Thursday, October 15, 2015

When education meets ideology, Amador-style

What do the spotted owl, sawmill closures, the Butte Fire, brush removal, the Amador County Fair's youth livestock programs, Foothill Conservancy, Friends of the River, environmental "indoctrination," Mokelumne salmon restoration, yellow-legged frogs in high Sierra lakes, Folsom and New Melones Dam, state agency name changes, draining reservoirs to provide water for salmon, the Cosumnes River, and chytrid fungus have to do with a simple classroom program to educate elementary school students about the life cycle of salmon, California's iconic native fish?

Not much, you say? Au contraire, mes amis. For certain members of the Amador County Board of Supervisors, they are all linked, all part of an evil environmental conspiracy. And it all begins when you teach kids how salmon hatch from eggs and develop.

At the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, October 13, 2015, before retired teacher Toni Linde could begin her presentation on a school salmon project, Supervisors Oneto and Plasse jumped right in, complaining about people who don't like dams and the potential cost of fish ladders if needed for Mokelumne salmon restoration. Those of us familiar with this board know the drill: these supervisors frequently make sure everyone hears their opinion -- germane or not --interrupt speakers, argue with the public, and mock or denigrate people not in the room -- and sometimes people in the room, too.

Patiently, Toni tried to describe her program and request. The Classroom Aquarium Education Program, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife program, has been in place in Tuolumne County schools for 10 years and Calaveras County schools for nearly that long. In Calaveras and a couple of Amador classrooms, elementary-grade kids incubate salmon eggs from the Camanche Fish Hatchery, see the young salmon through alevin stage and then release the fry into the Mokelumne River below the hatchery.

The kids learn about how salmon grow and their role in the ecosystem and food chain (human and otherwise). They use applied skills, including math, to keep the eggs and young salmon alive. It's an excellent learning experience, focused on our native fish.

The local program has been sponsored by Stewardship Through Education, a local group that teaches kids about watersheds and watershed health. STE receives funding from the Upper Mokelumne River Watershed Authority, to which the county belongs, and a variety of other sources. They're not a bunch of radical yahoos. But they are teachers, and they think it's important that kids learn about their local environment in an experiential, hands-on way.

Toni was requesting county funds that are sitting in a fish and game fee account that can be used for this kind of education program under state law. The money would pay for equipment so that every elementary school in Amador County could participate in raising young salmon from hatchery eggs. There is plenty of money in the fund to cover the cost.

So did the supervisors jump up and say, "Sure, we think it's great to teach kids about how nature works?"

Not on your life.

Instead, poor Toni had to endure discussion of all the items I mentioned in my opening paragraph, above. She handled it all with good humor, I must say, and in the end, the supervisors asked her to return in two weeks and provide them with the curriculum and lesson plans. (Apparently they are now experts on how to teach first graders about fish.)

Before they were done, the supervisors made some not-so-choice statements.

John Plasse: "It's a pure attempt at indoctrination of what kids should think at a very young age."

Brian Oneto, referring to a statement at a different meeting by my husband, Pete Bell, "Regenerating the forest from the salmon .. I think it's kind of far-fetched." Of course, it's also scientifically proven that spawning salmon return marine nutrients to forests, which the elementary kids learn, according to Toni.

Oneto mentioned a "symbiotic relationship" between frogs and fish in high country lakes. and that scientists were wrong that the fish harm (as in eat) the frogs. They weren't wrong,  of course, but he was right that more-recently a fungus (he called it a virus) is now a big problem for Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs. But if one species is a predator for another, that's hardly a symbiotic relationship.

Richard Forster, "Do Friends of the River or Foothill Conservancy contribute to this program?" (For the record: No. Never. And so what if they did?) His main concern, however, was that the program provide sufficient emphasis on the role of salmon as food, not just teach kids about their life cycle.

Lynn Morgan clearly supported the education program. Forster said he's leaning that way if they can see the curriculum. Louis Boitano mostly talked about past fish derbies and issues with the fund.

My guess is this will work out in the end. If the supervisors choose not to fund the program, others are likely to step up. But really -- does everything have to boil down to ideology these days?

You watch this board and tell me.

Meanwhile, my hat's off to Toni Linde for her uncommon grace and humor -- and for wanting kids to learn more about the planet they're going to inherit.

Update, October 28: Yesterday, the board of supervisors voted to contribute $7,400 to the program -- the full amount requested. Congratulations to Toni Linde for moving this worthwhile project ahead and thanks to the board for supporting it!