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Propagating Earth Stewards: The Roberta Salazar Interview
Monday, 29 November 2010 00:00  |  Written by Marita Prandoni | Interview

Field Trip Photo courtesy of Rivers & BirdsRoberta Salazar spent almost a decade as a wildlife biologist conducting field surveys and filing reports for federal government agencies. But her efforts were not enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem health at the rate she had envisioned.

She decided she could have a bigger impact if she helped the next generation connect with nature. So she approached fifth-grade teachers in Taos Public Schools in northern New Mexico and asked their help in recruiting greenhorns—aspiring, passionate tenderfoots eager to escape the confinement of classrooms and venture into the unfamiliar.

Roberta recognized that children were increasingly alienated from their natural world, and that this weakened relationship could lead to environmental degradation and a decline in the health of surrounding communities. In 1998 she founded Rivers & Birds, whose mission is “to provide experiential education which celebrates the interconnection of all life and which inspires individuals to be leaders for Earth stewardship and peace.” For over a decade, Rivers & Birds has provided more than 2,000 New Mexico children with award-winning outdoor learning adventures.

EcoHearth: Please describe a typical hands-on learning adventure with fifth-graders.

Field Trip Photo courtesy of Rivers & BirdsRoberta Salazar: A typical stream-water-quality day begins in the classroom with an intensive overview on river ecosystems and riparian habitat. Students learn about the differences between a wild river and a dammed river, the needs of trout and other aquatic species, and the importance of healthy riparian habitat. A guest teacher or scientist demonstrates monitoring protocol and equipment to conduct a biological survey of riparian habitat and to test water quality.

The class then hops onto a big yellow school bus and journeys out to one of Taos’s cold-mountain rivers. They form teams of four, supplied with data sheets, microscopes and wildlife-identification keys to investigate the health of the river. Their enthusiasm erupts in shrieks of astonishment and laughter as they observe amazing bugs under microscopes, feel the ice-cold water as they take its temperature, breathe in the fragrance of pines and listen to the chirping of birds and chipmunks. The exotic outdoor setting conjures a festive mood for the class.

Learning in a team is joyful and builds confidence, and individually, students develop their own critical assessment of the river’s health. They experience practical applications in math and science. It creates a positive memory of being in nature, which reinforces a positive value for environmental conservation.

I have to admit the field trips were fun, even though we still have to learn, because you made it that way. I will always remember what you taught us. Thank you.  – Billy Best, a 5th grader at Enos Garcia Elementary School

EH: Why is water ecology a central focus?

RS: Air, wind, earth and fire, the basic spiritual elements, unite all life. Sustainability is possible when humanity embraces the fundamental interconnection of all life. In subsistence cultures, people clearly understood that their survival depended on biodiversity. Conservation, frugality and simplicity were essential values. In modern industrial culture, where the production of supplies and services is fragmented and distributed across the globe, we are removed from this awareness. Too often we live a dream of separation. We want, we accumulate and we dispose of resources on autopilot, without any awareness of the impacts of our consumption.

Rivers & Birds Field Trip photo courtesy of Rivers & BirdsBecause Rivers & Birds is located in a high desert community where water is a key limiting habitat factor, we have chosen this sacred element as the theme for our outdoor education. It is essential for a 21st-century child’s education not only to be academic and experiential, but grounded in an understanding of sustainability—that everything is connected. As we teach children about the water cycle, we emphasize the eternal cycle of elements and atoms—that the interconnection of all life applies not only to the present, but also to the past and future.

EH: You have an annual wildlife film festival. How is film an important medium for educating people about the natural world?

RS: Images are immensely powerful for sharing information. We can’t experience the whole world directly, but images about the impacts on life around the world can draw forth an emotional response. David Brower, first executive director of the Sierra Club, was an effective environmental leader through his emphasis on images—both still and moving—in persuading lawmakers and the general public to protect ecosystems. You might read or hear that sharks are endangered and it just doesn’t sink in. But when you experience visually what is happening to sharks and learn how important they are to ocean ecology, the story sticks with you.

Many of our filmgoers have told me that these films really influenced them to make changes in their life or to take action. Right now, we are in the middle of a mass extinction of some of the most charismatic wildlife species on Earth. Most people are unaware of this. Well-researched and artistic documentary films are emotionally moving calls for compassion from humanity to the wild.

EH: Could you describe Rivers & Birds’ birding-by-ear adult education?

Field Trip Photo courtesy of Rivers & BirdsRS: Birds are the most abundant and diverse vertebrate species around. There are bird niches within every habitat. Birds surround us, yet they are so elusive. You might suddenly see one that you can’t identify. You pull out your binoculars to get a closer look, and whoosh! With a flap of its wings it’s gone. Professional ornithologists have learned a way to hang on to the bird a while longer for identification purposes by memorizing the songs of bird species. In a two-day workshop, Rivers & Birds provides songbird identification tips to help people delicately unravel the tapestry of bird songs that fill the air. This year we are in the process of completing a book with CD on New Mexico songbird identification. We will produce this as a podcast as well.

EH: What does Earth stewardship have to do with peace?

RS: It is interesting to observe people’s connotations around the word ‘peace.’ Many think of the peace movement, which is political and expresses opposition to war. Peace activists are often delightfully surprised that an environmental organization like Rivers & Birds would use the word ‘peace’ in their mission. Peace to us, however, simply means living in harmony and serenity with life—human and nonhuman. An Earth steward is someone who values the creative life forces on Earth and takes action to sustain those forces. This also makes that person a peacemaker.

Additional resources:
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World, Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow, eds.
Read about other Eco Heroes

[If you know someone who is deserving of an Eco Hero profile on, please contact us. – Ed.]

Updated 11/29/10; originally posted 5/05/09.

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