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Creating Habitat and Hope

How student conservation workers made my Earth Day.

As long as there are young people, there will always be those older people, the ones who aren’t children anymore, the ones who say things like, “Those kids today…”

Old-timers sometimes shake their head as they say it, and grumble. Maybe they’ll shake a fist in the air.

“When I was that age, children didn’t act like that,” old people love to say.

The fact is, youth really aren’t the way they used to be.

I should know. I am not a child anymore. And I know from experience that children these days—and the things they do these days—definitely aren’t the way they used to be.

Here’s my evidence: Earlier this week I met up with more than 40 local grade-school students as they made trips to their local state parks. Their mission? Get this—every student came to the state park not merely because it was a day off from classes.

They came to work to do physical labor for a good cause. They came to plant wildflowers to create wildlife habitat. And they came to pull out bushels of invasive and weedy species. They also came to spread fresh mulch around flower beds. They did this as willing volunteers. They stood side-by-side, working together cooperatively, kidding around as they worked, acting as well-behaved as possible, digging and planting in the fresh air of the state park for hours at a time.

When they were finished, most of the students covered in dirt and even sweat, they stepped back to appreciate what they all had done together. It was all theirs, this spot in the natural world, and they knew it.

I know this much: Kids these days are, indeed, really something.

Earth Day in the Parks is what brought everybody outdoors this week. It’s a free school program, a partnership with DNR, held on different dates at dozens (some years as many as 49 sites) of DNR sites around Illinois. The quick summary: Every year since 2007, right around Earth Day (which is April 22), DNR’s Division of Education invites Illinois students to come out to their local state park and become citizen conservationists. This year more than 900 Illinois students—and another 150 adults—took up the offer and made the trek to a nearby state park. Some came to help build nesting boxes. Some made fish attractors. Others helped create micro wetlands or plant native wildflowers and grasses. Each site had different habitat needs and nature projects the students could tackle.

Of course grant funds provided free drinks and snacks for the workers. But those incentives weren’t the real fringe benefits. By interacting with the natural resources they own, students got to connect with nature in ways not possible in the classroom. And since the resources they restored and created literally belong to all of us, everything they did rewards everybody and everything.

Who knew kids these days were like this?

Students from Goreville traveled to nearby Ferne Clyffe State Park to execute a mass assault on the invasive weeds that had taken root in a butterfly garden in the campground. Out came the work gloves. Weeds disappeared. Then, out came the shovels and trays of plants. Wildflowers appeared. Professional landscapers hired for the job could not have been more quick nor more efficient.  

On Wednesday, students from Brookport came to Tunnel Hill State Trail to add new life to the wildflower garden outside of the visitor center. It turned out, we’d all met just recently.

“We saw you at Stewardship Week,” several students declared after filing off the bus and sizing up the task before them. Indeed, last week, many of these students joined hundreds of other regional students and wildlife professionals at the Dixon Springs Ag Center near Dixon Springs State Park. The annual Stewardship Week events draw hundreds of students—students by the busload—and everyone gets to visit the different booths and stations where students learn about life outdoors, including aquatic life, forestry, invasive species, herpetology, mammals and even fungi.

“You told us how roots of trees are connected to all of those little pipelines,” one Brookport student recited to me. Who knew youth were like this today? Then another student announced a different nature fact remembered from last week’s field trip—the duty of recycling.

From recycling to habitat improvement to model conservation ethics, these students taught me as much as any old man could ever hope to witness in a lifetime. The fact is, for all of you old-timers who think kids these days are somehow different, or that no young person has any interest or sense of responsibility toward the natural world we share, know this: Youth very well might be different these days. But it’s because they realize how nature truly matters to us all. And they’re willing to work to save it. They understand how all students of nature—young and old—share a full lifetime responsibility to take care of our world as best as we can, whenever we can, regardless of when we were born and wherever we live.

There is no difference between us, it turns out, including what matters.

Earth Day in the Parks is made possible through financial support from the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fun and The Illinois Conservation Found.

By: Joe McFarland