Humans & Nature
New Mexico works to boost environmental literacy.
by Kathy Whiteman
In 2005, the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF) estimated that fewer than two percent of American adults were environmentally literate. This study showed that regardless of age, income or education, most people are unable to think critically about important aspects of environmental science including basic concepts like pollution, energy generation and the water cycle: 73% of Americans incorrectly stated that their electricity came from "clean" energy sources (hydro, nuclear or solar), while in reality, most electricity in the US is produced by burning coal — a very "unclean" process that lowers air quality and contributes to atmospheric warming. In the same study, another 45 million Americans incorrectly indicated that the ocean is a source of America's drinking water.
I found the 2005 study so alarming that in 2010, I developed a small-scale survey using many of the same questions. My sample size was only 100 Grant County adults, but happily, two-thirds of respondents correctly identified surface runoff as the primary cause of water contamination in local streams and 79% understood that trees are responsible for producing oxygen — an important environmental concept! But 80% of respondents incorrectly stated that Silver City was located in the Chihuahuan or Sonoran Desert. Silver City is actually located in piñon-juniper-oak woodlands between the Chihuahuan Desert and higher elevation ponderosa pine forests.
True, there are species that can be found in both the Chihuahuan Desert and Silver City, but, strictly speaking, junipers, piñons and oaks don't grow in the desert. Perhaps this is a case of what's been called "plant blindness," but my guess is that most people think that because it's hot in Silver City and it doesn't rain much, Silver City must be in a desert. Unfortunately, the location of Silver City in the world is much more complex than how hot and dry it is.
But why does it even matter?
Because every place on the planet is situated within an ecoregion, a large area of land defined by temperature, geology, topography, precipitation and a distinct assemblage of communities and species. The biodiversity of plants, animals and ecosystems that characterize one ecoregion is different from that of any other ecoregion in the world. Human activities impact ecoregions and the way these regions and their associated ecosystems function. This, in turn, affects the capacity of nature to support human livelihoods and provide critical ecosystem services on which all life is dependent.
Consider a story many Silver City residents know well: "The Big Ditch." Back in 1871, silver was discovered in the area and the town of Silver City sprang to life. In a 13-year period between about 1871 and 1884, seven different mills and their associated infrastructure operated along San Vicente Creek, which flowed directly through town. These mills obtained water from San Vicente Creek and processed the ore via steam-fired engines. To extract the silver, the machines crushed and pulverized raw ore, mixed it with other substances, and added heat from timber harvested in the Silver City watershed. Within a short period of time, much of the vegetation in the watershed had been removed to fuel not only the milling operations, but also to build railroads and the town's infrastructure, and to feed a growing number of residents.
No one realized that the vegetation provided important ecosystem services. Since so many of the people in the area had originated from other ecoregions where rains were more frequent and vegetation grew quickly, they had no reference for implementing sustainable land-use practices in New Mexico's semi-arid woodlands. By 1895, summer monsoons began to wreak havoc on Silver City. Rain no longer moved through the soil but instead ran off in sheet-flow, causing significant erosion and gullying. Wagon-wheel ruts funneled the runoff onto Main Street, and in 1902, the water hit town with such force that Main Street gave way to the impact. Buildings collapsed into the creek and Silver City's 54-foot gully, "The Big Ditch," was born. It took residents many years to connect watershed health to destructive flooding.
Today, flooding still occurs in San Vicente Creek, but watershed-restoration efforts during the 1930s have helped to slow the movement of water through the watershed. Still, human activities have continued to be important. As populations have grown, so have point and nonpoint pollution. Point pollution has a known source, such as the Superfund mill site on San Vicente Creek. Nonpoint pollution comes from a variety of sources: As rain falls on the ground and moves across the land, it collects and transports natural and human-made pollutants and deposits them into San Vicente Creek. Over time, some of the water will be used by plants and animals, some will evaporate, and some will make a slow journey deep into the ground to become groundwater. Pollutants follow water along the way.
Here in Grant County, we currently have enough water to meet municipal needs. But other places in the world are not so fortunate. The majority of the world's populations live in arid and semi-arid environments where water availability is limited. Although more than two-thirds of the planet is covered in water, less than one percent is available for direct human use. Grant County might have enough water, but do our citizens possess the awareness and concern to take the personal action needed to preserve the Gila and Mimbres Rivers, limit consumption, and keep our waters clean?
Education will help. Developing environmental literacy, though, requires more than collecting facts. We can be knowledgeable about an issue — for example, understanding the synergistic factors that promoted the formation of the Big Ditch — but knowledge alone does not offer the promise of someone becoming an environmental steward. Informational excursions do little to promote the development of applied skills or to create a sense of responsibility to care for the environment. Many of us are afraid to even use the word "environment" for fear of association with an advocacy-based agenda.
In Silver City, the Gila Conservation Education Center (GCEC) has been promoting excellence in environmental education since 2004 (see "Teaching Moment," November 2006). This small non-profit maintains a strong collaborative relationship with area schools and the Gila National Forest, primarily serving the three rural counties encompassed by the 3.3 million acres of public forest land (Grant, Catron and Hidalgo). The GCEC provides classroom visits, field trips, student-centered restoration projects, teacher workshops and local presentations. Last year, the organization reached 5,214 K-12 and adult learners through its programs.
The work that GCEC does, particularly with young children, is important. In 2005, the term nature deficit disorder was coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. Louv's profound work provoked a rude awakening about our children and the symptoms associated with their alienation from the outdoor world. Today's children are obese, afraid, depressed, diabetic and stressed; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and asthma are on the rise. Inarguably, these same symptoms plague adults; after all, we are the role models.
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