Pueblo youth study Valles watershed

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By Roger Snodgrass

Some 65 students from Northern New Mexico Pueblos came out to get some hands-on experience and wrap their minds around the teeming environment of Vales Caldera National Preserve.

“It’s a beautiful outdoor classroom,” said the preserve’s Chief Scientist Bob Parmenter, greeting the middle and high school students, who participated in the special summer program along with coordinators from tribal educational and environmental departments. “We do a lot of science up here, involving millions of dollars, and involving hundreds of scientists,” he said.

The deer flies were vicious, but the grass was high and full of life. That life and the health of the soil, wetlands and streams that sustained them was what the day was all about.

“The preserve is in great shape,” said Parmenter. “We’ve had a storm a week in May and June that’s kept everything well watered.”

Counting the students, interns and scientists from the preserve and Los Alamos National Laboratory, sponsors of the event, there were more than 100 people.

“We do it once a year. We like to do it in July, depending on the weather,” said Elmer Torres, the tribal relations lead in the lab’s Government Affairs office. Working with all the participants, he said, Barbara Tenorio-Grimes deserves much of the credit for pulling the event together for another year.

The object is to stimulate students’ long-term interest in becoming scientists.

It was the fifth annual gathering in a series that started in 2003, Torres said. One year was cancelled because of a drought that caused restrictions at the preserve. Last year, 41 students participated.

There were a variety of different workshops, clustered in a couple of locations along the preserve’s entrance road, usually identified by a separate pavilion. After each session, the color-coded groups of students moved along to the next demonstration.

Subjects included evaluating the riparian habitats along the stream, aquatic and terrestrial insects, research telemetry, plant biology, and the local geology

“How old is the earth?” Rich Morley, a LANL geologist asked his first group of students, surrounded by sample rocks and lava that represented important epochs and processes.

“Pretty old,” said one youth.

“That’s right,” Morley. “It’s 4 and a half billion years old, almost as old as the sun.”

Life, he told them, started pretty quickly, within a billion years after that.

“A million years ago, we’d be in a crinoid forest here,” he said, passing around pieces of crinoid stem fossils, a plant-like animal related to the starfish, from 350 million years ago.

Sage Dunn, a graduate student working at the preserve, led groups of kids using the telemetry system. One of Dunn’s projects involves tagging elk calves, studying calf mortality. She said her team has tagged 36 so far this summer of which 14 have been killed by predators or other causes.

Lance Bernal, a college student from Sandia Pueblo waded through a stream with an electric wand, shocking and netting fish for measurements.

“The fish are drawn into the magnetic current and then stunned when they touch the halo of the instrument,” he said “The bigger they are the more body surface they have, so the shock is greater.”

Another biological researcher at the preserve, Alaina Pershall could find no volunteers in the first group to handle the wriggling minnows or a leach that was in the batch of aquatic creatures brought up from the stream.

But the youngster were soon engaged figuring out how to tell the whether the fish’s mouth was on the bottom or the top, a fundamental distinction for the fish.

During lunch, the students heard about their native cultural heritage in relation to the preserve, an area that was an important hunting and tool making location for local tribal people.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve was purchased by the federal government as an experiment in independent public land managent. It’s located about 5 miles west of the Los Alamos County line.