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Field work offers students a chance to learn outdoors

Submitted by South Yuba River Citizens League

In early June of this year, surrounded by the gorgeous Sierra Mountains, ten local 9th-12th graders from Ghidotti, Bitney Prep, SAEL, Colfax, and Nevada Union got a chance to conduct hands-on field work and meadow restoration research through the South Yuba River Citizens League’s Youth Outdoor Leadership Opportunity (YOLO).

Over a five-day period, YOLO participants spent most of their time at Loney Meadow in the Tahoe National Forest, one hour outside of Nevada City. While there, they conducted biological surveys to assess meadow restoration success and installed cattle exclusion fencing for an aspen enclosure.

Monitoring meadow restoration is especially important to the long-range goals of SYRCL. SYRCL, in partnership with the Tahoe National Forest, completed its restoration project at Loney Meadow in 2017. Decades of road building, fire suppression, and historic grazing and logging activities had severely impacted Loney Meadow, contributing to an unraveling and degradation process that prevented it from providing the variety of ecosystem benefits that healthy meadows are able to provide, such as carbon sequestration, groundwater storage, and fire refuge.

A healthy meadow sequesters six times the carbon of an adjacent forest and they sequester the carbon deep in the soil. This means that if a wildfire roars through a meadow, that carbon remains protected in underground reserves. This is the opposite of a forest, which burns at high severity due to an unhealthy density of trees, ultimately releasing most of that carbon back into the atmosphere. A healthy meadow, because it remains wet even in dry months, also acts as a natural fire break. This not only has the potential of slowing the progress of a catastrophic wildfire, but a healthy meadow will also provide a refuge for creatures seeking shelter from the ravages of fire.

Also, a healthy meadow supports groundwater recharge and storage and helps to regulate summer flows downstream, resulting in a slower release. This means more water is available for longer periods of time during the summer. With the reduced snowpack and earlier snow melt we are experiencing due to climate change, the capacity of a healthy meadow to contribute to water management becomes even more important. Using restoration tools such as filling incised channels or adding beaver dam analogues to reconnect the meadow floodplain increases the availability of water despite drought conditions.

Continued monitoring is crucial to make sure that Loney Meadow continues to thrive. Observational data is also important in that it informs other restoration projects, like the SYRCL-led restoration of 485 acres of habitat in Van Norden meadow that is slated to begin later this summer. This is where SYRCL’s YOLO program plays an important role. Led by Monique Streit, SYRCL’s River Education Manager, and Alecia Weisman, SYRCL’s River Science Program Manager, the YOLO program has been in existence since 2017, having served over 50 young environmentalists.

“Our Field Science programs like YOLO support long-term monitoring efforts at the meadows we work to restore,” says Alecia Weisman. “Long-term monitoring is often difficult to fund and maintain; thus, the YOLO program is a fun way to maintain this effort while teaching students about meadow ecology and the benefits of meadow restoration, and giving them a unique, hands-on opportunity to engage in stewardship. The work we do during YOLO contributes to long-term datasets that help the meadow community at large understand the hydrologic and ecological benefits of meadow restoration.”

“YOLO brings together high school students from different local high schools, most of whom have never met,” says Monique Streit. “It is amazing to see how quickly the students form bonds and learn to work collaboratively to complete the research tasks. The program gives students the opportunity to conduct field work and to experience what it is like to work in the environmental field. Many students leave the program eager to pursue a degree and career in the sciences.”

Streit added, “I love watching the students grow over the five days, from being apprehensive about field work to eagerly volunteering to try something new. Throughout the expedition the students are building leadership skills, learning the importance of clear communication, and practicing teamwork.”

Over the last decade, SYRCL has worked closely with the US Forest Service and researchers to understand and improve the Yuba watershed’s meadow ecosystems through meadow assessments and restoration projects focused on revitalization of stream and wetland habitats because of both their hydrological and ecological importance. Programs like YOLO helps SYRCL to continue to monitor the success of these projects by gathering data that provides insight into how restoration efforts are benefiting ecosystem function in meadows. Students who participate in YOLO are not only citizen scientists, they are also science activists. YOLO gives agency to young people and empowers them to take on the existential threat of their generation.

Over a five-day period, students spent most of their time at Loney Meadow in the Tahoe National Forest, one hour outside of Nevada City. (Submitted photo)

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