Tahoe 6th graders plant trees in Caldor scar, learn about watershed health

Submitted to the Tribune
Happy students planting trees across the street from Echo Lakes Sno-Park on a glorious fall day.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Members of the South Tahoe Environmental Education Coalition on Friday, Oct. 21, hosted their “most popular” field trip for South Tahoe sixth graders at Echo Lakes Sno-Park.

STEEC, a collaborative network of over 25 local agencies and nonprofits that work together to bring environmental programs to the South Lake Tahoe schools, runs at least one field trip per grade per year. The sixth grade program features tree planting with the Sugar Pine Foundation and has become a hit amongst the youth. Sixth graders bask in the glory of getting to plant trees, while all the other students jealously wish they could do the same.

While the focus was on planting seedlings in the Caldor Fire burn scar with the SPF, educators from STEEC’s member groups led four other interactive learning stations to impart valuable place-based lessons about fire and water.

Adilene Negrete and Reanna Suela from the Forest Service and Victoria Ortiz of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency taught students about defensible space.

Sixth graders planting Jeffrey and western white pines in a low severity section of the Caldor Fire burn scar at Echo Summit. The site was prepped for planting by the Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

Abi Lloyd from the South Tahoe Public Utility District and Mo Loden of Lahontan Water Board had students build a “wetland in a bottle” by layering native materials like sand, soil, sticks, pine needles and other plant debris to demonstrate the filtering action of meadows.

Julia Kaseta from the Tahoe Rim Trail Association and Ileah Kirchoff from the Desert Research Institute partnered to teach about how fires affect soils.

Kelci Brown and Courtney Thomson from The League to Save Lake Tahoe taught a lesson on water quality.

The students thrive in these classrooms without walls and soak up the lessons about their local environment like sponges as they rotate through the stations.

STPUD’s Abi Lloyd teaches students about wetlands – in a bottle.

When asked what they learned, students were eager to share.

Some gushed about the soil station, where they conducted an experiment to see how fast water percolated through burned versus unburned soil. They were amazed to find that water readily drained through regular soil, but could not move through the burned soil. The lesson visibly demonstrated why burned hillsides are so prone to landslides after a fire. The students grasped this concept well thanks to the hands-on experiment.

Many students, like Vita Flaherty, said, “We learned that meadows filter water.” 

As Abi Lloyd from STUPD said, “It was really great to see kids connect what meadows are — because they live by them and have seen them before — and the importance of their ecological function filtering water.”

Maria Mircheva, executive director of the SPF emphasized that it was especially impactful to connect South Lake Tahoe’s youth – all of whom had been evacuated and missed three weeks of school during the Caldor Fire – to the restoration of the burn scar.

Because the fire was so harrowing, so close and so destructive to many places these students know well, they were elated to be a part of the logical solution: planting trees to bring the forest back. When asked what they enjoyed most about the day, most students chirped excitedly about learning how to plant trees.

Alissa Zertuche coordinates the STEEC events as the Lake Tahoe Unified School District’s Environmental Science and Engineering Specialist.

She said, “We could never do in the classroom what the Sugar Pine Foundation did with the kids today. Getting the kids outside to help plant and restore the environment after the Caldor Fire is so important. The experience of them getting to be a part of rebuilding our community after living through the tragedy is honestly immeasurable.”

The SPF’s lesson wasn’t just about teaching the kids how to plant trees, but also about the good and bad effects of fire, about how some areas burned worse than others, and about restoring a diverse palette of native species when replanting. The students planted western white pine and Jeffrey pine seedlings, which will add diversity to the existing forest.

Students conducting an experiment to see how fast water percolates through burned versus unburned soil.

Maria Mircheva thanked the Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit for their cooperation to make this planting happen for the children.

“We are grateful to the Forest Service for doing such a good job cleaning up this area and removing the hazard trees and providing this planting site for the sixth graders,” she said. “We hope to work together again to provide more field trip sites for other grades to plant trees this spring and in the coming years.”

It’s great to see and hear that students throughout the school system are eager to help pitch in and plant trees to help heal the Caldor Fire burn scar. STEEC wants to better collaborate with land management agencies, especially the LTBMU, to secure sites for field trips where students can do light restoration work.

The students clearly enjoy being outdoors, investigating their world and doing something proactive to help the environment. Especially after planting trees, they walk away with a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Thanks to hands-on lessons, they absorb and retain the teachings.

John Escarla happily summed up the day’s lessons by saying, “I learned about wildfire and safety protection and about water. I also learned about how wetlands purify the water. It was really interesting.”

Ryan Sunzeri agreed. When asked about the overall field trip experience he said, “I thought it was very fun. I learned a lot of new things. I liked rotating stations so we could keep learning and not get bored. I learned we need to help the Earth by planting trees.”

In the wake of the Caldor Fire – which offers so many rich learning opportunities – STEEC aims to keep providing and growing more “fun” and “interesting” environmental education programs with tree planting and restoration components for South Lake Tahoe’s youth. Let’s hope that land management agencies also keep stepping up to host more great field trips for the next generation of environmental stewards.

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