March 30, 2019 — As third-grade Siuslaw Elementary students watch, STEP volunteers carefully catch steelhead in nets and hand them to the next set of volunteers, who record information and show students how to remove the bright orange eggs from female fish and the milt from the males.
The students were on a Stream Team field trip to explore Whittaker Creek and learn about the lifecycle of steelhead at the Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) trap. Stream Team is the Siuslaw region’s salmon and watershed education program that connects local elementary and middle school students to the Siuslaw Watershed.
Led since its inception in 1995 by founder Jim Grano, Stream Team has integrated with Portland-based nonprofit Ecology in Classrooms and Outdoors (ECO), which will fully take over the program with Grano’s retirement in June.
STEP volunteers took the fertilized eggs to a hatchery, where they will have a higher chance of growing into fish. According to volunteer Brian Hudson, STEP raises four million fish a year in its hatcheries, with 75- to 100,000 of them steelhead. Not many of the steelhead make it back to their home creeks each year.
“There are 131 species, not counting humans, that depend on salmon and steelhead to survive,” Grano told the students. “That’s why nature puts 3,000 eggs out there. From the time they are an egg to the time they’re returning adults, they are the prey of something else.”
“Everything eats these eggs or these little fish. Everything is after them. Some of them get away, but not a lot,” he said.
The students get the chance to touch the steelhead, with several snatching their hands away quickly and a few brave ones leaning in for a quick smooch on the silvery scales. The STEP volunteers tallied 10 females and six males while the students were there, and even spotted a few wild steelhead.
“It slows them down and changes the rhythm for the kids to be here, but they enjoy having them out here,” Grano said.
Afterwards, Hudson led the third-graders in an exploration of the fish, demonstrating proper dissection technique while alternately wowing the students and grossing them out. Most students were willing to touch the steelhead and its parts, with or without gloves.
“I’ve got a question for you,” Hudson said to the students. “Between us and the fish, we have the bigger brain. My question is, how come I can’t catch one of these steelhead every time I go out in a boat? Hard to answer that one.”
He also let the students know that 18 aquariums will be going into Siuslaw Elementary classrooms this spring so students can watch the fish grow from fertilized eggs up to a stage when they are large enough to release.
At the end of the lesson, Hudson led the students on a procession down to the edge of the creek.
“We’re going to return this fish to the river,” he said. “What we’re doing is we’re putting the biomass back in the river so the bugs and the crayfish and everything can eat it, birds and stuff. In two or three days it won’t even be there. That means they’re going to get bigger, and when the wild steelhead hatch in the gravel out there, they have something to eat so they get bigger. It’s kind of a full circle thing.”
ECO Project Coordinator Amelia Remington encouraged the students to pause and think about the land, and how, although it is part of the Bureau of Land Management now, for 8,000 years it belonged to the native peoples of the Siuslaw.
“We are honoring a tradition that is part of their culture, which is to respect the steel-head,” she said. “When we respect the fish, in turn the fish respects us. A lot of native cultures see things that stay in their lives, the things they eat, as family, like a brother or a sister. We’re kind of modeling that today as a way of acknowledging that is a really rich and old part of this land here.”
She led them in pronouncing the word hiis, pronounced “hees,” which is the Siuslaw word for thank you.
For the rest of the field trip, students went on a walk through the forest to learn about and identify native and nonnative plants.
“We’ve kind of evolved into ethnobotany,” Grano said, explaining how Jesse Beers, culture director with Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, teaches the cultural uses of the area’s resources. “The natural resources in this watershed are extraordinary. A lot of it is intact, and the intact stuff is the stuff you start saving, because it’s retrievable. If you ever get that all set up, then you can go back and restore more devastated areas. We’ve got the lakes, the river, the forests, the dunes — we have so many resources here. The tribes that lived here for 8,000 years used these resources to subsist.”
Stream Team learns about the entire area from the dunes to Whittaker Creek, covering multiple interconnected ecosystems with the various grades. While “third grade is discovery,” Grano said, each grade gets more responsibility as they learn more in the lifestyle of the salmon, like fourth grade, which visits the smolt trap at Knowles Creek in Mapleton, or study the ecosystem, like in fifth grade.
The area’s fourth-graders have also influenced the area for the better through the removal of Scotch broom at the Oregon Dunes Day Use Area 11 miles south of Florence.
“It’s hard work, but the kids love it,” Grano said. “They get to use sharp tools and cut things, and they like being trusted with supervision.”
The fourth-graders first cleared the area in 2011 and have continued to prevent new growth every year since. The U.S. Forest Service thanked them with a plaque at the site, acknowledging “The Past and Future Stewards of the Oregon Dunes.”
“When I came in 1974 and started teaching in Mapleton, there was no need for this,” Grano said. “Well, maybe there was to learn more about stewardship and the scientific background. When hunting season opened, two-thirds of the school was gone for the week. Gradually that got lost, and kids don’t even seem to go outside much anymore. Parents too. When they come on the trips, they’re learning a lot and they get pretty excited.”
The learning continues into seventh grade and the middle school, when the students get to engage even more hands-on with the steelhead and STEP process. Thanks to a local grant, Stream Team was able to purchase 24 chest waders, enough that students can climb down into the salmon trap and help the adults.
Although Grano retired from full-time teaching in 2007, he has continued to work with Stream Team and the schools.
“To do that program like I have been, I was committed to the whole school year,” he said. “I organized all the trips, got all the partners, got everyone to the same places on the same date and helped the teachers prep the kids and figure out post-trip projects. I’ll be 70 this year, and while I still feel great and love going on the trips, my wife and I want to travel, be able to go see family. I was going to step away and hope the teachers could keep it going, and then ECO stepped in.”
Fae Scherling, communications specialist for ECO, said the group is excited to branch into the Siuslaw and continue Grano’s work.
“We’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with Jim and his many partners. We've learned so much about all the incredible collaboration taking place to give students access to deep, place-based learning, to build community and to steward the incredible resources of the Oregon Coast,” she said. “It's remarkable! We're invested in continuing Jim's work and partnerships because the positive impact on student's lives lasts a lifetime. It is the work we do and love — and want to see these types of programs become a part of all Oregon students’ education.”
ECO has now secured funding for next year's programs and will be working closely with the Siuslaw Watershed Council to find sustainable funding for local educators.
Still, Grano will remain involved. Besides Stream Team, he is active with STEP and the Siuslaw Watershed Council, recently coming back to serve on the board after a several-years’ hiatus.
“In the long run, my hobby has become community service,” he said. “I’ve been in the Mapleton Lions since 1989, and was on the watershed council all those years, and now in my fourth of six years with Western Lane Community Foundation. With all these community things, the people you’re serving with are so good that it’s not killing you or burning you out. You feel like you’re moving forward.”
Education is a big part of many of those groups as well, and the Siuslaw Watershed Council has several upcoming public events. On Saturday, March 23, from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. is the Fivemile Bell Project Tour and Planting Event. Event registration is available at www.siuslaw.org. Then, on Thursday, March 27, City Lights Cinemas is hosting “Stories of Restoring the Siuslaw” at 5:30 p.m. as the watershed council unveils a series of short films about restoration efforts in the watershed.
“We always have the wellbeing of the watershed in mind,” Grano said. “Sustainable use not only for the economy, but so it continues as a resource. That’s what the council is about, in my opinion. As for Stream Team, our program supports the sustainable use of natural resources. Where does your desk, your paper and your pencil come from if we don’t harvest trees? Just replant them and take care of them. The same with the fish. You can’t catch every fish that comes.”
It all comes down to the ecosystem of the Siuslaw — its people and how they interact with and protect the area.
“When I started working with the folks in the natural resources and those interested in the stewardship of the Siuslaw, they’re just the most wonderful people,” Grano said. “Diverse like crazy, but their interests and goals are in keeping the watershed like it is or making it even better. That’s just such a cool thing to be involved in.”
For more information about ECO and its plans for the area, visit www.ecologyoutdoors.org and www.facebook.com/Ecology4Kids.