By definition, a partnership involves a relationship in which parties cooperate to advance their mutual interests. Such is the winning combination for two college students who volunteered their time to help the National Forests in North Carolina educate the next generation about a variety of conservation topics.
“I was surprised by how knowledgeable and sharp the kids were, and I think they may have taught me more than I taught them,” said Ryan Johnson, a senior at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. “It was a great experience, especially since I can be very shy and soft spoken. But I felt like I was able to get the kids interested in the topics and, hopefully, make an impact on the next generation of conservationists and outdoors enthusiasts.”
Johnson, a political science and philosophy major, and Caroline Ketcham, environmental studies major at the university, worked with the U.S. Forest Service and more than 100 local North Carolina elementary students this semester. The primary goal was to inform a diverse group of area kids about important environmental and safety topics related to the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, which surround Asheville, N.C. The outreach program seeks to instill an early interest in outdoor safety and conservation.
Johnson and Ketchum told students about the dangers of playing with fire and how unmanaged wildfires can be destructive for forests and harmful to area residents. The college students contrasted this with information about prescribed burning and how the Forest Service uses carefully controlled fire to achieve specific forest management goals.
But the kids were most interested in hearing about bears.
“Kids tend to be especially interested in this topic and, given that Asheville is in such close proximity to forested areas, many of them have had encounters with black bears,” Ketcham said
Due to the frequency of black bear encounters in western North Carolina, the Forest Service works to educate kids about treating bears with respect and caution. The presentations showed children ways to avoid encounters with bears, and offered ways to act should they encounter a bear, such as backing away slowly.
The presentations also focused on how the Forest Service balances the needs of people with the needs of the forests. Children learned how the agency works with the public to make a forest plan, which guides how the agency cares for the public lands. This is a timely topic as the Forest Service is in the process of revising the management plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. Additionally, the school children discussed their favorite outdoor activities and how these activities might affect the plants and animals living in the forest.
Johnson believes this outreach work by volunteers benefits everyone.
“Working with the Public Affairs Department has helped develop my public speaking and writing abilities,” said Johnson. “Interning with the Forest Service also taught me about the complex and demanding conservation work that maintain our forests. Most importantly, I’m giving serious thought about government work as a potential career choice in the future.”