At Camp Colton, Kids Learn about Forest Health, Wildfire Prevention

May 15, 2019

Sending kids to Camp Colton at the base of the San Francisco Peaks has been a local tradition since the seventies. Thousands of sixth grade students have learned about science and nature there. But this spring there’s a new curriculum focused on forest health and wildfire prevention. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about it with Ari Wilder, the executive director of Friends of Camp Colton.

Students learn how to core a tree at Camp Colton
Credit Melissa Sevigny

Melissa Sevigny: Since it’s radio and people can’t see what we’re looking at, can you tell me where we’re sitting right now and what’s around?

Ari Wilder
Credit Melissa Sevigny

Ari Wilder: Everyone would want to come hang out at Camp Colton if they could see where we’re sitting! We’re nestled right below the San Francisco Peaks, which are still snowy, in Hart Prairie, tucked off of a forest road, spectacular views in every direction. Just a truly special place that every kid should have an opportunity to experience.

So tell me a little bit about the curriculum, what are kids going to learn over the next couple of days?

The great thing about this curriculum is it was developed in partnership with sixth grade science teachers and forestry experts, including people from NAU and The Nature Conservancy. The focus is not just while the students are at camp, there’s a week of learning before they come to camp, while they’re up at a camp they’re collecting data about trees….When they’re back in the classroom they analyze the data more in depth, and they create a model of what a healthy forest around Flagstaff looks like. Having an healthy forest means that it is less susceptible to catastrophic wildfire. That’s the real focus of when students are thinking about what’s healthy and unhealthy, and then relating it to their own lives: where do they live, do they next to a forest, is it healthy or unhealthy, and how should we want forests around Flagstaff to look and be for generations to come?

Why did you think it was important to have a curriculum like that?

When I was a kid growing up, no one wanted to cut down trees. We were all supposed to be planting trees. Now when you drive around and look at what’s happening in our local forests, you see thinning happening. I think it’s important that students living in this community understand why thinning is necessary for a healthy forest and how it’s preventing wildfire.  

I think a lot of grown ups probably wouldn’t know the difference between a healthy plot and an unhealthy plot, how do you teach them that?

We want to be focused on student experience and discovery. It’s not someone lecturing about what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy. We have picked two plots, one that has a lot of duff, a lot of sickly tiny trees crammed in close together, and one that’s more open, has more space between the trees, has less duff. Then the students are gathering data. They’re looking at tree species, tree height, tree size, and number, and measuring the depth of the duff and looking at soil moisture, and taking all these measurements. They’re using those measurements along with information they’ve learned in the classroom to decide what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy. When you’re able to make those discoveries yourself it’s much more powerful and much more likely to stick with a student.

What about science education—particularly this really hands-on science education—in general. Why do you feel like that’s something important to do?

I think we’re at a time as our community and our country where it’s really important for people to know how to think about different environmental issues, and think about how their actions can change the future. There’s no reason not to start local, with local kids, having them understand in a hands on way, in a way that will hopefully stick with them for years, through these experiential activities at camp—–to have those understandings and carry that through the rest of their life.

Is it your hope that they’ll be able to go home and explain to their parents this stuff?

Absolutely! So one part of this project which we’ll do in the fall, is that we will have an evening where parents can come out and learn about what their kids have been learning, and have the students teach their parents what is happening.

Thanks for talking with me, appreciate it.

Thank you so much.