It’s hard to write a profile in praise of Mary Kimball. She immediately points to the hundreds of agencies she cooperates with who make what she does possible.
Looking out over a stretch of walnut and almond plots at the Winters headquarters of the Center for Land-Based Learning, where she is executive director, it’s easy to see her impact. Her forethought has resulted in established buffer layers of drought-resistant California-native plants that fill the spaces between farming and create a natural habitat for native birds and wildlife.
More than 1,000 acres of these native plants have been planted by an estimated 5,000 area high school students as part of the center’s Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship program, SLEWS, since it was founded by the center in 2001.
Earlier this month, Kimball traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Partners in Conservation Award for her work with SLEWS, as well as the project Caring for our Watersheds and the numerous partnerships that make these programs possible.
“We have been educating high schools about conservation on private and public lands for 20 years in the Sacramento region as far north as Colusa and as far south as Vallejo,” Kimball said at the award reception. “We have improved the ecosystem and habitat for our wildlife. Twenty-three percent of our students are going into careers that involve agriculture and environmental science.”
About 20 different groups won this award, Kimball said, representing approximately 260 different partnerships. Some key partners with SLEWS are Audubon California, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Sacramento Tree Foundation, Putah Creek Council, multiple resource conservation districts including Yolo and Solano districts locally, and the California Waterfowl Association among others, said Nina Suzuki, SLEWS program director.
SLEWS projects, which usually start in the fall, involve high school students planting native species, installing drip lines for irrigation, and installing owl and bird houses among other activities. When the ground is too dry to start planting, learning occurs in other forms — like bird science presentations given by members of the UC Davis graduate group in ecology.
One of the most rewarding parts of the program is seeing students learn about future careers, both Suzuki and Kimball said; those kids often report back to the center. One such student, Emily Clark, who participated in the SLEWS program in 2006-07, went into a career in environmental sciences.
“I already had a natural passion for nature and conservation, and participating in the SLEWS program helped me solidify that passion,” said Clark, a Davis resident who works as an environmental coordinator to maintain compliance with air and water standards for Clark Pacific in West Sacramento. Clark said she is starting a facility-wide recycling program to make the company more green-compliant.
For classrooms that have less opportunity or time for trips to the field, the center also offers the Caring For Our Watersheds program — a joint program with Canada-based agriculture products company Agrium Inc., which asks students to design projects for their community that improve their watershed.
“With other programs, students have to leave the classroom,” Kimball said. “This allows us to work with more schools, teachers and classrooms.” The CFW program competition gives a $1,000 prize to the best idea proposed by students, individually or in groups of up to four.
In the field, SLEWS needs 60 to 70 adult professional mentors with every group of students, who provide oversight, quality control and a window into careers and pathways to get to those careers.
“They are very important to us and we’re always looking for SLEWS program mentors,” Kimball said.
More information about the Center for Land-Based Learning is available at http://landbasedlearning.org.
For organizations and schools interested in creating their own SLEWS program, more information and applications are available at http://landbasedlearning.org/slews-academy-application.php.
— Reach Jason McAlister at [email protected] or 530-747-8052.