Friends of Poynette Game Farm treat students to a touch of the wild with pheasant chicks.
Outdoor youth expo enjoys new home
MacKenzie Center is center of attention.
Story by Mark LaBarbera and photos by Michael Chico LaBarbera
More than 1,400 students, 200 chaperones and teachers, 120 volunteer instructors and dozens of partnering organizations joined conservation educators and other DNR professionals for the two–day, hands–on event.
"This is a great opportunity to highlight this special place and to connect students to the outdoors, conservation and the environment," explained DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp at the event. "The most fun thing is seeing so many girls who are really diggin' all these activities."
Later, at a Natural Resources Board meeting, Stepp added, "Here was a way to get kids off the blacktop and into nature."
Students tried their hand at bird identification, wildlife tracking and forestry activities correlated mostly to academic standards for fourth and fifth graders, and sampled archery, airguns, fly–tying and casting. They came face–to–face with wolves, bison, coyotes and other live animals. They saw up close how to skin muskrats and filet and fry fish. They tried calling ducks, turkey and elk, and they handled snakes, turtles, fish, pheasant chicks and ducklings.
They also discovered a touch of the wild from around the world in the Sensory Safari walk–through trailer provided by the Badgerland Chapter of Safari Club International (SCI), a major funder of the event, along with the Wisconsin Chapter and Southeast Wisconsin Bowhunters Chapter. Wisconsin Friends of the National Rifle Association helped teach firearms safety.
Trout Unlimited's Bob Haase said, "We need events like this to help connect kids to the environment. Nowadays, instead of young people going deer hunting, they're playing deer hunting games online."
Lou George of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation talked to students about the role of hunters and anglers in conservation, including funding for wildlife restoration success stories, such as elk in Wisconsin.
"It's important for young people to not only understand natural resources and the environment, but to also engage in outdoor activities," George said. "They will never protect what they don't know and understand. Once they know it, they'll love it. Once they love it, they'll use it. And the more they use it, the more they'll want to protect it."
Educators attending the Expo agreed with George that events like this are a step in the right direction and consistent with the organizing group's mission. The Midwest Outdoor Heritage Education Expo aims to "increase understanding, appreciation and sense of stewardship for the environment, natural resources and professional resource management."
Organizers also provided take–home materials with information about how students and educators can get involved with on–going outdoor skills, safety training and conservation education programs as well as mentored opportunities.
Teacher Jeff Droessler of Benton said, "Having all of these groups give students a sampling of outdoor skills that they might take up and do for the rest of their lives is a pretty cool opportunity."
Secretary Stepp praised the partners and DNR professionals, saying, "People came together in the conservation community with an impressive wave of enthusiasm I've never really seen happen."
That enthusiasm continues as partners, schools and others begin planning for next year's Expo on May 14 and 15.
The Expo is booked for the next three years at MacKenzie. According to post–event surveys, 100 percent of educators and partners said the DNR's MacKenzie Center is a great place to host the event, with its woods, prairies, live animals, trails, pond and central location in the state.
Mark LaBarbera is an outdoor writer and member of the state's Sporting Heritage Council.