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A Reason for Optimism about the Environment

Five high-school students stand before the Groton Planning Board, reporting — with photos, graphs and charts — an environmental impact study they've made for the year's international Envirothon competition.

Michelle Collette, Planning Administrator, says the Board is always eager to hear the current team's recommendations. In 2002 as a result Groton adopted new regulations prohibiting landscaping with invasive plants. In 2001, the developer of a housing project used innovations in stormwater management the students invented. Lawrence Academy's Envirothon coach Jim Serach says the young people typically come up with fresh solutions.

Each Envirothon team defines its project in terms of the topic's local impact, interviewing town officials to learn needs and preferences. This year's theme — "Natural Resource Managment in the Urban Environment" — puzzled me: how does that apply to this area?

Envirothon coach Jim Casserly, a Pepperrell Conservation Commissioner who teaches in Westford, opened my eyes by commenting that the problems of towns all fundamentally spring from population pressure. Zoning, water quality and supply, traffic, trash and recycling, wildlife conservation, land use, school budgets.... We think of this area as semi-rural, but we can't take for granted the qualities which make us think that. We have to plan, to protect them. We are inevitably affected by increasing urbanization.

On April 29 in Cochituate State Park, Massachusetts Envirothon teams will each spend 30 to 45 minutes at each of four stations — Soils/Land Use, Aquatic Ecology, Forestry, and Wildlife — evaluating, measuring and analyzing with hands-on technical tools and physical tests (for example to look at the soil, they get down into a pit dug for the day); then taking a written test.

Finally the team makes their oral presentation to a panel of judges, who ask them how they worked with their town. Winners of the Massachusetts event go on to the North American competition. U. Mass awards one scholarship in state; Canon gives 15 to continental winners.

But the real win is greater. Collette, who judges for the Massachusetts event, says she comes away "optimistic about the future... about the next generation, their dedication and their ability to think scientifically." Casserly observes that participants learn not only a very practical approach to environmental sciences, but also town law, public speaking, and self-confidence. "They can do important work: amazing things, solving problems."

In the towns of Nashoba Publishing's newspapers, the public schools have no teams this year. Let's change that.

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 16 April 2004

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