(Ashland, Ore.) — Past versions of Southern Oregon University’s “EcoAdventure” courses have taken students to northern California’s Lassen and Yosemite national parks, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Costa Rica. But last year’s Almeda Fire brought a huge ecological test almost to SOU’s doorstep, and EcoAdventure faculty and students jumped on the opportunity to play a role in assessing and restoring a charred Bear Creek Greenway between Ashland and Medford.
Each year’s EcoAdventure courses are intended to connect students with real-world environmental issues and create an atmosphere of investigation and problem-solving.
“For the first few months after the Almeda fire, I was working at a local hotel that was housing victims of the fire,” said Ethan Robison, a student in last spring’s EcoAdventure fire restoration course through SOU’s Environmental Science and Policy Program. “Each of the 50 families staying there had their own journey towards recovery and I was proud to be a small part of that process.
“When I started at SOU and found out about this class, I saw it as an opportunity to learn about the impacts of the fire on our local ecosystem.”
The spring EcoAdventure class drew 18 students, and they chose Bear Creek restoration work as their service learning project. The course covered fire regimes and climate change in the Rogue Valley, the history of Bear Creek and the U.S. Clean Water Act, and a talk, tour and native planting day in Phoenix led by a the Rogue River Watershed Council.
A separate effort by four Environmental Science capstone students looked at Bear Creek water quality following the Almeda fire. Those students presented data to the EcoAdventure class about erosion, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and other measures of water quality.
Environmental Science and Policy instructor Leslie Eldridge, who taught the Bear Creek EcoAdventure course, said many of the students felt a sense of revival after experiencing or hearing extensively about the fire, and then studying both its environmental causes and the steps to remediation. The day of planting native species along the creek was especially powerful.
“It was a beautiful example of ecosystem reset and opportunity to bring Bear Creek and the Greenway to a new condition that may improve ecological health and social connectivity between Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Medford,” said Eldridge, who initiated the EcoAdventure water restoration course – the real-world element in a broader Environmental Science and Policy curriculum.
“The idea is to get students working hands-on and experiencing the environments and environmental challenges we discuss in our courses,” said Vincent Smith, an associate professor of environmental science and policy, and director of the Division of Business, Communication and the Environment.
“Certainly, we have theory-based courses in these areas including restoration ecology, environmental field methods, water resources and hydrology, but in each of these cases, the idea is to prepare students to address pressing needs,” Smith said. “The Bear Creek Greenway is an example of one of those pressing needs.”
Capstone students in Environmental Science and Policy – those who are nearing graduation – each choose a capstone project that is intended to pull together much of what they have learned in the program. Capstone advisor John Gutrich offered last year’s students a variety of options, ranging from bark beetle mitigation in the Ashland Watershed to impacts of climate change on LatinX communities of southern Oregon. Four of the students chose to focus on the Almeda fire’s impact on Bear Creek, and worked together to produce a series of reports on water quality issues that were then shared with the agencies spearheading restoration efforts.
Both the EcoAdventure courses and capstone projects vary from term to term, but Smith said it’s likely the Environmental Science and Policy program’s collaborations on the restoration of Bear Creek will continue.
“I can’t predict what students will select to work on next year, but I’d be surprised if at least one group doesn’t continue work on restoration work from the fire,” he said.
Robison, the student who was drawn to last spring’s EcoAdventure course after first working to help house victims of the fire, said the restoration element of the project was a healing experience.
“Essentially, I wanted to see some physical evidence of recovery from the fire, just to prove to myself that it was possible,” he said. “Seeing the effort people put into repairing the ecosystem after the devastation helped me look past some of the pain I had seen and internalized.”