ST. GEORGE — Imagine a group of teens passing up the usual after-school diversions like sporting events, pizza and a movie or taking a drive with friends to instead gather in a conference room and learn the practical application of field sciences.
A group of high school students met with rangeland management specialists from the Bureau of Land Management Arizona Strip District in April to prepare for the toughest challenge of the statewide Envirothon competition — resolving complex, rangeland management issues.
For the past 20 years, over 500,000 students have participated nationally in the National Conservation Foundation Envirothon: a science-based competition sponsored by Envirothon, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. According to the nonprofit, the event is “an effective education tool capable of supplementing environmental education both inside and outside of the classroom.”
Through the Envirothon, students also compete for recognition and scholarships by demonstrating their knowledge of environmental science and natural resource management.
Participation in the event is no easy task – with the oversight of a volunteer advisor, students spend long hours as a group and individually to prepare to answer a series of questions or to perform activities related to aquatic ecology, soils and land use, forestry and wildlife, as well as one alternate question on a current environmental issue.
In 2018, the alternate environmental issue asked students to resolve a host of demanding issues on rangeland management.
In the scenario, student “ranchers” would be heirs to a retiring cattle rancher who managed a working ranch with 3,000 acres of private land and grazing privileges on 3,500 acres of adjacent public lands. Both public and private sections of land contained not only two sage grouse leks and a stream filled with threatened fish, but encroaching sage and juniper also threatened to out-compete 400 pounds and acres of annual feed production.
The challenge — find approaches that would allow cattle to continue to graze on suitable grasses and use waters in a way that would result in a profit margin for the ranch, while sustaining an appropriate balance of native vegetation to support sage grouse and threatened fish species.
With little personal experience or knowledge of rangeland management, the students, along with 4H volunteer advisor Andrea Schmutz and high school educator Kelli Cheesman, decided to contact their local BLM office in hopes that range specialists might help the students gain a better understanding of the issues.
Over the course of several hours, students and specialists engaged in intriguing discussions as they walked through real world situations and weighed out various solutions to difficult rangeland issues.
The amount of enthusiasm and interest the meeting with BLM range specialists generated among the students impressed Cheesman.
“For them to meet real field scientists was invaluable,” Cheesman said. “It’s more than just reading about it, it’s not just theory, it’s what specialists put into practice on the ground.”
Student Kasen Graff said he left the meeting surprised at the level of knowledge and skills needed to work together to overcome tough resource challenges and achieve balanced management.
“Now I know why my cousin has to get a college degree in agriculture to take over his dad’s ranch,” he said.
The students went on to win first place in the state competition in April. This summer, the students will travel to Pocatello, Idaho, to compete against students from across the nation, as well as Canada and China at the national/international Envirothon in July.