Central Modoc Resource Conservation District
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Natural Resource & Agricultural Education in a Rural Community

When the Environmental Protection Agency deemed the Pit River an impaired waterbody, which means the health of the watershed could be improved, the watershed community and the Central Modoc Resource Conservation District decided to fix the problem locally. The Central Modoc RCD recognized that the first step toward change is education, so part of their solution was the development of The Central Modoc River Center (The River Center), an interpretive facility designed to educate the public about natural resources, agriculture, and watershed health on the Upper Pit River. The River Center is the educational arm of the Central Modoc RCD, and it compliments ongoing stream bank restoration and improvement projects. The first step the Central Modoc RCD took to restore watershed health was to monitor the water quality. The second step was developing an educational program. Together these efforts seek to improve overall watershed health.

Case Study The north and south forks of the Pit River converge near the small town of Alturas in the Northeastern corner of California. The Pit River winds through Modoc and Shasta Counties and finally joins the Sacramento River north of Redding. Located in Modoc County, the Central Modoc RCD is composed of ranchers, farmers and community members who utilize and enjoy the Upper Pit River. They are working with an array of local partners to foster the long-term cultural, economic and environmental health of the watershed.

"(The community) took charge locally to improve the health of the watershed so they wouldn't be told what to do in the future (by outside agencies)," Paula Fields, former education coordinator and director of The River Center, said.

The RCD group determined that an educated community is the strongest foundation for long-term improved watershed health. "Education of the public on conservation issues is critical to getting things done," Dick Mackey, vice president of the Central Modoc RCD, said.

Prior to the development of The River Center, many children in Alturas didn't visit the Pit River or the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, just minutes from town. Now, Alturas elementary and high school students not only visit the wildlife refuge, they also contribute to it through the Pit River Watershed Adoption Project, a hands-on learning program facilitated by The River Center. Adults and children in the community are learning firsthand what a watershed is and how it supports their rural community.

"Kids are the future decision makers. Kids in our community can tell you what a watershed is. It's a basis for getting started," Fields said.

Today, two years after its grand opening, The River Center continues to grow. What began as a house rented from the Modoc County Office of Education, with a few displays on the walls, is now the educational hub of the Pit River Watershed. The center facilitates elementary school field trips, interns from Modoc High School, hosts community meetings and participates in community festivals and events. The little house now has the look of a natural history museum, offering frequent tours for visitors and locals alike. They view professionally designed exhibits, including an interactive nocturnal room and an aquaria room filled with aquariums of fish native to the Pit River. The center has a display showcasing Modoc County agricultural products that are made with materials from the Pit River Watershed. There is also a garden of native plants on the grounds outside the center.

The transformation of The River Center from a barren house to a professional interpretive center was guided by two Central Modoc RCD education coordinators, Valerie Coe and Paula Fields. With the support of the District's board of directors, they organized a network of volunteers, agencies and organizations who came together as The River Center Development Team. United by a shared vision, a passion for future watershed health, and a commitment to the quality of life in rural Modoc County, the team contributed an unprecedented level of volunteer time and expertise to make The River Center a reality. All aspects of The River Center were created, designed or constructed locally, except for the printing of the display posters, which occurred in Reno, Nevada.

"The River Center is the community's place; it belongs to the community," Fields said.

Creating the River Center

Anatomy of a Conservation Education Project

Laying the foundation: the vision and leadership of Valerie Coe

In 1998, the Central Modoc RCD placed the reins of their natural resource and agriculture education program into Valerie Coe's hands.

"It was very free, I only knew they wanted some sort of educational program, that's all," Coe said.

She researched other programs. In nearby Red Bluff, Dunsmuir and Bend, Oregon, Coe discovered interpretive centers that taught the importance and shared the wonders of their watersheds.

"It's important to do research and network so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel," Coe said. Coe brought the idea of creating an interpretive center in Alturas to the Central Modoc RCD Board of Directors. They loved the concept. The board's excitement for the project served as a catalyst to further develop the idea. Limited resources inspired creative use of the small spaces and helped generate local involvement. The board's passion and ingenuity became a central theme in the development of The River Center.

Case Study
"It's important to do research and network so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel." ~Valerie Coe

Coe and Mackey agree that community support is the most vital component of the development of an interpretive center.

"Do your homework," Coe said. "See if you have community buy-in in your ideas. Consider the agricultural community, the natural resources community and especially the educational community."

After the RCD developed community support and motivated leadership, the planning began. Two committees were formed: The River Center Garden Committee and The River Center Exhibits Committee. A board member knew a professional group facilitator and recruited her to facilitate a planning session to create a shared vision, a mission statement, and channel resources and ideas. "Creating a shared vision is a necessary step in any project development," Mackey said. The recently retired Modoc County Office of Education Superintendent Carol Harbaugh, a strong supporter of The River Center, offered a Modoc Office of Education building to the Central Modoc RCD to rent for the interpretive facility.

Then Coe began searching for grants and other funding. Coe said the Central Modoc RCD's search uncovered enough available funds to take the next step in the planning process. At a natural turning point in the development process, Coe handed the project and education coordination over to a new education coordinator, Paula Fields. Funds were secured, the committees formed and the site located. Fields made it her mission to make The River Center a reality.

Local Partnerships

The Modoc National Wildlife Refuge contributed time and effort to The River Center project. They formed an alliance with The River Center through the Pit River Watershed Adoption Project.

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation provided funding for displays and educational material.

Modoc Office of Education provided the site of The River Center and remains a strong supporter of the interpretive center.

Alturas community volunteers donated hundreds of hours of time and effort to the development of The River Center. Volunteers included school teachers, ranchers, chamber of commerce members, gardeners, and Modoc Museum employees, among others.

The Pit River Watershed Alliance cooperated with the lead agencies in project development.

CALFED awarded a grant to The River Center for support of educational activities.

The State Water Resources Control Board provided grant funding to The River Center and the Central Modoc RCD for development of The River Center.

Employees of the USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service contributed to The River Center through participation on committees and with project implementation.

Volunteers from the Modoc National Forest participated in The River Center development by offering time and ideas. They contributed $15,000 for exhibits.

The Bureau of Land Management provided funding for the development of The River Center.

Case Study
Central Modoc RCD board members meet monthly at the River Center to address watershed health issues.

Mission accomplished: Paula Fields turns vision into reality

After a few phone calls to interpretive centers, Fields said she realized The Central Modoc River Center would have to be different. Most of the centers she consulted with advised her that The River Center development team needed more money and more space. Fields had $30,000 and less than 900 square feet to work with. Instead of responding negatively to the interpretive centers' perspective, the committees addressed these limiting factors with creativity and local talent.

"We were a team every step of the way," Fields said.

A graphic designer and artist, Sophie Sheppard, from a small town near Alturas was hired to create The River Center poster and mural. She had museum experience and said she felt confident leading The River Center design project. Her role was to design the panels that would line The River Center walls, including text and graphics to display to the community the importance of the Pit River Watershed. This presented another hurdle: the task of creating a balanced, unbiased voice. The committee wanted multiple perspectives in the narration, a balance between the different voices in the community, including agriculture, economics, conservation and culture.

"Part (of the goal) of the Central Modoc RCD has always been to have a balanced perspective," Mackey said. The River Center development committees and the RCD went to great lengths to see that the text was accurate, objective and balanced. They recruited volunteers who were experts in local history, natural resources, agriculture and Native American history to review the panels, and presented each round of review before the RCD Board of Directors. Deciding the text of the panels was the most difficult task, Fields said. "It was an intense time; it was review, review, review."

Case Study
Paula Fields

Through the development process, Fields served as a project coordinator, a liaison between Sheppard, the exhibit committee and the Central Modoc RCD Board of Directors. The RCD board applied the final stamp of approval. "All decisions were run through the board," Fields said.

When the center opened in May 2003, approximately 150 people came to the grand opening. The hard work was recognized the vision now a reality.

"We had no idea it would turn out this good," Fields said, "sometimes I walk in here and I think, 'Wow!'"

Case Study
Research: 1999
Valerie Coe visited interpretive centers in Red Bluff and Dunsmuir, California and the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon.
Vision & Ideas Session
The Central Modoc RCD hired a professional facilitator to conduct a planning session to create a shared vision and align ideas.
Gathering Funding/Outreach
Grants were applied for and the idea of The River Center circulated.

A community asset for the future

Educational Resources of The River Center

Case Study
A graphic designer and artist, Sophie Sheppard, was hired to create The River Center mural to display the importance of the Pit River Watershed.

The River Center serves the Upper Pit River Watershed community in several ways. Its primary role is to improve watershed health through education, but it has indirect benefits as well. Children growing up in rural areas do not have access to mainstream cultural endeavors to help form their identity. The River Center provides an opportunity for children to gain a deeper appreciation for the spectacular natural resources of Modoc County and to identify with their home. This helps the entire community take pride in their rural lifestyle by illustrating the importance of natural resources and focusing attention on watershed stewardship.

The facility is a focal point for learning about Pit River Watershed issues. The mission of The River Center is to showcase natural resources in Modoc County by developing an appreciation for how a watershed affects and benefits the community. The River Center provides support for local classrooms, the community and leisure learners who visit the area.

The River Center is a project of the Central Modoc RCD in cooperation with the Modoc County Office of Education. In 2004, the River Center formed an independent non-profit organization, continuing to work closely with the District and local schools.

Project Costs
The following sketch of The River Center development budget shows that the committees and project coordinator worked with a limited budget. Most of their funding went to exhibit construction and installation. Volunteers from the community, local agencies and organizations donated significant amounts of time and skill to fill in the thin areas of the project budget.

River Center Development Budget
Project Designer (contractor) $10,000
Exhibits $20,000
Total $30,000
*Grants provided funding for all costs.
Case Study

Case Study
Committee Decision-Making
Funds were distributed to the various tasks required to create The River Center.
Hiring: 2002
A graphic designer was hired to create the center design and exhibit panels. She led construction efforts.
River Center Grand Opening: May 2003
More than 100 people attended the event. The River Center is officially a reality.

River Center staff

Coordinates projects, manages outreach efforts such as quarterly newsletter and regular updates to the website, writes grants, staffs the center, and facilitates strategic planning, among other administrative duties.

Education Coordinator
Leads educational programs and activities. Laura Van Acker, the current River Center education coordinator, has 17 years experience with natural resource management and possesses teaching credentials for the State of California. Every time she goes to the Alturas Elementary School playground, she is flocked by students wanting to know when they get to go back to The River Center and the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge.

The Central Modoc RCD's project coordinator, watershed coordinator and assistant watershed coordinator also assist with educational activities at the River Center.

River Center exhibits & features Case Study

  • Native American historical land-use component
  • Front entrance mural displaying forms of life that are a part of the Pit River Watershed
  • Water cycle display
  • Water quality display
  • History of agricultural and economic land use in Modoc County display
  • Diverse agricultural products grown in the watershed display
  • Native trees component
  • A wildlife diorama
  • An aquaria room contains native fish of the Pit River, information on each species, and artwork
  • A stuffed mountain lion display
  • A nocturnal wildlife room with sound and activity
  • River Center store
  • Watershed management display
  • Resources library and curriculum
  • Kids' hands-on activity area
  • Challenges and solutions exhibit
  • Laboratory area
  • Invasive weeds display
  • On-going watershed RCD project information
  • A library
  • Watershed rehabilitation materials and tools
  • Elk display
  • Native plants garden
  • Public computer to access watershed information

River Center activities and educational programs
The River Center plays an active role in the community, a rural agricultural region in one of California's lowest income areas. The River Center has provided numerous field trips, tours, community environmental projects, in-class presentations and teacher workshops focusing on environmental education.

Case Study River Center tours
To date, the River Center serves Modoc Joint Unified School District, Surprise Valley and Big Valley schools. In 2004, 700 students visited the center. Students receive an interactive educational experience through use and interpretation of the aforementioned exhibits and displays. Favorite activities for many students include the nocturnal wildlife room and playing with educational toys and games; the latter two include animal track identification, books, puppets, bird call box, mystery feel box, puzzles, games, art projects and more.

In-class presentations & teacher assistance
This includes Enviroscape Model presentations by The River Center education coordinator who has 17 years experience with natural resource management. The model shows students how watersheds and wetlands function and how management decisions, good or bad, affect our watershed. Presentations have been given on native plants, vegetation mapping, watershed modeling, nonpoint source pollution, agricultural water use, geology of the watershed, careers in natural resource management and forest resources.

Community outreach
Case Study The River Center staff and supporters participate in and plan community interest programs such as the annual Wings of the Warner's Migratory Bird Festival, the National Wild Turkey Federation's JAKES event, the Natural Resources and Agriculture Partnership Academy, in which interns from Modoc High School work with agencies and organizations in the area. The River Center hosts an annual Kid's Discovery Day at the center and an annual Pit River Clean-Up Day. Other events include, the annual Goose Roundup, "Evening with the Bats" and "Long Legs and Green Eggs," an informative program on Sand- hill Cranes. The center provides information about the watershed at community events like July Fandango Days, the Modoc County Fair and the annual Children's Fair.

Field trips in the watershed
Case Study The River Center staff helps coordinate and lead field trips in the watershed. The staff work with other agencies and landowners, such as the Modoc National Forest, Likely Land and Livestock, the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge and many others, to facilitate the field trips.

The Pit River Watershed Adoption project
The River Center formed an alliance with Modoc National Wildlife Refuge and initiated a long-term adoption project. The Refuge staff identified 15 acres as an outdoor learning lab for students. Elementary students start service-based environmental projects that they continue to work on as they proceed through school. Case Study Instruction takes place at several "stations" on the site during field trips. Refuge staff biologists, Natural Resource Conservation Service volunteers, Modoc National Forest natural resource specialists, Bureau of Land Management specialists, parents and volunteers from the community serve as instructors. Students keep a portfolio that contains yearly monitoring projects, records of restoration work, reflection in writing, pictures and a critique. Students keep their portfolio through all grades so they may see their progress and accomplishments. The goal of the Pit River Watershed Adoption Project is to increase awareness of the Pit River and its watershed, give students and the community a sense of ownership and pride in our natural resources, provide opportunities to work on some of the watershed's problems, promote good land-use decisions and choices among emerging leaders, promote cooperation among competing interests, and create a shared vision of watershed enhancement in the region.

The River Center

Critical Steps to Success

The Central Modoc Resource Conservation District struck a chord with their proposal to create a river center, inspiring the creativity and volunteer spirit of their rural community. The project exhibits all the essential ingredients for success.

The River Center Development Team found that the initial planning session was key to their success. A professional facilitator helped the group mold their ideas into a unified vision. Articulating a common vision at the outset greatly enhanced their efficiency, communication, and sense of teamwork.

District staff organized The River Center Development Team, generating local ownership in the project by involving the widespread community, including all related agencies, organizations and groups.

The excellent staff, committed volunteers and a committed board of directors who made The River Center a reality are the project's most important resource.

Before making decisions, Valerie Coe and Paula Fields toured watershed education centers and conducted thorough research to see what other areas and communities had accomplished. This ensured that major planning decisions were well-informed and enhanced their network, aiding in the efficient allocation of time and resources.

The RCD hired a local graphic designer and artist with museum experience to design and construct the exhibits. This decision resulted in both a coherent, professional look and a local flavor that reflects community values.

Content evaluation was fully integrated with the planning and implementation process. All of the text and exhibits were fully edited and reviewed by professionals and experts in the respective topic areas, with many of them volunteering their skills. Today, the center's staff tracks student and visitor use of the center and are continually developing new programs to respond to the need for watershed education in the community.

This was the originating purpose of The River Center. Since its opening, it has become a hub of activity for students of all ages, from grade school to adults. Every time Laura Van Acker, the current educational coordinator for The River Center, goes to the Alturas Elementary School playground, she is flocked by students wanting to know when they get to go back to the River Center and the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge.

Recommendations/lessons learned

  • Everyone in the community must be invited. When holding meetings, make sure all members of the community feel welcome to attend. The most successful projects don't exclude any segment. They are grassroots from the ground up and encourage a feeling of community.
  • Creativity will come through. Wonderful ideas emerged as a result of limited space and funding. Do not allow apparent roadblocks to stand in the way of the vision.
  • Plan ahead for transition. Transition of key staff can be a major blow to the developing project. However, Valerie Coe and the RCD board created a strong partnership team and completed critical steps in the planning phase before passing the torch to Paula Fields. This put Fields in an excellent position to build on the project's momentum and make it a success.