Family Forestry Expo Offers Hands-On Learning

‘Landscapes of Many Uses’ theme for 34th year of Forestry Expo invites families to join educational experiences

By Micah Drew
Students from Glacier Gateway Elementary School view stream-life through viewing tubes during in the Family Forestry Expo in the Trumbull Creek Educational Forest near Columbia Falls on May 9, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For a moment, Dillon Tabish thought he’d lost a leech.

“The kids love being able to touch a leech or the snails and other bugs we have here,” Tabish said of the fisheries station he and a team of technicians with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) were running, while attempting to find the escaped worm. “It’s possible we have the best station here at the expo — they get to examine live fish we just zapped from the stream and some trout pulled from Flathead Lake this weekend and see the world from a fish’s perspective.”

Tabish found the missing leech, which was attempting to escape from its educational duties by wriggling across the table containing various examples of aquatic food fancied by resident fish, just as a class of fifth grade students walked up the trail.

As the youths filed into rows of benches on the banks of Trumbull Creek, Tabish launched into his presentation about the different fish species found in Northwest Montana, how to identify them, and what they need to survive throughout differing stages of their life cycle. Each question he asked was met by a dozen raised hands, several that never got lowered between queries.

The kids then broke off into groups — some grabbing viewing tubes they stuck in the creek to look at the underwater world, some learning to identify fish species by their markings, and some getting up close to a trout’s ideal buffet, including snails, stoneflies, crayfish and two long leeches.

The fisheries stop is just one of 12 educational stations set up at the Trumbull Creek Educational Forest for the 34th Family Forestry Expo that kicked off on May 8 with the theme “Forests — Landscapes of Many Uses.” For five days, the expo is hosting field trips for fifth-grade classes from throughout northwest Montana to learn about natural resources topics before inviting families to join the experience on Saturday.

Students from Glacier Gateway Elementary School examine a frozen fish harvested from Flathead Lake during the Annual Family Forestry Expo in the Trumbull Creek Educational Forest near Columbia Falls on May 9, 2019. . Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Teresa Wenum, conservation education specialist with the Flathead National Forest, is a member of the expo’s organizing committee and has been involved with the event for more than 30 years.

The inaugural expo was organized in 1989 and was just a single-day affair attended by more than 200 local students. By 1992, the first year Wenum was involved, the expo was stretched to five days, and she expects to host more than 1,200 students from 25 schools over the course of the week.

More than 30 groups with a stake in public lands collaborate to put on the forestry fair, including F. H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., as well as land managers from the U.S. Forest Service, FWP, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Glacier National Park, and organizations like Back Country Horsemen, Flathead Audubon Society, and the Montana Native Plant Society.

“It’s a unique opportunity to bring students and the community out here to connect with the forest and connect with industry and public land management agencies and local organizations that are all working together. All those people have an interest in managing this,” Wenum said, gesturing to the forest surrounding Trumbull Creek. “Education was the common goal that brought all these groups to the table initially and offering educational opportunities with the common purpose of making our forests accessible to our community is what’s kept it going for so long.”

Brooke Peterman, a teacher at Rankin Elementary, said the chance to get kids out of the classroom for hands-on learning visibly boosts their interest in the topics.

“A lot of these kids don’t even realize the access we have in our own valley to the outdoors,” Peterman said while watching her class answer a park ranger’s question about bear skulls. “In one day they get to experience all the different things that go on in the forest from logging to packing to wildlife, and they can’t access that on their own.”

Peterman said her students were particularly interested in the fire station, where many of them mentioned they’d thought fire was always bad before learning about how it can be used to benefit an ecosystem.

“At our school the kids all have science in the afternoon but getting out here is so different than reading it in a book or looking at maps and photos,” she said. “Getting to experience it firsthand, getting to touch and see and smell is a much better learning experience than a textbook.”

Nate Cole, Management Forester for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, prepares a larch log for milling as part of a demonstration during the 30th Annual Family Forestry Expo in the Trumbull Creek Educational Forest near Columbia Falls on May 9, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Saturday, families are invited to visit the Expo site at the Trumbull Creek Educational Forest and take part in a short, self-guided forest walk to explore and learn about area forests. The site is located about two miles north of the junction of U.S. Highway 2 and Montana Highway 40, just west of Columbia Falls. At the trail entrance, visitors can pick up a trail map with forest scavenger-hunt activities and follow the marked stops along the half-mile wood-chipped trail that follows Trumbull Creek.

“I always enjoy watching the families come out on the weekend. Sometimes it’s kids who came on a field trip and want to show their parents what they learned, sometimes it’s parents who came to expo back when they were fifth graders and it’s become an annual tradition,” Wenum said. “It’s a way to spend the day together outdoors and connect to the natural world we have right here.”

Visitors should bring their smartphones and take advantage of the posted QR codes for a deeper dive into learning about the nuances of the forest, including videos about local fisheries, wildlife, forest management, wildfire, backcountry camping ethics, archeology, riparian areas, plant identification, and logging operations. The videos can also be viewed on the Forestry Expo website or its YouTube channel. There will also be grandstand shows that feature logging demonstrations at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

A fifth-grader puts a small brook trout back in its tank during the 30th Annual Family Forestry Expo in the Trumbull Creek Educational Forest near Columbia Falls on May 9, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

During their walk, families can explore how fire is used to manage landscapes, learn what wildlife species inhabit the forest, walk a riparian path along Trumbull Creek, see how backcountry horseman pack into the wilderness and find out the importance of preserving stream habitat for fish.

Forestry Expo organizers ask that visitors “leave what they find” and make sure to “pack-it-in, pack-it-out.” Organizers also ask that you leave your dog at home.

The Family Forestry Expo event takes place through the dedicated involvement of over 30 diverse organizations such as local service clubs, forest industry, government natural resource agencies, conservation groups, professional societies, local businesses, many interested individuals and numerous local donations. 

For more information visit https://www.familyforestryexpo.org/ and www.facebook.com/familyforestryexpo.

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