By John Buckley

In 1990, I left work as a Forest Service firefighter to help launch a nonprofit center called the “Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center” (or CSERC). At that time there were many highly polarized debates over forests and development in the region. CSERC was founded with the intent to find balanced, middle-ground solutions that could protect nature while showing respect for those who depend on our region’s natural resources.

As our center hired biologists to do field monitoring and to serve as a voice for nature at meetings, our evolving staff found that the vast majority of regional residents didn’t know much about local wildlife or water resources. Few could identify where their water came from or describe how the rivers of our region are managed. When it came to wildlife, it was surprising how few kids in our local area could name even common wildlife species.

CSERC began offering free slide show presentations for schools and community groups — focusing mostly on water and wildlife. For water presentations we used pictures to teach about the water cycle and to share the importance of water for human needs and for the environment. For wildlife, we provided interesting pictures so that students could begin to recognize woodpeckers, salamanders, ringtail cats, gray foxes, owls, and other species they might glimpse in their neighborhoods or on a drive.

Our very first presentations were given at elementary schools in Modesto, but soon we were giving classroom presentations across the foothills, especially on the topic of water. We focused on ensuring that slide show participants learned basic facts. There was no need to preach an agenda. It was clear from the beginning that when kids hear stories and lessons about wild animals, they begin to care not only about those animals, but also for the plants and water resources on which the animals depend.

Over the years our staff has been invited to present at universities, colleges, resource conferences, conservation workshops, and at elementary, junior high, and high schools. Many readers of this newspaper might be dismayed to experience some of the impoverished neighborhoods in urban areas of Stockton, Lodi, Modesto, Ceres, and other Central Valley cities where we present programs. Schools in those kinds of disadvantaged minority community areas became a priority for CSERC’s assemblies or classroom presentations.

Not surprisingly, whatever the condition of each school, one common thread has been consistent over all the years of CSERC’s presentations — kids get excited when they learn about water and wildlife. Outside of school they may spend most of their time playing video games or using cell phones or viewing TV shows, but given a chance to learn about snakes or owls or lizards or hummingbirds, kids young and old pay attention. I write this Op Ed after presenting today to Stockton students. A number of them hurried up to me after the assemblies to ask excited questions or to share about their personal wildlife sightings. It is easy to encourage them to start looking more closely at water resources or the wild animals that they may find in their local area.

Today’s youth will be the future stewards of California’s water, forests and wildlife. Our center’s programs hopefully stimulate students to start thinking about the natural world beyond their neighborhoods. The health of our vast planet is based upon the health of countless small local areas — each one a tiny puzzle piece of the overall whole.

Back 27 years ago, our staff never expected we would eventually reach more than 150,000 students and members of community groups. Like many long journeys, our achievement depended upon taking one step at a time — persevering, adapting, and bringing our enthusiasm with us. We hope we have made a meaningful difference.

John Buckley is executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center