The Grassland Environmental Education Center connects youth to wildlife and wetlands

four high school students at marsh

Candace Sigmond, the Grassland Environmental Education Center’s education coordinator, can get a class of thirty students and ten parents outfitted in thick, chest-high, waterproof waders in 15 minutes flat. Her goal is to minimize the amount of time spent getting into the protective gear so that kids can maximize time spent experiencing and learning about the wetlands of the San Joaquin Valley’s Grassland Ecological Area. Most have never been this up close and personal with a wetland marsh, and are delighted to find out how “sticky” the bottom is. This is an opportunity for students and adults to engage in outdoor activities that they would most likely not have participated in before.

The Grassland Environmental Education Center, or GEECe (pronounced “geese”) for short, is a no-fee field trip facility that was established in 1995 by the Grassland Water District and the Grassland Resource Conservation District (RCD). Along with walking in the wetland, students take part in activities that cover the ecology of the San Joaquin Valley’s surrounding mountain ranges, and the Valley’s watershed, wildlife, and other habitat. Candace Sigmond, who has a teaching credential and a degree in biology, says that the teachers appreciate that the lessons follow Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards so that the lessons directly relate to what the students are learning in the classroom. Since 2008, more than 40,000 students, teachers and adults have attended field trips, in-class presentations and exhibits sponsored by the education center.

A classroom suits up in waders so they can examine a marsh. Photo courtesy of the Grassland RCD.

Environmental education and connecting youth to wildlife is an important part of the Grassland RCD’s mission, explains Ric Ortega, General Manager—”Our directors have always prioritized funding this program getting kids out into the Marsh. We need to have people fall in love with the birds, the wildlife, and the wetlands so they can become good stewards and our future resource managers.”

The Grassland RCD is unique among RCDs on several fronts, not the least that it has very few residents, and is mostly wetland habitat. 90% of the Grassland RCD is preserved under permanent wetland conservation easements, and the private landowners and sportsmen within the Grasslands, working with the District and other organizations, work actively to preserve the largest remaining freshwater marsh in the western United States. To accomplish this, the RCD works closely with the Grassland Water District to receive and deliver water to the habitat, but also to protect it from encroachment and conversion of neighboring wildlife friendly agriculture.

Students also take part in hands-on activities indoors. Photo courtesy of the Grassland RCD.

Many partners are invested in seeing the Grassland Environmental Education Center succeed. Candace is an employee for both the Grassland Water District, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who became a partner in 2000. Ducks Unlimited, the California Waterfowl Association, and private sportsman clubs donate funding and equipment to the center. They partner with the Audubon Society, Point Blue Conservation Science, The Nature Conservancy, and Central Valley Joint Venture to educate visiting youth.

During the temporary school closures due to COVID-19, the Grassland Environmental Education Center has lesson plans for virtual classes and are working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Outreach Education and Interpretation on an interactive digital tour tailored to different wildlife areas. You can read more about the Grassland Environmental Education Center on their website.

wetland landscape shot with reeds, water, and cloudy sky

San Joaquin Valley’s Grassland Ecological Area. Photo courtesy of the Grassland RCD.