The old way of dumping pills in the toilet is no longer acceptable," Koss says.
Pharmaceuticals cause reproductive and developmental problems in aquatic wildlife, according to studies. The pharmaceutical collections will accept all kinds of prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, narcotics, liquids and even medical waste like old mercury thermometers.
More information on the programs and drop-off sites is available online
Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for more than 46 years. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter, @jeffbarr88.