School Groups Earn Recognition for Community Climate Resiliency Projects

Students at Glacier High School and Columbia Falls Middle School were finalists for the RISE Challenge, which recognized their efforts to make the Flathead Valley more resilient to extreme weather events

By Micah Drew
Members of the Glacier Environmental and Conversation Organization carry materials for protective fencing for cottonwood saplings as part of a riparian preservation project in the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area along the Flathead River in Kalispell on May 28, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Carrying bundles of mesh and stacks of stakes, students from Glacier High School’s Environmental and Conservation Organization, or GECO, hiked down the trail through the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area

Led by Pam Willison, vice president of the Flathead Audubon Society, which helps manage the Owen Sowerwine, the students spread out looking for healthy cottonwood saplings to protect. The ideal candidates are a foot or two tall, with healthy leaves and enough space to set them apart from other members of their species.

Cottonwood trees are a vital part of riverside ecosystems, providing habitat for more than half of all bird species in Montana as well as reducing erosion throughout the floodplain by stabilizing the earth. Wrapping these saplings with mesh fencing prevents deer from browsing the leaves and branches, giving the trees a chance to grow into the towering canopy and facilitate a healthy riparian ecosystem.

“Riparian areas are the relief valves for the rivers — that’s where floodwaters go — and they’re so important, which is why we’re trying to restore them,” Willison said.

A large cottonwood tree in the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area along the Flathead River in Kalispell on May 28, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The project to help protect cottonwood trees and revitalize the Owen Sowerwine stemmed from the RISE Challenge Big Sky, a project from Missoula nonprofit Brightways Learning that challenges students to learn about natural hazards affecting their communities and provides funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop an action plan.

Recent Glacier graduate Alex Hudson lives along the Flathead River and has witnessed the effects of the annual flood cycle.

“Since we were talking about the FEMA project in GECO and how one of their main focuses is flooding, I started to think of ways to focus on that in our valley. This area used to have massive cottonwood trees all over, but so many of them are gone,” Hudson said as the students navigated over a recently fallen cottonwood blocking the trail. “This project will help the next generation of trees take over.”

Students reached out to members of the local Audubon Society and, upon learning that similar projects were in the works for Owen Sowerwine, partnered up for the field work. The effort, led by Hudson, earned GECO the grand prize at the 2024 RISE Challenge Big Sky, which came with a FEMA grant to implement their idea.

The GECO was formed two years ago, as a student-led initiative to increase sustainability efforts at Glacier, raise awareness of environmental issues within the school and get outside to take part in sustainability projects and science in the Flathead Valley.

“My goal is to get kids out into this amazing ecosystem we live in and not just experience it but care about it and become stewards for the younger generation and drive us towards a more sustainable future,” said Matthew Ford, an earth science teacher at Glacier who serves as the faculty coordinator for GECO. “We try to do several projects each year, but it’s really a student-led, student-driven initiative. If they want to tackle a problem, we’ll go after it.”

Last year, one of the projects GECO worked on involved removing weeds and invasive species from around Tally Lake for wildfire mitigation, part of a statewide “Pull Your Share” effort that targets invasive species on public land.

“If we can reduce the number of weeds in an area, then when a wildfire comes through and destroys all the plant biology there’s a better chance to protect the plant diversity when they start growing back,” high school junior Jack Syverson said. “This year we worked on expanding the project to include middle school kids and start the idea that you work on a better environment at a young age.”

The GECO earned a third-place prize in the RISE Challenge for their invasive weed project.

Freshman GECO member Kendall Dolan said she hopes they can continue to grow the invasive weed program even more next year by hosting education sessions with more middle school classes and taking field trips to do work on site.

“Inevitably Jack and myself and all the GECO members are going to graduate, and we want these projects to outlive us all,” Dolan said. “The weeds don’t go away when we do, so it’s important to make these projects self-sustaining and keep the work going.”

“I’ve been involved with a lot of stuff at Glacier, but this organization is by far my favorite activity because the people that do it are here because they’re really passionate about the work,” Hudson said. “It’s also cool to see how many people in the community are working towards conservation in our area that you might not know about.”

Members of the Glacier Environmental and Conversation Organization place protective fencing around cottonwood saplings as part of a riparian preservation project in the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area along the Flathead River in Kalispell on May 28, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Another school group from the Flathead also earned a RISE Challenge award. Paula Koch’s Advance Studies class at Columbia Falls Middle School took home the fourth-place prize for their project aimed at boosting food security during inclement weather.

Members of the class, led by Ella Robbins, Harper Holloway and Eloisa Middlesworth, looked at the large portion of the student population that receives free or reduced school lunches, and examined the correlation between regular access to healthy meals and school attendance. If there’s a school closure, such as during a winter storm, students can be left without access to high-quality food.

The students surveyed classmates on food preferences and put together non-perishable meals and snacks in take-home bags. The bags come in multiple sizes to accommodate larger families of kids and set up a system alongside the existing backpack program, which provides students with take-home meals once a week.

“We have a location at the school where the bags will be stored and anyone is able to walk in and get good nutritional food,” Robbins said. “A big part of this was overcoming the stigma of students who might be embarrassed to need a program like this, so it’s completely anonymous and unrestricted.”

The students presented their project to teachers before the end of the school year and plan to implement it next winter.

“If there’s even a possibility of a snow day, students will be able to grab their food bags and go on their way,” Holloway said. “The hope is it takes a little stress off for some of our classmates.”

A previous version of this article stated the Columbia Falls students took fifth, not fourth. We apologize for the error.

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