KEENing up the environment

AJ St. John, Staff Reporter

Nonprofit organization Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) strives for environmental excellence. KEEN provides opportunities for learners to engage in the surrounding environment. 

According to KEEN, the organization was founded in 1999 when they had wanted to build a Natural History Center within the county. Several years ago, KEEN signed a 30 year lease with State Parks to develop a center at Helen McCabe State Park. The park is under development by the gateway to the Yakima Canyon. It was named as a memorial for a CWU professor, Helen Margaret Werson. 

Board member Gerald Scoville said it is an atrocity that there are these ecologically uneducated children. He is working on ecological literacy with small children. Scoville also mentions that, in Washington, the evergreen state, new generations do not know about the state itself. According to Scoville, there are 17 different species of evergreen.  

Over the past several years, KEEN has been working with other organizations and community groups to invest in habitat restoration. The park was seeded with native grasses last year and nearly 200 ponderosa pine seedlings were planted in 2009. Native grasses provide erosion control and vegetative filtration. According to Natural Resources, native grass root systems also improve drainage rates and increase absorption of rain. KEEN has also worked on the restoration of riparian habitats and planted 6,500 native shrubs at the park. According to the website for Wyoming state, healthy riparian vegetation helps to reduce stream bank erosion and maintain stable stream channel geomorphology. The vegetation also provides shade, which works to lower water temperatures.

Alisha Blanchard, social media manager, said that KEEN focuses on work with children, called Ponds to Pines. The program includes after school projects and summer camps that educate children ecologically. Blanchard mentions that people need to realize how important it is to preserve the environment by educating people. 

“It is really important for kids to go outside and learn about the environment because they are our future,” Blanchard said. 

KEEN hosts annual events such as the Shrub Steppe event that highlights the surrounding endangered landscape, plant and animal communities, weather and geology. Currently, events that are available are the Yakima River Canyon Bird Fest and the Windfall Cider Fest. Bird Fest is a three day event that highlights Central Washington with the highest densities of passerines and birds of prey in the state. According to KEEN, the family friendly event targets birders throughout the Pacific Northwest and from around the world.

Sarah Mayes, KEEN board member, said her main project, Oktoberfest was successful. 

“Learning about something, the more you appreciate it, it will enrich you in more ways that money and possessions cannot,” Mayes said.

Every Friday, KEEN works with the Washington Outdoor School to run a pre-school at Helen McCabe Park. KEEN has also started and expanded their summer camp that allows for younger generations to interact with nature. 

Treasurer Stefanie Wickstrom, who also teaches political science and environmental science at CWU enjoys community engagement. Child engagement in the environment creates community endeavors, according to Wickstrom. 

KEEN not only focuses on Kittitas county, but also the Yakima River Valley and Benton county as well. Their mission is to connect communities back into nature through environmental education. Environment, Equity and Economy (E3) collaborates with KEEN in the redrafting of bylaws, restructuring of boards and committees and renewing volunteer bases. The E3 winter fair overviews the community businesses and organizations that specialize in sustainable products. CWU has been starting their sustainability process to better the environmental situation in Ellensburg.  

“We are all trying to make this a better place to live, just get involved,” Blanchard said. “We are always looking for more young people.”