Educators, nonprofits highlight successes, raise awareness of challenges
Colorado Department of Transportation assistant superintendent of maintenance John Palmer, right, and CDOT survey coordinator Dave Seiler pick up trash on U.S. Highway 550 just north of Durango on Tuesday. A crew of about 15 CDOT employees cleaned up a 2-mile stretch of the highway, recovering 31 bags of trash. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Earth Day sometimes seems inconsequential. Like Flag Day or National Watermelon Day, it can be lumped into those obscure holidays that are just a 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 is being done and still needs to be done. Most importantly, Earth Day provides an opportunity for environmental groups and educators to strengthen environmental education and inspire the next generation of environmental leaders.
“There are a lot of positive things to think about and celebrate, and it’s a result of previous years of public and community engagement,” said Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an advocacy group in the city. environment with offices in Durango and Farmington. “I think it’s important to recognize and celebrate that the change happening right now is the result of people’s inspiration and commitment a few years ago.”
Earth Day 2022 on Friday will be the first occasion for community celebration around the day in two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Groups across Durango took the opportunity to launch new projects, organize activities and showcase their work.
Durango School District 9-R has held environmental events for students for the past two weeks. Kindergarten students at Park Elementary School planted trees in Santa Rita Park on April 15, and Miller Middle School held a door decorating contest using recycled materials.
On Friday, the school district plans to launch its Green Teams initiative, which will see each school in the district create a sustainability group that students can join to help with efforts such as recycling and battery collection.
Charlie Love, a science teacher at Riverview Elementary School, revealed forward-looking plans for the Seeds Outdoor Inspiration Lab during a school board work session on April 12. The collaborative project would see the area around Riverview Elementary transformed into an outdoor learning center with gardens, an orchard and an aquaponic greenhouse.
4CORE, a non-profit resource and energy conservation organization, along with a number of local groups and businesses, will host the Earth Day celebration on Saturday at Rotary Park. And on Sunday, the San Juan Mountains Association, which aims to protect public lands in southwestern Colorado through education and stewardship, will reopen its nature center.
Even government agencies got involved. A team 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 embraced the freeway stretch, lined up the agency cleanup to coincide with Earth Day.
“We all feel like we accomplished so much this morning cleaning up this stretch of freeway,” said Lisa Schwantes, spokesperson for CDOT Region 5 in southwestern Colorado. “As an agency, CDOT wants to keep environmental issues and goals front and center.”
For educators and environmental groups, Earth Day serves another important function as an opportunity to expand environmental education.
“It’s a day to highlight what’s happening, celebrate the good, raise awareness of challenges and figure out how we can expand the tent to increase 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 the San Juan Mountains Association.
Colorado Department of Transportation survey coordinator Dave Seiler hauls a garbage bag he filled with trash along U.S. Highway 550 just north of Durango on Tuesday. CDOT, which embraced the freeway stretch, lined up the agency cleanup to coincide with Earth Day. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Heidi Steltzer, professor of environment and sustainability at Fort Lewis College, and two environmental students from FLC will visit schools in Ouray and Telluride for Earth Day to talk about climate change, the environment and the science.
One of the themes of the talks will be admiration for the environment of southwestern Colorado, and the tours will be an opportunity to engage young people and spark their curiosity about the natural world, Steltzer said.
“If we can create a space where each of us feels this wonder (for the environment), we feel a shift within ourselves that leads to wanting to dive deeper into understanding our Earth,” she said. .
This goal of cultivating curiosity and caring for the environment doesn’t stop with students, Weber said.
Earth Day activities and campaigns can also serve to educate the wider Durango community about local and global environmental issues, especially those new to the area.
“It’s been a few years since we’ve even been able to hold an Earth Day celebration, and the reality is that in those two years we’ve seen a lot of people come to Durango from out of town. region,” Weber said. “This year in particular, we have a great opportunity to show many new transplants what we do and what some of the (environmental) implications are for this new world they live in.”
Pearson, Weber, and Steltzer all identified water as the biggest environmental challenge facing southwestern Colorado. But there are plenty of other environmental issues that Colorado residents and visitors need to find answers to, they said.
Climate change is closely linked to water, which has reduced snow cover and exacerbated drought. Forest health remains a concern, turning wildfires from a natural part of the region’s ecosystems into potentially catastrophic events. And the effects of increased recreation on the San Juan National Forest and other public lands are of growing concern.
Southwestern Colorado’s environmental challenges are many, which is why Earth Day and the environmental education it sparks are so critical, Weber said.
“Our region of the world is undergoing dramatic changes. You don’t need to have an advanced science degree to recognize that we are facing a significant drought and this is impacting agriculture and recreation,” she said. “As more people move here, education will be key to helping them understand that we face significant challenges in Southwestern Colorado and how it will impact our daily lives.
“As a community, the more we can understand the impacts and work collectively to address them is our best hope of preserving what we love about this place,” she said.
Kindergarten students at Park Elementary School help plant a London plane tree 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 central to Earth Day and their education efforts.
“We hope Earth Day will spark an intentional shift in how people act in their personal lives, but also how they take advantage of opportunities to influence policy,” Pearson said.
These don’t have to big changes. Every person knows what the best steps are to take to improve the environment, Steltzer said. Some may buy an electric car while others may choose to compost or recycle more.
The most important thing is to create a community of support for individual actions and a space for collective learning, and this is the environment that Earth Day cultivates, she said.
While Earth Day may be just another holiday for some, it’s not for Durango’s environmental educators and nonprofits.
“Does this sound frivolous or ineffective? I guess if you want to take a cynical approach,” Weber said. “But I think continuing to be out there raising awareness is what needs to happen.”