College Students Use Break for Helping Environment
While most college students flock to Florida for spring break to party and drink beer, a growing group of students head to other parts of the country with very different motives. These are the Alternative Spring Breakers.
Two groups of these ASB students, from the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University, worked with The Nature Conservancy staff and local volunteers in February and March, planting over 25,000 longleaf pine seedlings in the Sandhills. Along with Southern phrases, their technical vocabulary was also increased, with the word "dibble" soon becoming their favorite. A "Speedy dibble" is a special shovel used to plant trees.
The trees were planted to restore a previously timbered site that had been overrun with non-native species. Planting this site back to longleaf pine will help span the gap between Fort Bragg and the Sandhills Gamelands, as part of a wildlife corridor between these two large protected areas.
The longleaf pine forest is the home of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and many other rare and endangered animals and plants. The red-cockaded woodpecker is the only woodpecker that builds its nest in cavities they create in living longleaf pines. The Sandhills has the second largest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers in the world. Filling the gaps in the forest corridor will connect existing habitats and help ensure the bird's survival as well as that of many other endangered species.
The first group of 14 students came from the University of Michigan and was followed by 12 students from Western Michigan University. Most of the students were from Michigan. However, Texas was represented and one student came from as far away as Indsee, India. The students had diverse backgrounds and varied majors including biology, nuclear engineering, nursing, and education, to name only a few.
Part of the students' orientation and training was a visit to the Nature Museum at Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve. There they learned about the importance of controlled burns in conserving the longleaf pine ecosystem, as well as many other factors involved in conservation. They also helped clear brush and hardwoods in a dense section of the woods, which improved wildlife habitat and will add greatly to the beauty of the park.
"I was a little reluctant to do Alternative Spring Break initially because of its extreme difference from the typical college spring break," says one student. "Now I am leaving here without a single regret, my experiences extended so much further than simply learning about the local ecosystems and wildlife. I have gained an insight into the local culture and history and have had the privilege of working with some quite amazing people. I am taking so much more away from this experience than I ever thought I would"
Meeting and working with Weymouth Woods Rangers was listed as one of the group's favorite activities during their visit to the Sandhills. Their other favorite activity was enjoying the "happy hour" at Sonic. (That was the closest they could come to a real "happy hour" since the program prohibits any alcohol consumption during the week of their break.)
Students also got to visit the Natural Science Museum in Raleigh on a day when the weather prohibited planting.
The Alternative Spring Break program is a national organization that secures sites for college students who want to learn from and contribute to the community instead of drinking beer and partying in Florida.
The program began with two students in 1990, who found 15 other students to join them and work with Habitat for Humanity. Over the years, the program has grown to thousands of students from many different universities working at scores of sites. The projects range from working with underprivileged children in the inner cities, helping migrant workers in the Southwest and assisting conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy.
The students stayed at the Rockefeller estate in Spring Lake. Rockefeller's home, built in 1936, is a beautiful old rustic house constructed entirely of longleaf pine. The house stands in a gorgeous setting of longleaf pines, cypress trees and a beautiful lake. A few of the students even attempted a short swim in the lake.
James Stillman Rockefeller left the Long Valley Farm to The Nature Conservancy in his will upon his death in 2004. His intent was to restore and preserve its natural longleaf forests and streams. The estate is going to be turned over to the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation when most of the restoration has been completed by The Nature Conservancy. The farm will then become a State Park and will be opened to the public to enjoy.
The Nature Conservancy is the largest nonprofit conservation organization in the world, with over a million members and projects in all 50 states as well as 25 countries overseas. Its mission is to save the habitat for the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the best of our natural heritage. In the North Carolina Sandhills program the Conservancy works to protect one of the best examples of the longleaf pine ecosystem found anywhere. Originally the forest covered 90 million acres throughout the Southeast, but development, natural disasters and other factors have destroyed 97 percent of the forest.
With all of their excitement and enthusiasm, their stay also inspired and rejuvenated the local Conservancy staff.
"These are truly remarkable students who have made the choice to benefit nature and the people of the Sandhills while enjoying a respite from the Michigan cold," says a spokesman.
Jim Fields is the office manager for The Nature Conservancy's Sandhills Program and can be reached at (910) 246-0300.
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