This article was contributed by Jennifer Benson, senior project manager of the STRAW program with Point Blue Conservation Science.
Just off Highway 152 on a crisp morning, 22 intent and eager middle school students stepped onto Pacheco Creek Reserve, a 55-acre property that is a prime representation of the partnership, community and positive land management practices of San Benito County.
The students are seventh and eighth graders from Tres Pinos School, a K-8 school that serves 200 square miles of the primarily cattle ranching community just southeast of Hollister.
“What is missing from this land that might make it healthier for wildlife and people that depend on it?” Jennifer Benson of the Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed (STRAW) Program asks the students who now stand in a circle.
A project of Point Blue Conservation Science, STRAW connects schools, community members, public land managers, and private landowners through community-based restoration efforts. With K-12 students at the frontlines, STRAW has been restoring private and public land throughout northern California for 28 years, while simultaneously providing place-based and experiential learning opportunities.
Students take a look in all directions and acknowledge their proximity to Pacheco Creek. “There’s no trees here!” they shout, answering Jenni’s question. Nearly a mile of Pacheco Creek runs through the property, and former land use practices and hydrological changes have altered the creek and oak woodland landscape over time. The Habitat Agency acquired this property back in 2017 with the purpose of meeting goals of the Habitat Plan, which include wildlife conservation and habitat restoration, and this project embodies the perfect opportunity to utilize native plant restoration as a means to control bank erosion and create habitat.
STRAW educators engaged these students in a classroom setting prior to their restoration day field trip where students received an interactive lesson focused on water quality, endangered species and watershed science. These classroom visits prepare students for what to expect on their restoration day in the field while providing a greater context and appreciation for local natural resource conservation.
Back at Pacheco Creek, the students engage in thoughtful discussion and break into groups to start planting Valley Oak acorns. The work is physically demanding as it requires digging a deep enough hole for protective gopher caging, as well as setting up secondary larger cages to protect against larger grazing animals like cattle and deer. Cooperation and teamwork are on display as students plant 58 oak trees, all while learning about their local environment and the benefits of oak trees.
Funded in part by a Community Matching Impact Grant from the Community Foundation for San Benito County, this restoration day is one of two at Pacheco Creek Reserve that have been completed this year by local students. Just one day later, 75 second graders from R.O. Hardin Elementary School would plant 73 more native California trees and shrubs, creating an erosion buffer between Pacheco Creek and Highway 152.
As the students departed the site to head back to school, rain began to fall, providing much needed water for the new plants—a reminder that the restoration doesn’t end when the students leave. The new plantings will continue to be watered, weeded and monitored for multiple years by the STRAW team.
This restoration was not just about the many acorns, shrubs and trees that were planted by students—a seed of partnership and community was planted in the floodplains of the Pacheco Creek. Driven by community-based collaboration, the plants and partnerships will both continue to grow for years to come.
For more information about the STRAW program or how to get involved as a landowner, teacher, or support, please email Jennifer Benson at [email protected].