Once upon a wetland

How students turned a dump site into a nature preserve

Do your school grounds have grass, play equipment, basketball hoops, or soccer fields? Next to Treasure Mountain Middle School in Park City, Utah, are seven acres of ponds, puddles, and ditches. And it took students and teachers years to make it that way. Over the past 10 years they have restored an area of natural wetlands in a project that brought national recognition to the school. It still involves students from the local elementary, middle, and high schools.

In 1989 an eighth-grade student at Treasure Mountain, Karen Massey, wanted to start a club for kids to work on environmental projects. Anni Schneider was a science teacher at the school who wanted to do something about the area behind the building. It had once been wetlands, but the water had been drained off. After the school was built, the area became a dumping ground for construction debris. Most native animals had fled.

Fifteen students joined Schneider to do some water-quality tests around Park City, along with experts from the Utah Department of Natural Resources. They netted fish from streams. They tested, tagged, and put them back. "The kids had a great time wading through streams and trying to hold onto those fish," Ms. Schneider recalls.

As the students' hopes became known, more help arrived. A high school biology teacher joined in. A water-source expert (a hydrologist) volunteered. He'd been part of the company that had drained the wetlands in the first place.

Parents with construction equipment helped clean up and reconstruct the area. The United States Army Corps of Engineers lent a hand. Parents and students did field work. Others raised money and helped spread the word about what was needed. The former dump site began to take on a new look.

Water was channeled back in. Seven ponds brought the wetlands back to life. As money became available, volunteers planted thousands of native plants. Plants could not be removed from other sites, because that might harm those areas. All the reintroduced plants had to be purchased from nurseries.

Wetlands have been disappearing around the world as people drain them to farm or build. People didn't used to think that wetlands were important. But wetlands are home to thousands of types of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. Wetlands filter and clean the water. Wetlands can absorb huge amounts of water from snowmelt and storms. A wetland "sponge" can keep a river from destructive flooding.

The National Wildlife Federation estimates that half of the swamps, bogs, and wet meadows in the continental United States have been lost. When the Park City students and teachers began their project, some companies were starting to assist and encourage wetland-restoration.

In 1991, Treasure Mountain Middle School won a grant from Newsweek magazine and the Amway Corp. The story of the project ran in the magazine. Schneider and two students flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with government leaders and speak to a Senate subcommittee.

Later, the school received a grant from SeaWorld in Florida to help continue their project. Local banks and other companies also began offering support.

The students who started the project have graduated from high school. But new teachers and students - members of the school's Earth Kids Club - are still making improvements.

Eighth-grader Lauren Moffitt has been a club member for two years. "The earth is too good to be wasted," she says. She helps clean up, clear trails, and fix things every fall.

Some man-made touches have been added. An amphitheater serves as an outdoor classroom. Fences protect birds and small animals from dogs. A Treasure Mountain art class contributed a large sculpture.

Michelle Breinholt, an adviser for the Earth Kids Club, says the wetlands is a valuable resource for the school. "Not a student gets out of this school without being involved in some way," she says. Science classes study the plants and animals. Art classes have a beautiful setting for sketching and painting. English classes create brochures to distribute to the neighbors around the area, encouraging them not to use chemicals on their lawns that will flow into the wetlands.

Wetlands are still being destroyed each year, but more and more people are recognizing their value. In 1977, the federal government passed the Clean Water Act to protect water resources.

In 1985, special provisions to protect wetlands were included in a federal farm bill. The wetlands by Treasure Mountain Middle School are now a federally protected site, like millions of acres of wetlands around the country. Some environmental groups buy wetlands in order to preserve them. The Nature Conservancy has bought and protected more than 6.5 million acres of wetland areas. Some parcels are less than an acre in size; others cover hundreds of square miles.

But even after a wetland has been destroyed, the students and teachers at Treasure Mountain Middle School have proven it can be returned to a beautiful natural setting that can benefit animals, insects, and humans alike.

What is a wetland?

Wetlands include marshes, swamps, bogs, prairie "potholes," and other areas where water stays in the soil for regular periods of time. Humans may come to visit and enjoy these sites, but birds, animals, and fish need wetlands to survive, especially the areas where the water meets the land.

Thousands of birds come to wetlands to rest and feed while migrating. Ducks and geese raise their young there. Fish lay their eggs in the shallows. Salamanders, frogs, and snails make themselves at home, along with muskrats, raccoons, and beavers. Deer, elk, and moose come to the water to drink. In the Florida Everglades, you'll find alligators.

Mosquitoes may grow in wetlands, but so do the dragonflies and birds that eat them. The mayfly begins life as a silvery creature that swims like a fish. Then it sheds its skin, develops wings, and flies away. Water striders and whirligig beetles skate across the top of the water.

Herons and other long-legged birds wade through the water looking for food. Some plants and trees grow in the water, others at the water's edge. Many of these plants help to filter the water and remove pollutants. Water lilies, cattails, bulrushes, and cypress trees are common in wetlands.

All animals and plants need water to survive, and so you'll find all kinds of life thriving in the many different types of wetlands.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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