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LMS students to fight spartina

Chris Burt, director of the the Spartina Education and Eradication Project for South Whidbey School District, checks on sparse spartina growth in Deer Lagoon. - Gayle Saran
Chris Burt, director of the the Spartina Education and Eradication Project for South Whidbey School District, checks on sparse spartina growth in Deer Lagoon.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

As of this year, South Whidbey and Camano Island schools will be as well funded to control the growth of spartina as almost any agency in the state.

Seventh-graders from South Whidbey and Camano will begin fighting the noxious aquatic weed this spring with a $26,000 grant from the Washington Sea Grant Program. On Whidbey Island, Langley Middle School students will lead a battle to rid the island's shorelines of spartina.

"The Spartina Education and Eradication Project" is a collaboration among the Camano and South Whidbey school districts, Island County Noxious Weed Control Board, state Department of Agriculture, Service-Education and Adventure and Island County 4-H program. The project's grant will be administered through the South Whidbey School District.

Puget Sound counties and state have been trying to eradicate spartina, an invasive weed, for a number of years. Island County's spartina program is funded by the state Department of Agriculture. Last biennium, the county received $100,000, or $50,000 per year, to control spartina. Statewide, $1.1 million was spent in 2002 on spartina eradication and control.

Unlike other spartina control programs, the work the LMS students will be doing will not involve spraying herbicides or wading out into tidelands to uproot the hardy, grasslike plants. Instead, they will create informational brochures, a Web page and an educational video to inform the community about spartina and its effects on marine habitat. The work will be a for-credit class and will become part of the school's science curriculum.

Chris Burt, a former LMS teacher and co-founder of the school's Adventure Education program, will head up the project with teacher Susie Richards and former county noxious weed agent Judy Feldman.

Feldman, who is now the coordinator for the county's 4-H program, said last week that she likes this real-world approach to learning.

"Students will be looking at a real problem to learn science and writing," she said.

The curriculum begins this month and will culminate with a community education forum and student project in May.

Burts said he hopes to involve many local students.

"Our goal is to link as many schools and students as possible," Burt said.

The projects will be focused primarily at Langley Middle School, but will also involve students at other South Whidbey schools, plus students on Camano Island, in Oak Harbor and Coupeville. Adventure Education students taught by Richards and science teacher Jay Freundlich will make up the spartina project class at LMS.

The students have a lot of work to do. Spartina is one of several invasive, non-indigenous species threatening Puget Sound. Allowed to grow uncontrolled, it has the potential to invade every mud flat, cobblestone beach and salt marsh in the state. The best way to control spartina, Feldman said, is to catch it early and either pull it or poison it before infestations become established.

"It will destroy fish and shellfish habitat and wintering areas for birds, increase flooding and decrease shoreline access," said Feldman.

Heavily infested areas includ Camano Island's Triangle Cove, with 166 acres of solid spartina, and Deer Lagoon and Cultus Bay. The latter two have been sprayed repeatedly with herbicides and have been subject to weed pulling parties. Weed populations in both are considered to be largely under control.

Feldman said Willapa Bay on Washington's coast is an example of where spartina has done severe damage.

"During the previous few years, the migratory bird population has decreased between 40 and 50 percent," she said. "We already have pollution, loss of habitat is just the final nail in the coffin."

She said it is important to start working with kids on this issue.

"They will inherit the problem," she said.

Feldman said she does not know how long the school-based program will be funded.

The funding agency for the project, Sea Grant, is a nationwide network of 30 university-based programs that works with coastal communities to promote conservation. It is supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the federal Department of Commerce.

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