Unlike the “debaters” we’ve come to know on TV, a Reardan High School class is tackling natural resource issues without attempting to persuade, promote or ridicule.
The students are researching presentations with a refreshing goal: To educate themselves and audiences on contentious topics such as applying rotenone to rehabilitate Sprague Lake’s fishery and implementing Washington’s Wolf Management Plan.
“When the class finally latches onto a topic after school starts in August, students usually have a knee-jerk reaction and gravitate to one side,” said Rick Perleberg, the school’s agriculture instructor and Future Farmers of America adviser.
“Sharing the information they dig up sheds light on how human emotions play into an issue. It’s fun to watch the kids grasp that. After some research, they might be in the other camp.”
This year’s topic: Should salmon be reintroduced to the upper Columbia River watershed?
That proposal will stir years of debate among scientists, politicians, anglers, business interests, utility managers and tribal leaders.
But the students must present both sides of the issue in equal measures in just 15 minutes.
Reardan’s entire Ag Leadership Class has been researching the question since September to support a six-student team in FFA competition.
Regional, state and national events require schools to debate current agricultural issues relevant to their communities. Creating connections between students and the issue, and giving their presentation to groups, earn points with judges.
Reardan won the Washington state competition last year by focusing on the controversy of the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.
“Straight up ag issues may not be as engaging to the public,” Perleberg said. “Natural resources issues are a lot juicier.”
The teacher inspired last year’s debate on a proposal for a huge gold and copper mine in the headwaters of Alaska’s most productive salmon fisheries.
During summers, Perleberg lives in Bristol Bay and fishes commercially for sockeye. “I have time to read and listen to the issues,” he said, noting that he saw a lot of signs with the words Pebble Mine in a circle with a red slash.
The mine topic reaches beyond Alaska with direct connections to Washington, making the controversy relevant in Reardan, and therefore to the FFF competition.
“We learned that 43 percent of the Bristol Bay (commercial fishing) fleet is owned by Washingtonians,” Perleberg said. “They account for almost 50 percent of the catch and most of the processors are Washington-based.”
Chuckling, he added, “And you could say that almost 10 percent of the teachers in Reardan High School fish in Bristol Bay.”
The Perleberg connection to the issue enabled his daughter, Bailee, who was on the team last year, to hit a home run with the judges during the five-minute post-presentation questions period.
“They asked how the Pebble Mine issue would affect her personally, and she pointed out that her dad was a Bristol Bay fisherman, that the fishery provided supplemental income to her family, and then she said, ‘As my dad’s wages go, so does my allowance.’ ”
On the other hand, the students point out that most people don’t realize the importance of mining for everyone’s quality of life, he said.
“Our region has a rich mining history,” he said. “Today, the national headquarters for Teck American is in Spokane, as well as the headquarters for American Exploration & Mining Association.
“There are opinions out there and then there are the facts. That’s one of the biggest eye openers for the kids – sifting through all the information. There’s a ton of it. We spend a lot of time discussing it.
“They must sort out the key points, boil them down and then distill them further.”
Two weeks ago, this year’s Reardan team traveled to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Spokane Valley to make its cases on restoring salmon fisheries above Grand Coulee.
With a slide show on a screen behind them, their performance engaged the audience with special effects, creativity and showmanship.
The students already had presented to Trout Unlimited, the Spokane City Council, school boards, the Bureau of Reclamation and Lincoln County commissioners before exposing themselves like baitfish in a shark tank to fisheries managers who are neck-deep in the issue of salmon restoration.
“We walked away from WDFW a little beat up,” Perleberg said after the students endured some tough post-presentation questions on facts and realities. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, they need to feel the burn from time to time.”
This week the team took its project to Portland before the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, as well as to the Bonneville Power Administration – the agency that would be asked to tap its power customers and fund the bulk of an upstream salmon revival, should it ever be attempted.
Some of the students have family linked to Columbia River irrigation water and they all benefit from hydropower.
Nate Kieffer is the son of a fish and wildlife professional with the Spokane Tribe, which is intimately involved in salmon restoration.
“We talk about this stuff a lot at home,” Kieffer said.
The students open with the perspective of Indian tribes that grieve over the rich fisheries they lost to development.
Abruptly, the message shifts to the other side of the room with an equally commanding view led by Lizzie Williams, highlighting the hydropower and other benefits society has reaped from the building of Grand Coulee Dam.
The proponent team grabs the spotlight again, suggesting the loss of salmon runs and 1,100 miles of salmon habitat was an extremely high price for benefits of hydropower.
Opponents say mending the abused ecosystem is a noble goal, but too expensive with no assurances.
“I liked the challenge of being an opponent to salmon restoration,” Williams said. “I tend to favor it, but the presentation forced me to look into another view.”
“Nate is so knowledgeable, it’s tempting to let him answer all the questions,” said team member Kaylene Kuykendall. “But we all need to know about this topic, from top to bottom.”
Thanks for the inspiration Kaylene and Reardan FFA. That’s not a bad philosophy for taking sides in any discussion, decision or vote.
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