‘Live streaming’ Local farm provides rare learning environment, attracts Cousteau documentary

By on August 1, 2013


PHILIP GRUBER Special to the Record Express

, Staff Writer

Photo by Philip Gruberâ?©Lancaster County Youth Conservation School students, including several from Lititz, get a healthy look at Middle Creek during a field trip to Elizabeth Township last week.â?©

Under the cover of trees hidden at the back of a cow pasture along a quiet country road in Elizabeth Township, two dozen youth are pushing large rocks and logs into a stream.

It might sound like vandalism, an oddly coordinated teenage rebellion, but look a little closer, and the youth are students at the Lancaster County Youth Conservation School, several from Lititz, building a sediment trap to improve the water quality of Middle Creek.

The construction is called a log-faced stone deflector, said Karl Lutz, stream habitat section chief at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, who has been helping with the project for most of the program’s 35-year existence.

The deflector consists of logs making a triangle shape. One edge runs along the bank, while the other two sides jut into the stream. The structure is then filled in with rocks.

The device "creates a pattern of circular water" that forces the water slightly uphill, slows the water down and traps silt, Lutz said.

While Middle Creek is already fairly healthy, the device will be another small step in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The deflector also provides a permanent habitat for fish, Lutz said. Fish like to hide under overhangs, but often these are temporary shelters that are created – and soon destroyed – by stream bank erosion.

Caleb Greiner and Jared Groff, two friends from Manheim participating in the school, started the day by helping haul a log into the creek. They stood on either side of the stout trunk and carried it with logging tongs and help from another pair of students.

After the three logs, ranging from five to eight feet in length, were in place, the students, mostly the boys, took turns hammering rebar pins into holes adult volunteers had drilled in the wood. They shouted encouragement when their classmates hit the pin and offered collective groans when the sledgehammer glanced off the bark or splashed the water instead.

After the logs were firmly secured, the construction team traded activities. Half of the students had been upstream learning about stream life, and that group got the task of filling the log triangle with rocks.

A team from Flyway Excavating of Lititz, who donated all of the materials for the project, was on hand to transport the rocks with a skidloader from a pile in the field to the stream bank.

The youth then rolled the rocks, which were up to a foot long, into place under the direction of camp counselors and Flyway workers.

Meanwhile, the log-placing team was now scouring the creek for macroinvertebrates. Those are spineless animals that are large enough to see without a microscope, explained Department of Conservation and Natural Resources intern Hannah Brubach. These critters are susceptible to pollution, so finding them in a stream is a good indicator of stream health, she said.

Crayfish, which the students found in abundance, are an exception to that rule. They can tolerate almost any conditions and are "not a good indicator," she said.

Greiner’s group netted a more interesting find, a several-inch hellgrammite. Brubach estimated the centipede-like invertebrate was four or five years old.

The group also found a clam, which Brubach said is an invasive species.

Jeremy Weaver of Lititz caught a minnow. Brubach praised the catch but said he should release the tiny fish. The group was not quite ready to examine their finds, and fish need the moving water of the stream to dissolve oxygen so they can breathe.

Robert and Ruth Fox, the owners of Clay Farm, where the project took place, have welcomed the students for several years and end up with a new stream-control fixture basically every year.

The Foxes, whom the Conservation District honored last year with an Outstanding Cooperator Award, have implemented numerous conservation practices on their farm. On this sunny day, the students benefited from one of those installations: a riparian buffer, a stand of trees along a creek that controls runoff and shades the water from excessive sun.

The project shows "how (students) can help the farmer," said Sallie Gregory, the education coordinator from the Lancaster County Conservation District who runs the school.

The stream water-quality project was only a small part of the Youth Conservation School experience.

The students lived for the week at the Northern Lancaster County Game and Fish Protective Association in Denver. The club shuts down for a week each summer to host the tenting students, Gregory said.

The Lancaster-area sportsmen’s clubs, including the Lititz Sportsmen’s Association, sponsor the county students who attend, covering almost their entire tuition.

The school, which Gregory said does not describe itself as a camp, teaches environmental stewardship, ranging from survival to bird calls to gun safety classes.

Jeremy Weaver, an avid hunter from Lititz, appreciated those lessons. Many of the tips, like "keep your finger off the trigger until ready to fire," sound like common sense, but they are important.

"I wouldn’t want to harm the environment by stuff I’m doing in the woods," he said.

Grace Nelson of Lititz was impressed with the behind-the-scenes tour at ZooAmerica in Hershey. She also praised a session about invasive species at the park at Governor Dick in Cornwall.

She and the other students were amazed that invasive species do not have to come from other continents. To be considered invasive, the species just have to take over an area, she said.

"Mallard ducks are actually invasive," she said.

"Yeah, that was a big surprise," agreed Tia Zimmerman of East Earl.

Joel Apgar, also of East Earl, liked the group’s water pollution experiment. The students "polluted" cups of water with food coloring to mimic nitrates, turbidity and sediment and then tried different methods of containing the dye.

"It’s just a really good, well-rounded program," Joel said.

Anya Greiner, a fourth-year volunteer counselor who previously attended the school, said the weeklong event is "one of the highlights of my year."

The students, who this year included her brother Caleb, "soak this knowledge in" and learn about fields with many job opportunities, she said.

Lutz said the Lancaster County program is now a rarity. Once numerous, most county-based conservation schools have closed in the past few decades, he said.

The program is about to get international exposure, too.

A film crew from EarthEcho International was on hand to film the service project. The group, founded by Philippe Cousteau, grandson of ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, is filming a series of short documentaries about youth groups doing service work to improve the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

So far the group is shooting the less-than-10-minute videos in four states and the District of Columbia. Each one will highlight a different facet of water conservation that will help heal dead zones in the bay, said Stacey Rafalowski, EarthEcho’s program manager.

"Water is the thing that connects all of us," the South Carolina native told the students before they began their work.

While the old adage says that young people are the future, "We believe you’re the now," she said.

The series, to be narrated by Philippe Cousteau, seeks to convey that message by emphasizing the efforts of youth organizations. Cousteau did not attend the July 25 project, but Rafalowski said he will come to Clay Farm in September to shoot his part of the video.

EarthEcho is set to post the first video in the series Oct. 10 on their website. A new documentary will then go online each week for two months.

Teachers around the country will be encouraged to show the videos in class and then use the lesson plans and additional online curriculum tools to reinforce the videos’ message and show kids how they can help improve water quality in their area, she said.

All of the content will be free. EarthEcho also plans to promote the series in South America, she said.

The Middle Creek project is "tangible" and "attaches to careers," showing students how useful and enjoyable science can be, Rafalowski said. "It makes sense to look at a crawfish," rather than just read about it.

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