NATURE'S CLASSROOM: Hundreds cross the James to explore Presquile Island and reconnect with nature

Visiting Presquile National Wildlife Refuge last Saturday could have been identified as an early Earth Day celebration (April 22). For the 300-plus visitors who waited their turn to climb aboard a pontoon to cross the James River and embark on the island, it was a day for the young and young at heart to search for critters, discover wetlands, study plankton, test the water of the James and celebrate the grand opening of the James River Ecology School, a joint venture on the island between the James River Association (JRA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Refuge.

The new school opens the island for educational programs and activities every day of the week with programs designed for 5th through 12th grade classes. According to the school’s brochure, Presquile’s pristine freshwater tidal creeks, swamps, marshes and upland fields and forests offer a unique place for students to connect with nature and enrich academic study.  

It is the mission of JRA to connect youth with river-based learning experiences that inspire confidence, ecological understanding, nature appreciation, and conservation action. Areas of study include Watershed Systems, Life Science, Earth Science, Biology, Environmental Science and Virginia Studies. School groups study the James River and Presquile National Wildlife Refuge through hands-on science to further their classroom studies. For a class of 30 students, the fee could be as little as $25 per student for a day trip or as much as $100 per student for a two to three day overnight program.  Programs may also be designed for Scouting troops to help the troop earn badges.

Along with spending the day in nature on the 1,329-acre island, the grand opening allowed visitors to tour the facilities on Presquile. The Menenak Discovery Center, powered by an on-site solar panel, holds lab space, a dining hall and kitchen. The bunkhouse has two single-gender dorm rooms with double and triple bunk beds and can sleep up to 34 youth and adult chaperones.  A screened-in porch is located between the bunkrooms and can be used for group gatherings. The bunkhouse is an example of low-impact, highly energy-efficient design and construction. The composting toilets, rainwater cisterns, bicycle-powered water pump, and grey-water garden all offer teachable moments in conservation practices.

During the grand opening ceremonies Bill Street, Chief Executive Officer for JRA, said the project has been exciting on so many different levels.  “Whenever we have reached out for folks, the response and the support has just been incredible – tremendous and overwhelming,” he said. “The ecology school is really filling some key needs to our community.” Referring to how the school will bring children back to nature and help children understand their connection to the river. Thanking the board, staff, supporters of the Wet Feet campaign, volunteers, and the architect and contractor for the facilities, he concluded, “This [the ecology school]  is for all of you, particularly the children and the teachers; this is for you. This is a resource for you to be able to utilize going into the future and one of the things we like to stress in the Wet Feet campaign - the James River and our children need each other. Our children need a place to explore, to get outside, get active - they need to connect to the river. To have that sense of place,  the connection to history, connection to future generations.....we made some great strides, but we have some great challenges ahead and it is going to take some strong commitment and strong stewards for the future. Through the James River Ecology School, I am confident our children will become those stewards and America’s founding river will continue to nurture Virginia for another 400 years and on to the future beyond that.”

Senator Tim Kaine was also on hand for the celebration and share his and his wife’s love for the river during his platform remarks.  He also thanked JRA for the work they have and are doing for the river.  He commented on the importance of the ecology school and how it will serve the communities and create strong stewards of the river and environment. “The thing that eventually makes us good environmental stewards is that we have to have the experience of seeing and feeling something and then we become environmentalists,” he said. “I am not sure people become environmental stewards just from reading something in a book. It starts with seeing and feeling something and feeling it very powerfully and that’s the beginning to environmental stewardship.”

 “The problem with kids having that nature deficit disorder [a term mentioned by Street and coined by Richard Louv in his book ‘Last Child in the Woods’], is not that it just weakens their own education, their own quality of life but it weakens their ability and their passion of being environmental stewards when they grow up to be adults. And so what this [the ecology school] does, is that it gives thousands and thousands of people every year and into the future, the ability to see and feel something that they will be excited about so you are creating the next generation of environmental stewards with this great partnership and I congratulate you.”

Additional platform guests included Andy Hofmann, Refuge Manager for the Eastern Virginia Rivers Refuge Complex, Fish and Wildlife Service; Nat Draper, AP Environmental Science and Earth Science Teacher from Deep Run High School in Henrico County; and Deborah Rocque, Deputy Regional Director for the Northeast Region, Fish and Wildlife Service.

After the official grand opening, folks had a couple of additional hours to embark on a nature walk before catching the last shuttle back to the mainland. For more information on the James River Association and the ecology school, visit www.jrava.org.  

SAVING THE JAMES: Become A Hometown Hero
The Enon Library will be hosting members from the James River Association (JRA) on Tuesday, April 30 from 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. for a certification program in an effort to keep the James River clean.  The program is about how one can significantly reduce the amount of storm water, chemicals and sediment that flow from one’s property into local waterways, including the James and Appomattox rivers, by making one’s home a certified River Hero Home. This certification program from JRA is open to everyone living in the James River watershed. You are encouraged to come early to see the library rain gardens for a first-hand look at a beautiful feature of River Hero Home landscapes and get help filling out the RHH application.

Once your home has been certified by JRA as meeting River Hero Home qualifications, you will receive exclusive discounts at participating local garden shops, an invitation to the annual River Hero Home Lawn Party, the quarterly James River Hero Home Newsletter, access to the River Hero Home Google group, and an attractive garden flag and window cling. Depending on where you live, you also might qualify for storm water rebates and credits from you locality. This program is recommended for adults. Registration is recommended and began April 2. Register online at library.chesterfield.gov or by call 751-CCPL.

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