Jeremy Motsko took the leaf of skunk cabbage being passed around at the Trexler Nature Preserve last Wednesday and took a deep whiff. He tried to act bravely.
He smiled broadly, took another deep whiff of the native plant, which smells very much like the first word in its name, and tried to act bravely with another smile — but the displeasure of the smell showed on his face.
Bauer used the area where skunk cabbage was growing at the Trexler Nature Preserve as a living laboratory to point out the difference between native and non-native invasive plants and their effects on the environment.
Motsko, a junior at Parkland, was one of about 50 Parkland High School students taking part in a field trip for the section of the yet-to-be-completed Jordan Creek Greenway that runs through the school district. The Jordan Creek parkway is a "linear" preserved greenway following the path of the Jordan Creek as it flows from the rural Blue Mountain near Leaser Lake in the northwestern corner of Lehigh County all the way to the urban Allentown park system.
Parkland and Allentown Central Catholic are taking part in the EnviroMentor program conducted by Wildlands Conservancy through a grant from the Lehigh Valley Greenways initiative, which is funded in part by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
When completed, the Jordan Creek Greenway will have a 53.3-mile trail system that follows the length of the 31.3-mile long Jordan Creek through 10 municipalities in its watershed. The 12.8-mile stretch between Allentown and the Trexler Nature Preserve has some sort of trail negotiation or activity implementation on about 95 percent of the route. The entire greenway project is dependent on funding and could take 10 or more years to complete.
The EnviroMentor program is not about building the greenway, however.
"The goal is to make people more aware of the environment and to understand the need to establish a greenway, a corridor between protected areas of the environment that people can use and hopefully take ownership in," explained Parkland senior Curt Rabe.
The Parkland students on the field trip were all enrolled in the Advanced Placement Ecology Studies course. They took water quality samples in several areas of the Jordan, both above and below the elk and buffalo pens at Trexler, and farther south at Covered Bridge Park in South Whitehall Township. It ended with a hail-pelting walk on the newly established 1.27 mile trail from behind the Helfrich Springs Apartments near Mickley Road in Whitehall to the Lehigh County tennis courts near Scherersville.
The trip wasn't just about building a trail, however, it was learning what it means to be ecologically conscious of the natural world.
"Did we pass any of those buffers you talked about when we visited the school?" Parkland junior Nick Hugo asked Kevin Fister, outdoors recreation manager for Wildlands Conservancy.
Fister rattled off locations of two riparian buffers — vegetative areas along spring banks to help prevent soil erosion and stream pollution — the group had passed on the way in, and then asked the group if it looked like a well buffered area along the ford in the Trexler Nature Preserve. Everyone agreed it did not look like a well buffered area, and Fister pointed out the need to be more environmentally respectful in such a surrounding.
"We as a society are moving more and more away from nature," Parkland biology teacher Sue Baranek explained. "This generation of kids is computer techno-savvy, but they don't want to get their hands dirty. [Author Richard Louv] coined the term 'nature deficit disorder' and you can really see it. It's so important to get these kids some connection with the living world. They learn in [advanced placement] science that clean water and clean air don't come for free."
Students were hands-on and all-in on Wednesday. In addition to testing water samples, some of the students slid into wading boots to check out macro invertebrate life.
"We found a lot of mayfly larva and other species that indicate that it's a very good water quality in that area of the Jordan Creek," Rabe said.
Baranek, who heads up the program at Parkland along with help from fellow teachers Duane Ashenfelder and Tony Marsicano, said that the test numbers for the water aren't fully compiled yet, but the critters found were indeed a good sign.
"It's so much fun because when the kids first look at the water, they think nothing is there. We tell them that most of the life is too small for them to see," Baranek said. "Sure, you can see a big fish or a crayfish, but everything else is really tiny. It was neat for them to see the diversity of a species in a creek, and to realize that just because they don't see something, it doesn't mean nothing is there. If you find species that are intolerant of pollution, that's pretty good sign that the stream is in good condition.
The EnviroMentor program at Parkland started last December with a trip to the school by Fister and Bauer. In February, Bauer brought in native species for examination by the honors course biology students. The living laboratory was for the AP Ecology class.
The final stage this school year is for the school's Conservation Club, which will conduct a scavenger hunt for select fifth graders at Kernsville Elementary School's environmental center. The goal is for the Conservation Club students to act as mentors for the scavenger hunt and to teach the fifth graders about anything they find, from lichens to earthworms, in a fun way. Those fifth graders will turn around and mentor other fifth graders with a classic show-and-tell program.
"The benefits of the EnviroMentor program are numerous," said Scott J. Cope, vice president of conservation education at Wildlands Conservancy. "First and foremost, the probability of developing an appreciation of the nature world, and thus future stewards of our natural resources, is inevitable. High school environmental clubs will have 'feeder' programs similar to high school sports teams having youth sports as the early skill development.
"More students will be exposed to nature and … increased awareness of and comfort with natural resources should decrease unfounded fears, or at the very least, improve prevention, safety and appreciation of any dangers."
Central Catholic high schoolers are doing cleanups behind the school along the Jordan, and will do another one this Saturday in honor of Earth Day. The high schoolers, under teachers Tom Shive and Randy Herring, also are working with elementary students at Sacred Heart Regional School.