Learning from a stream

Efforts to save creek parlayed into student project

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2000

Seven middle school students, with the help of a naturalist and a concerned business, have started to improve the fish habitat in Vanderbilt Creek.

The creek is one of several local streams listed as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act. Development has covered salmon-friendly gravel beds with silt, added pollution and diverted some of the watershed, reducing the creek's flow and its ability to wash out oxygen-choking iron.

As a result, runs of salmon, Dolly Varden and cutthroat trout are reduced, fishery biologist Kevin Brownlee said.

``It would be nice to (move) the civilization back, so things that weren't natural wouldn't be poured here,'' said Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School student Clay Wertheimer.

The project started when Alaska Discovery Tours bought already-developed property last year along the creek, off Glacier Highway across from Western Auto. Co-owner Ken Leghorn said he wanted to restore the stream, get students involved and share information on the restoration with tourists.

Leghorn gave Discovery Southeast -- a nonprofit nature education organization formerly known as Discovery Foundation -- $2,000 to guide the work.

Naturalist Richard Carstensen walked the whole creek with the students. They saw how the once-forested watershed now has quarries and is otherwise developed. They saw iron particles in the stream, and banks with little vegetation.

Working a few hours a week since February, students measured the water quality, cleaned up batteries and other junk from an adjacent meadow and mapped changes in the watershed since the early 1900s, based on aerial photos. They also produced a detailed map of the company's property, checking an aerial photo against their own ground survey.

A lot of that information ended up on a display board the tour company can show to its customers. Tourists will also see a small muddy section of the stream bank the students restored with water plants.

The vegetated patch is intended to provide shade for salmon eggs, attract insects that fish eat, put a curve in a straight section, and narrow the stream a little to speed up the water flow.

Students collected the plants from the meadow, and protected the new plantings with bundles of willow sticks.

``If they're under the ground, they'll sprout roots. If they're close to kind of poking out, they'll sprout branches,'' student Wertheimer said.

Participating in the project were Dzantik'i Heeni students Wertheimer, Jacob Buck, Marissa Capito, Erin Chalmers, Trevor Fritz, Jaclynne Logan and Alex Sage.

``Nobody in the community, up until this point, has been paying attention to Vanderbilt Creek,'' said fishery biologist Brownlee. ``This is really one little seed. It's just the start of what can happen.''

The project will continue next year thanks to a $2,500 grant from the Alaska Fund for the Future, a private foundation, said Jono McKinney, executive director of Discovery Southeast.

``For students in Dzantik'i Heeni, it's a really great project because it's a relatively small creek and they can have a significant impact,'' he said.



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