The following article was written by Michelle French, a first-grade teacher in Tulare, who is also the primary director for “California Science Teachers Association.” It’s a joy to partner with such committed teachers in our area. Thank you, Michelle, for being such an inspiring teacher and for writing this great article! Here’s a link to the original article: http://www.classroomscience.org/the-kaweah-oaks-preserve-a-jewel-in-central-california.
The Kaweah Oaks Preserve: A Jewel in Central California
by Michelle French
The last two years, my co-workers and I have taken our first grade students to the Kaweah Oaks Preserve (KOP). According to its website, “Kaweah Oaks Preserve, a 322-acre nature preserve, protects one of the last remaining valley oak riparian forests in the San Joaquin Valley.” It really is so much more than that.
KOP is an opportunity to take a journey back in time and imagine how our valley looked hundreds of years ago. Each year, close to 1000 students from the Tulare County area experience how science and nature are as beautifully intertwined as the wild grapevines that climb the majestic valley oak trees. I recently had the pleasure of talking with Laura Childers, the Education and Volunteer Director of the Sequoia Riverlands Trust (SRT). The SRT is a “non-profit land trust dedicated to conserving the natural and agricultural legacy of the southern Sierra Nevada and San Joaquin Valley.” The trust controls and protects over 10,000 acres of land, including that of the Kaweah Oaks Preserve.
As we talked over a cup of hot tea, Laura told me about how she came to serve in this position and espoused the SRT’s nature conservation efforts in Central California. Her love of what she does is infectious, and she relishes exploring ways to educate both children and adults about the importance of nature conservancy.
MF: Tell me about your background and how you ended up in Central California.
LC: I am originally from Houston, TX. I studied history and geography at the University of Texas in Austin. A few years ago, I started an internship up in the Sequoia National Forest. While interning, I set up the evening campfire program, patrolled and helped at campgrounds, and talked with hundreds of people about the Giant Sequoias. I enjoyed hearing the different perspectives about the trees. Some people had comments like “That’s a lot of wood.” Others would say things like, “There is God in this tree.” That’s when I really focused on expanding people’s perceptions and interests of land management.
After working for a while as a ranger at Yellowstone National Park, Laura returned to Central California for two reasons: she had fallen in love with her boyfriend who lives in the Springville area, and she found the hundreds of untouched acres of habitat in both the valley and in the mountains of Sequoia National Park enchanting.
MF: How long have you been with the SRT, and as the director of education and volunteers, what are your responsibilities?
LC: I started with the SRT in January of 2009. For the Kaweah Oaks Preserve, I coordinate school field trips and train volunteer naturalists as docents. I make sure that our field trips align with state science standards for all grade levels. Students in elementary school will explore plants and animals in their native habitats. For students in middle and high schools, I coordinate service learning projects. SRT’s six properties in Tulare County are helped by the student projects. When doing a conservancy project, I first visit the students’ classroom and provide background information about the preserves. Students then decide what will be the focus of their project. On past projects, students have planted trees or tested water quality through our “What’s in Your Water?” campaign. Our plant survey offers an experience where students go through a scientific way of figuring what types of plants are growing in the preserve. Then they classify them as native, non-native, or invasive species.
Laura went on to tell me about the Eagle Scout candidates who have spent numerous hours at the Dry Creek Preserve, one of SRT’s six preserves, rebuilding signs for trail boundaries. They also built new cautionary signs and a native plant nursery. Additionally, Laura leads seminars for teachers. The seminars assist teachers in becoming more aware of how they can educate their students about current environmental issues centering on both air and water quality and other concerns seen within the habitats of the SRT’s land holdings.
MF: Tell me about the various land holdings of SRT. How many of the locations host classroom fieldtrips?
LC: There are six properties held by SRT, and the Kaweah Oaks Preserve is currently the only one open to the public on a regular basis. It is open to everyone year-round. The Dry Creek Preserve used to be a gravel mine. SRT took over the lease after mining operations ended and began restoring it 10 years ago. You can see Bald and Golden eagles, coyotes, reptiles, and songbirds when visiting this preserve. The Herbert Wetlands Prairie Preserve is one of the few pieces of the valley floor in our county that has never been farmed or disced. Here you can find burrowing owls and vernal pools. We are having a public nature walk on April 30th. These two areas, in addition to the Homer Ranch, Lewis Hill, and Blue Oak Ranch preserves, are not currently open to the public on a regular basis. SRT plans to have Dry Creek Preserve and Blue Oak Ranch Preserve open to the public on a regular basis later this year. You can visit our website to find out more information on each of the preserves.
MF: Who leads the students and what are their qualifications?
LC: Usually retired teachers are volunteer naturalists. Also, we often have people come to us who went down career paths that didn’t follow their childhood dreams of being a naturalists or park rangers.
MF: How many students do you host each year?
LC: About 750 children come through the KOP each year. We usually have about 150 students participate in service learning projects each year.
MF: Tell me about the types of experiences students might have when visiting.
LC: Students will go on hikes. There are three different trails. On one trail, they can scramble across our sycamore climbing tree. On others, they will walk over creek and canal bridges. A really fun thing to do is catch insects with nets. It looks as if the grasslands have no animals living there, but we catch so many insects with one swipe of the net through the grass, that students are shocked. Students might see coyotes, king snakes, and many types of birds.
MF: What is the best time of year for students to visit?
LC: In the fall acorns start falling off trees and begin sprouting. The ripe grapes are all over the climbing grapevines. Tiny wasps create many types of colorful galls in interesting shapes. In the spring, plants are flowering; parts of the preserve look like a jungle. We can also get a clear view of mountains and view of the Kaweah River Watershed. We can see the sequence of how the watershed is shaped like a funnel from the mountains, where it hits the valley floor, and is distributed on the valley floor.
LC: It helps if the students have a basic understanding of what a habitat is, what wild animals are, and the difference between woodland and grassland areas. He or she can explore those aspects with students on the trip.
MF: How far in advance should schools book their trips?
LC: At least two weeks in advance. May is the most popular month, so they need to book early during May.
MF: This interview will be read by science educators across the state. What message would you like to leave with them?
LC: I know it’s hard to teach anything besides language arts and math, but integrating science and the study of nature and habitats helps kids become aware of the issues regarding nature. As they grow up, they will be the ones preserving and voting.
The Kaweah Oaks Preserve truly is a jewel in the heart of Central California. I hope that if you are ever in the area to visit the Sequoia National Park, you take a few hours to explore the Kaweah Oaks Preserve. Included here are a few photographs from my last field trip to the Preserve, and a correlation chart to the grades K-5 science standards can be found on the CSTA website athttp://www.cascience.org/csta/pdf/kaweah_oaks_standards_correlations.pdf. Also, if you would like more information about the Sequoia Riverlands Trust, please visit their website: http://www.sequoiariverlands.org/index.html.
Michelle French is a first-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary School in Tulare and is CSTA’s primary director.