May 30, 2006

Barstow students buy acre of desert land

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

BARSTOW - Appreciation for nature begins in childhood, and a group of youngsters has demonstrated how anyone who cares can help protect a small patch of the Mojave Desert and its creatures.

After collecting aluminum cans and plastic bottles for a year, 80 first-graders at Lenwood School raised $214 to help buy an acre of land at Mojave National Preserve.

"With their effort, coupled with an $86 contribution from San Bernardino County's waste-management department, we presented a check for $300 (recently) to the National Park Service to add a bit of land to the preserve," teacher Ginger O'Brien said.

"Students in four classrooms brought recyclables from home and turned them in for vouchers. It was a part of our program to teach children to understand and appreciate the desert. Hopefully they will continue this appreciation throughout their lives."

Superintendent Dennis Schramm and resource chief James Woolsey of Mojave National Preserve accepted the check. "We welcome the efforts of these young people," Schramm said. "We want children to learn about the natural world early in their lives so they can enjoy it throughout their lives."

Lenwood School's nature-awareness programs, which include field trips to Barstow-area museums and hands-on involvement in caring for a cactus garden, awakens the children to the wonders of the vast Mojave region.

"Children are our future," Woolsey said. "If we don't teach them early about our environment, they may never appreciate it. We have millions of acres of wild lands around us. For youngsters not to go out and enjoy them would be a shame."

Since the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve was established in 1994, an ongoing effort has been made to acquire parcels of privately held land within its borders. Private land within the preserve has dropped from 220,000 acres to just under 100,000 acres.

"Every year, we ask landowners if they want to sell their property," the superintendent explained.

"The National Park Foundation, chartered by Congress to support the park system, negotiates to buy land. Whatever it acquires is donated to the park system."

Several thousand private landowners hold chunks of land in a checkerboard pattern scattered throughout the national preserve. Among these parcels are state-school lands that sometimes are exchanged for surplus federal property, Schramm said.

Mojave National Preserve contains the world's largest Joshua tree forest, lofty sand dunes, the historic Mojave wagon road, Indian wall paintings known as petroglyphs, and hundreds of wild creatures like the desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel.

It is the only place where three desert ecosystems meet the Mojave, the Great Basin and the Sonora.

"Lenwood School's efforts match up with the goal of Park Service Director Fran Mainella to improve the relevance of the park system in the 21st century," Schramm said. "Many children don't have the chance to sit around a campfire in the wilderness today. We want to attract more of them to our parks to help amplify the marvelous heritage they represent."

At Lenwood School, two first graders shared their feelings on the fund-raising effort.

"I brought in a lot of cans and bottles to buy more land for the desert tortoise," said Karina Cruz, 6, daughter of Manuel and Maria Cruz.

Michelle Kounovsky, also, 6, daughter of Brian and Kimberly Kounovsky, said the yearlong effort was fun. "We want to help the national preserve get bigger," she explained.

In addition to O'Brien, first-grade teachers Wendi Matley, Melissa Moor and Debbie Williams, helped spearhead the conservation program.

"The children took home bags with brochures about the desert tortoise to share with their family and neighbors," O'Brien said. "And they drew pictures of various Mojave creatures to fill a book in which they described the animals."

Among the children's comments that accompanied the drawings:

"Kangaroo rats hop on long back legs and use their tails to balance," said Gabriel Alvarez.

"Cactus wrens build a nest like a football. They eat lizards. They take dust baths," Faith Aguirre said.

"Burrowing owls live in the ground and come out during the day," Delena Chavez said. "They are not smarter than other birds."

"Cougars jump high. They walk quietly. They make a purring sound," Vernon Colbert said.

Applauding the conservation program, Lenwood School Principal Tom Reynolds said first-graders are eager to learn about the environment. "By learning about it early in their lives, their appreciation of the natural world will stay with them," he said. "It's important that our children appreciate the desert around us and help conserve it."