Envirothon brings together youth with conservation interests

Students participating in the 2018 Envirothon observe rangelands in Idaho. A goal of the program is to help students understand the balance between natural resources and responsible use by agricultural producers and others. 

Bruce Olenick, regional administrator at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s Pocatello office, says he was impressed by the caliber of young people from throughout North America who converged on Pocatello this past summer to participate in the 2018 “Envirothon.”

Olenick was among 50 judges who shared the daunting task of determining which of the 300 high school students did the best in different competitions at the end of July in what has been dubbed an “Environmental Olympics” sponsored by the National Conservation Foundation (NCF) since its start at Pennsylvania in 1979.

This year’s theme for the event, hosted in Idaho for the first time, was: “Western Rangeland Management: Balancing Different Views.” When the students were not out in the field, they were on the Idaho State University campus interacting, tackling questions and proposing solutions.

In addition to the students, about 200 advisers, guests and volunteers also were on hand to ensure the conference’s success. By the end of the week, the competing students were asked to give presentations on the complex issue of how they would improve the economics of ranching while still protecting the ecology of rangelands, Olenick told the Western Livestock Journal.

During the first two days, teams were trained and tested outdoors in four core areas—wildlife, aquatic ecology, soils and forestry. The fifth issue dealt with the event’s theme of balancing recreation, wildlife, agriculture, forestry, mining and water resources.

“Our goal is to demonstrate the importance of finding the optimal balance between natural resources, protection, responsible agricultural use, wildlife management and other land uses, ensuring healthy and sustainable public rangelands throughout the West,” Idaho Envirothon Chairman Chris Banks said.

Banks noted $225,000 had to be raised to cover expenses. Corporate donors, soil conservation districts, state and federal agencies, and other organizations pitched in to assist with financing needs.

Considered to be the next generation of ranchers, farmers, foresters, biologists, conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts, the high school students were instilled with principles of good stewardship, sustainable natural resource management and hands-on outdoor education, Banks said.

Envirothon improves the critical thinking, problem solving, public speaking and team working skills of students, boosting their confidence to take on life’s challenges, he said. Envirothon is a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activity. It has grown to be an international competition involving teams representing states and provinces throughout the United States and Canada, but also China, Israel, Croatia, Mexico, Turkey, Japan and Australia.

The NCF-Envirothon is North America’s largest high school environmental education competition. It’s estimated about 500,000 youths on the continent and throughout the world are positively influenced by it via local, regional and state/province programs each year. Each team is composed of five students who spend countless hours outside their regular studies and demonstrate leadership skills.

On the third day of Envirothon in Pocatello, students learned about Southeast Idaho, local agriculture, natural resources and the region’s history and rural heritage by visiting farms and ranches, giving them an opportunity to mingle with seed potato growers, cow-calf operators and rangeland managers, journeying along the Oregon Trail and stopping at Soda Springs, Grace and the historic town site of Chesterfield. The day ended with a Western-style Dutch oven meal and old-fashioned Western dance. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent

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