Educating the public about preserving and maintaining our national forests has long been one of the goals of the U.S. Forest Service, resulting in programs like Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl that have become well-known as part of our culture.
"Only you can prevent forest fires" and "Give a hoot, don't pollute" are vital parts of the Forest Service's educational programs for children and adults. But employees at the Rifle Ranger District want to expand the public's knowledge of the forest, and what the Forest Service does, locally and nationwide.
Last fall, district employees started discussing ways to improve their outreach to the community and get more people involved in natural resources. From those internal conversations came the West Side Future Professionals program, a way to merge "sharing the story" of the Rifle Ranger District and the White River National Forest with educating local high school students about natural resources.
"There has been decreasing interest in natural resources over the last couple of decades," said Jason Pooler, visitor information and services specialist at the Rifle Ranger District. "There's just not as much interest in general as there was back in the '70s."
In addition, as an increasing number of current Forest Service employees reach retirement age, letting young people know about the varied employment opportunities is important to maintaining the future health of our national forests.
"We need to let the public know what we do to protect natural resources, and about multi-use principles. It's not just about hiking and camping, there's protecting watersheds, ATV use, timber management, and energy development," Pooler said. "We think it's important to expose a new generation to the great outdoors, and to the role of the government and the Forest Service. Natural resources involves all sorts of different people working together in all sorts of industries."
He came up with the idea to present a natural resources program as part of the science curriculum to teachers and administrators at Rifle High School last year.
On Oct. 3, more than 150 biology students boarded buses for an all-day field trip along West Mamm Creek Road, as part of a unit on ecology. The property owner, a rangeland permittee, agreed to the use of the land for the day's events. The Rifle Ranger District provided the materials for the day, and the school covered the cost of transportation.
Groups of students rotated through six different presentations about various aspects of natural resources, including air quality, wildlife, conservation, rangeland management, timber and oil and natural gas development.
"What we do is very multi-faceted, we wear a lot of hats," Pooler said. "We're trying to expose them to a variety of ideas, a wide spectrum of opportunities."
Eventually, he explained, they hope to develop the program into a mentoring program for students interested in natural resources, helping them find scholarships, volunteering opportunities, experience and training that will, in turn, help them find jobs in natural resource-related industries.
"We would like to do more," Pooler added. "As soon as we got done, we started talking about ways to do more, about what worked and what didn't, and ways to tie the program in to our volunteering opportunities."