By Sunni Heikes-Knapton, NACD Northern Plains Region Representative
Sometimes long roads are metaphorical, and sometimes they are literal. During the last days of April, both kinds of roads were a theme for a group of Montanans who gathered in Lewistown.
Brought together by a keen interest in natural resource education, the assembly was part of the 2019 Montana Envirothon competition, a program of the National Conservation Foundation (NCF).
Now in its 24th year in Montana, the event creates a scholastic rivalry where students gain in-depth knowledge on topics like soil, water and habitat, and they apply what they’ve learned to develop solutions for real world issues.
“They take it really seriously,” said Jon Turner, a parent of a competitor from Missoula. “Some of these kids have watched their older siblings compete, and they themselves have been coming for four years straight. Once they get into it, they give it their all.”
In Lewistown, the high school students started off with a full schedule of presentations from local landowners and resource professionals on the topics of soil, rangeland, forestry, wildlife and aquatic systems. After multiple hours of lessons and tests, they worked long into the night crafting their own comprehensive plans to improve ecological, economic and social sustainability.
The competition was fierce, despite a spring blizzard that prevented 15 teams from attending. The 19 teams that were able to attend made long journeys in snow and ice from places up to 300 miles away.
“We had to be a little flexible,”said Shonny Nordlund, the event organizer from the Fergus County Conservation District. “Cancelling wasn’t an option – the teams have worked too hard to not be here today.”
“Some of these teams have been working all school year to prepare for the competition,” said Nordlund, who has managed the event for the past 23 years and has seen interest gain substantially. “It has built up a lot over the years; now we’ve got some schools with two different teams. We are also seeing more kids from urban settings, and they bring a valuable perspective to some traditionally rural topics.”
“We’ve come a long way since the first year with three teams sitting at card tables next to the stream,” laughed Laurie Zeller of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “Now it takes a big team to pull the whole event off.”
Partners are the secret ingredient to executing the event successfully, which means big commitments from parents, advisors, volunteers, donors and agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Some of the state’s most knowledgeable resource professionals give rapt attention to the students, answering questions and engaging in thoughtful discussions. Dale Krause from Chouteau Conservation District first got involved as an NRCS employee during the first event in 1995, and he see bigger lessons being gained by the students.
“It’s more than just natural resource topics they are learning,” he said. “Being involved teaches them respect, integrity, boundaries and teamwork.”
Each team has an advisor, and they dedicate a great deal of time to helping the students on their Envirothon journey.
“We help them prepare for this all year long, because it’s something that is very important to them and important to us,” team advisor Claire Pichette said. “The students have a passion for this, and that passion spreads to other students.”
Paired with an impressive understanding of Montana’s resources, students from the Helena Capitol team are quick to recognize the relevance to the real world. “These topics are what make Montana unique, and it teaches us how to better manage for the future. When we drive across the state, we look at the landscape differently.” But it’s not all for the glory of competition. “It’s also one of the most fun ways to learn and doing it together as a team is really cool.”
It is not just Montana students who gain from participating in Envirothon. Annually, over 25,000 students from 4,000 schools compete at their state events, with the top teams going on to compete at the international NCF-Envirothon competition in July. In 2019, the top scoring Big Sky team from Missoula (pictured) will be headed to North Carolina to compete against the brightest students from across the U.S., Canada and China.
The ultimate lesson is one we all can learn from: It’s sometimes a long road to complete a challenge, and it’s often worth the journey to dedicate to the work.