Team effort in Oklahoma promotes conservation education

by Sara Kangas

Teamwork and community partnerships have propelled a team of high schoolers in Oklahoma to the highest levels of the international Envirothon competition.

Led by veteran adviser Connie Taylor, the Ninnekah High School’s team triumphed in March at this year’s state competition in Ardmore, Oklahoma, hosted by The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. “I’ve had one other team that has won state (in 2010),” Taylor said. “The competition hasn’t really changed at all.” What has changed in the last 20 years of her coaching Envirothon, she said, has been the role her local conservation district has played.

Taylor credits the education director at Grady County Conservation District (GCCD) for her initial interest in Envirothon. “In Oklahoma, at the time, the conservation districts were one of the local sponsors (of Envirothon). I thought it sounded pretty cool,” Taylor told NACD. “It’s a very intense competition! We just kept going every year, and we just kept learning and learning.”

In recent years, GCCD has invested even more resources into conservation education. “Anytime I have asked them for help, in any area, they have been more than happy to send someone down or help me get in touch with a specialist that would talk to us,” Taylor said.

To prepare the Ninnekah Envirothon team, GCCD Office Manager Tara Lee and Grady County NRCS Rangeland Management Specialist Travis Jones visited the high school in Ninnekah, a rural town in south central Oklahoma.

“(Tara and I) went together as a team – we wanted to talk about NRCS programs, but we also wanted to talk about partnerships,” Jones said. “We accomplish conservation through partnerships.”

Lee and Jones talked to the students about the different programs available to landowners to help them implement conservation. “(They) helped us so much this year,” Taylor said. “Those programs are something that (we) really (knew) very little about.”

Jones explained that although the students had functional knowledge of the significance of conservation, they needed more background on the array of voluntary conservation programs available. “We covered the individual programs – EQIP, WRP, CTA, the stewardship program, regional conservation partnership (RCPP) – so they could see how (conservation) plays out in real life,” he said.

Looking ahead to the national competition, held July 23 – 29 in Emmitsburg, Maryland, Taylor says the team’s biggest challenge will be learning about the region’s natural resources in time, which she hopes to accomplish with the assistance of The Noble Foundation.

“I know they have a lot of great resources here in the state of Oklahoma that they can reach out to and get them prepped for the competition,” Noble Academy Educational Outreach Manager Dr. Frank Hardin said. “We’re going to dig a soil pit for them and bring them out and get them well-versed on the different tools that they use at the North American competition.”

The Noble Foundation hosted the state competition for the third consecutive year on their campus and will sponsor the Ninnekah High School team at NCF Envirothon. “We promote them and encourage them to reach out to their conservation districts, Blue Thumb, and the (state) forestry service to try to get experts in their area to help them out as much as possible,” he continued.

Dr. Hardin says this interconnected network of private and public partnerships work together to create future natural resource leaders. “I think we all work well in trying to educate our future leaders and policymakers,” he said. “We’re trying to get students interested in STEM and agriculture. As a whole, there are a lot of great resources, and we’re all on the same page in what we’re trying to do.”

Sara Kangas is NACD’s communications and operations coordinator. She can be reached at sara-kangas@nacdnet.org.

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