Melinda McAllister has seen the look before. Young students pulled away from the shelter of the Wasatch Front mountains and tight neighborhoods suddenly feel a little vulnerable.
It usually happens soon after the kids arrive for a field trip at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve.
"Some are just not ready for those big, flat and open spaces. You can see for a really long way, and that open space is almost intimidating," said McAllister, director for the Wings & Water Wetlands Education Program at The Nature Conservancy's Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve.
McAllister will likely be seeing that look more often in the future thanks to a new partnership between The Nature Conservancy and the Utah State University Botanical Center.
More than 8,500 Utah fourth-graders have been through the Wings & Water program at the preserve since it was started in 2005. With the USU Botanical Center in Kaysville on board, Nature Conservancy officials expect a 70 percent increase in participants in the next three years. The program will also expand to serve all elementary-age children and include more schools.
"The state standards for fourth grade are heavy in the environment, ecosystems, geology and natural history. The Nature Conservancy and Botanical Center both had wonderful programs and they have meshed together perfectly," said McAllister, who had worked at the Shorelands Preserve for the Nature Center for two years but is now managing the program as a staffer for the USU Botanical Center. "Having these two renown and well-respected organizations come together and pool their resources was kind of a no-brainer."
The preserve has been providing a hands-on, big-world experience for the students for seven years. Now, after visiting the wetlands for a taste of what the environment there is all about, the students head to the Botanical Center for a look at the ecosystem under a microscope.
"The preserve gives us the big picture, and once we get to the Discovery Point classroom we narrow it in. We talk about salt grass and then we see grains of salt on the grass under the microscope," McAllister said.
Making a connection to the wetlands at any level is what the Water & Wings program is all about, said Dave Livermore, Utah state director of The Nature Conservancy.
"The Great Salt Lake Wetlands are among the most significant in the world. Millions of birds use the lake every year, but that is not widely known," Livermore said. "A lot of people think of the lake as kind of a foreign object, and many have not visited it. The Wings & Water program helps young Utahns realize how important the lake and its wetlands are for the state, the country and the world."
One trip to the wetlands, Livermore says, often leads to a greater understanding and stronger commitment to conserving special places in Utah.
"We are also worried about our youth not getting outside like they once did. We are committed as an organization in connecting youth in the outdoors through a variety of ways," he said. "We hope young people get more involved and care more about the natural world as adults as a result."
The expansion of the program, while exciting, also poses challenges for McAllister. The focus through the years has been on helping fourth-grade teachers meet required curriculum. That is something she will continue to work on.
"Sixth grade is heavy in energy and knowing where energy comes from, how we use it and the different kinds," McAllister said. "The Utah House on the Botanical Center property is a great demonstration house on energy waste and sustainable living. It is another example of how the partnership allows us to serve a greater range of students."
Visiting the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve
The first Nature Conservancy preserve in Utah was formerly known as the Layton Wetlands Preserve. It is more than 4,400 acres of wetlands and home, or at least a temporary resting area, for more than 250 species of birds. The preserve is open to the public from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. April–September and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. October-March. If heading north on Interstate 15 take Layton exit #330 and head left on the Layton Parkway. Turn right on Main Street and then head left on Gentile Street. Take another left at 3200 West and drive to the end of the road, which turns into dirt.
Call The Nature Conservancy at 801-531-0999 or visit http://bit.ly/zhByl0 for more information.