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Earth Day offers a platform for environmental education in Durango

Educators, nonprofits highlight successes, raise awareness about challenges
John Palmer, right, deputy maintenance superintendent with Colorado Department of Transportation, and Dave Seiler, survey coordinator with CDOT, pick up trash Tuesday on U.S. Highway 550 just north of Durango. A crew of about 15 CDOT employees cleaned up a 2-mile stretch of the highway, collecting 31 bags of trash. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Earth Day sometimes feels inconsequential. Like Flag Day or National Watermelon Day, it can get lumped into those obscure holidays that are just another Friday or Tuesday more than anything else.

But for environmental groups, educators and government agencies in Durango, it serves an important role as a reminder of the work that’s being done and that still needs to be done. Most importantly, Earth Day offers environmental groups and educators an opportunity to strengthen environmental education and spur the next generation of environmental leaders.

“There’s a lot of positive(s) to think about and celebrate, and that’s the result of previous years of public and community engagement,” said Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental advocacy group with offices in Durango and Farmington. “I think it’s important to recognize and celebrate the change that’s happening right now is the result of people some years ago getting inspired and engaged.”

Earth Day 2022, on Friday, will be the first opportunity for communitywide celebration around the day in two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Groups across Durango have embraced the opportunity to initiate new projects, host activities and highlight their work.

Durango School District 9-R has held environmental events for students over the last two weeks. Kindergartners with Park Elementary School planted trees at Santa Rita Park on April 15, and Miller Middle School held a door-decorating contest with recycled materials.

On Friday, the school district plans to launch its Green Teams initiative, which will see every school in the district start a sustainability group students can join to help with efforts such as recycling and battery collection.

Charlie Love, a science teacher at Riverview Elementary School, revealed prospective plans for the Seeds Outdoor Inspiration Lab at a Board of Education work session on April 12. The collaborative project would see the area around Riverview Elementary transformed into an outdoor learning center complete with gardens, an orchard and an aquaponics greenhouse.

4CORE, a resource and energy conservation nonprofit, along with a number of local groups and businesses will lead Saturday’s Earth Day Celebration at Rotary Park. And on Sunday, San Juan Mountains Association, which aims to protect Southwest Colorado’s public lands through education and stewardship, will reopen its Nature Center.

Even government agencies have been getting involved. A crew of about 15 Colorado Department of Transportation employees gathered Thursday morning to clean up a 2-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 550 at the north end of Durango, collecting 31 bags of trash.

CDOT, which adopted the stretch of highway, aligned the agency’s cleanup to coincide with Earth Day.

“We all feel like we accomplished so much this morning cleaning up that stretch of highway,” said Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for CDOT’s Region 5 in Southwest Colorado. “As an agency, CDOT wants to keep environmental issues and goals at the forefront.”

For educators and environmental groups, Earth Day serves another important function as an opportunity to expand environmental education.

“It is a day to highlight what is happening, celebrate the good, raise awareness of the challenges and figure out how we can broaden the tent to increase the awareness and commitment to do what we can as individuals and collectively to improve the health of our planet,” said Stephanie Weber, executive director of San Juan Mountains Association.

Dave Seiler, survey coordinator with Colorado Department of Transportation, carries a bag of trash on Tuesday that he filled with litter along U.S. Highway 550 just north of Durango. CDOT, which adopted the stretch of highway, aligned the agency’s cleanup to coincide with Earth Day. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Heidi Steltzer, a professor of environment and sustainability at Fort Lewis College, and two FLC environmental students will visit schools in Ouray and Telluride for Earth Day to speak about climate change, the environment and science.

One of the themes of the talks will be awe for Southwest Colorado’s environment, and the visits will serve as an opportunity to engage young people and spark their curiosity for the natural world, Steltzer said.

“If we can create a space where each of us feels that wonder (for the environment), we feel a shift in ourselves that leads toward wanting to dive deeper into understanding our Earth,” she said.

This goal of cultivating curiosity and care for the environment does not end with students, Weber said.

Earth Day activities and campaigns can also serve to raise awareness about local and global environmental issues among the broader Durango community, particularly those who are new to the area.

“It’s been a couple years since we’ve even been able to host an Earth Day celebration, and the reality is in those two years we’ve seen a lot of people come into Durango from outside the region,” Weber said. “This year in particular we have a great opportunity to show a lot of new transplants what we are doing and what some (of the environmental) implications are for this new world that they live in.”

Pearson, Weber and Steltzer all identified water as arguably the greatest environmental challenge Southwest Colorado must confront. But there are plenty of other environmental issues residents and visitors to Colorado must find answers for, they said.

Intertwined with water is climate change, which has shrunk snowpack and exacerbated drought. Forest health remains a concern, transforming wildfires from a natural part of the region’s ecosystems into potentially catastrophic events. And the effects of increased recreation on San Juan National Forest and other public lands have increasingly become a concern.

The environmental challenges of Southwest Colorado are many, which is why Earth Day and the environmental education it spurs are so critical, Weber said.

“Our region of the world is seeing dramatic change. It does not take an advanced science degree to recognize that we are in a significant drought and that’s impacting agriculture and recreation,” she said. “As more and more people move here, education is going to be key in helping them understand that we are facing some significant challenges in Southwest Colorado and that’s going to have an impact on our day-to-day living.

“As a community, the more we can understand the impacts and work collectively to address them is our best hope for preserving what we love about this place,” she said.

Kindergartners at Park Elementary School help plant a London plane tree on April 15 during the city of Durango’s 42nd annual Arbor Day Celebration in Santa Rita Park. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

For environmental groups and educators, this goal of spurring action both collectively and individually is at the heart of Earth Day and their education efforts.

“We would hope that Earth Day sparks some intentional shift in how people act in their own personal lives, but also how they take advantage of opportunities to influence policy,” Pearson said.

Those don’t have to big shifts. Each person knows what steps are best for them to take to improve the environment, Steltzer said. Some may purchase an electric car while others may choose to compost or recycle more.

What is most important is creating a community of support for individual actions and a space for collective learning, and that’s the environment Earth Day cultivates, she said.

While Earth Day can be just another holiday for some, it’s not for Durango’s environmental educators and nonprofits.

“Can it seem frivolous or ineffective? I guess, if you want to take a cynical approach,” Weber said. “But I think continuing to just be out there raising awareness is what has to happen.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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