The public views Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge as a sanctuary for migratory birds, elk, deer, moose and predators and a destination for hiking and outdoor photography.
Teachers consider it a classroom.
About 160 schools from around the region take advantage of the free science and environmental education programs offered at the headquarters of the 18,217-acre refuge south of Cheney.
The field trips and winter in-school programs are free to the schools – a big attraction to teachers with lean budgets.
About $10,000 in funding for the Turnbull environmental education interns who interact with the students is raised by the Friends of Turnbull, a nonprofit group with about 150 members.
The annual Wild Refuge Dinner and Auction is 5 p.m.-9 p.m. on March 5 at Wren Pierson Community Center, 615 4th St. in Cheney. Tickets are available on-line for $35. Family tickets, including child care, cost $44 for parent and child. Info: fotnwr.org.
The interns, often college graduates involved in programs such as AmeriCorps, travel to schools to present programs teachers select dealing with topics such as wetlands, critter camouflage and even crayfish dissection for high schools.
“Turnbull is such a valuable teaching resource, especially with the new (federal) emphasis on science-related education in schools,” said Molly Zammit, friends group president and teacher.
“Field trips we lead from spring through fall are my favorites,” said Sandy Rancourt, visitor services manager for the Inland Northwest Wildlife Refuge Complex.
About 8,000 students a year in formal curricula become acquainted with fire ecology, invertebrates and critter nests at Turnbull each year. “The program sells it self,” said Rancourt, who’s been coordinating the environmental education program since 1999. “About 75 percent of the classes that come to Turnbull return the next year.”
Additional groups ranging from scout packs to senior bus tours book summer outings, including birding tours.
“Many kids are pretty unfamiliar with the natural world and teachers are eager to get them into outdoor settings and at least briefly away from distracting technology,” Rancourt said.
The refuge also has stewardship programs that get students from elementary schools through college working with shovels and fencing tools to improve Turnbull habitat. About 300 sophomore biology students put their muscle into learning each year.
“I can’t stress how important it is just to get kids out in nature,” Rancourt said. “I remember a group of Eastern Washington University students during freshman orientation that didn’t want to come out of the bus when they got here. Mostly inner-city kids, they had seen a coyote coming in and were afraid they’d be attacked.
“We talked about riparian restoration and as we got them out planting trees you could see them making the connection. Next thing we knew they were singing to the chipmunks, noticing things and having the best time. We really changed their perception of how they view the outdoors.”
Rancourt said her work is reinforced every time she sees a little kid transform from being afraid of a bug to being absorbed by watching it crawl and learning about its adaptions for survival and importance in the food chain.
“You never know what the future holds for these boys and girls,” she said. “We might be opening some doors.”
The Friends of Turnbull organize numerous activities and several educational events each year for the community, including the spring community planting day on April 20 and the Flood, Flowers and Feathers Festival coinciding with Cheney’s Mayfest on May 14.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.