Reaching a New Generation Through Environmental Education and Outreach

By Joanne S. Marchetta

After a gangbuster start to the winter season, a lot of us in Tahoe are wondering where all the snow has gone. Sitting here at the end of February with snowpack numbers dwindling, snow lovers are chomping at the bit, waiting to see the storm track shift back our way.

Still, the mountains have been buzzing with activity as skiers and snowboarders race to the mountains to enjoy what natural snow we’ve received and are ever thankful for the assist from local resorts’ snowmaking operations.

With or without snow, we are fortunate to live in an area that provides so much in terms of outdoor recreation and natural beauty. We should also be reminded that not everyone has access to the amenities our local resorts have to offer. That’s why TRPA is proud to once again sponsor the Heavenly Snowshoe program in partnership with local organizations. For the past five years, fifth graders from South Lake Tahoe area schools have been afforded the opportunity to get up on the mountain and learn about the natural environment where they live.

As part of the Vail Resorts Epic Promise program, Heavenly is giving more than 300 local fifth graders a chance to access the mountain and ride up the Heavenly Tram to see Lake Tahoe from a spectacular vantage point. But this is more than just a scenic ride. Up on the mountain, the students strap on snowshoes — many for the very first time — and prepare to learn about the environment in which they live.

Broken up into small learning groups, the kids hit three scientific learning stations while getting the hang of snowshoeing through the forest. First-up is the station crewed by volunteers from the Sierra Avalanche Center, with a demonstration of the tools and methods that avalanche forecasters use to analyze the stability of the snowpack — and the dangers that avalanches pose to people recreating in the backcountry. Always a highlight of the day is when the Heavenly avalanche dogs arrive. Normally one lucky student gets to be safely buried in a snow cave, and students can see first-hand how good the dogs are at search and rescue. It’s practice for the dogs, and great fun for the kids.

Next up is a stop at the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS) and USDA Forest Service station. The elements of a Tahoe winter are harsh, and survival skills are a must for area wildlife if they hope to survive until spring. Here students get a chance to learn about the survival techniques that wildlife use to make it through the winter, activities like hibernation, migration, and staying active. Facilitators hide items like fur and feathers in the snow for the students to find; think of it as a scientific scavenger hunt. Often there are actual animal tracks for these young learners to track and explore.

At the final learning station, Heavenly and TRPA team up to teach the students about some of the intricacies of the Lake Tahoe Basin watershed. Students learn about the art and science of snow making and how the science of meteorology is paramount to whether the conditions are right to make snow. Students take temperature, humidity, and snow-depth measurements. Based on what they’ve learned, they make a final prediction on whether the conditions are appropriate to fire up the snow guns.

This adventure learning program is sponsored in part by the South Tahoe Environmental Education Coalition or STEEC; a collaborative group made up of more than 20 member organizations, including TRPA. The goal is to bring environmental education and environmental awareness to a new generation of young learners. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is proud to have been working with the Heavenly snowshoe program since its inception. TRPA firmly believes that planting the seeds of environmental stewardship, education, and awareness at a young age will help to preserve and protect Lake Tahoe for generations to come.

  • Joanne S. Marchetta is the executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency