Audubon society reaches out to youths

PHOTO COURTESY OF NORTH FORK AUDUBON SOCIETY Students are being challenged by the North Fork Audubon Society to take the lead in helping to save their environment. They’ll be gathering Jan. 21 to choose their projects in a new young naturalists program. Here, young environmentalists participate in one of last year’s Audubon youth programs.

The North Fork Audubon Society is tapping into a network of budding scientists, convinced that area students have the intelligence, energy and determination to develop programs that will inspire people to interact with and protect the environment.

Scallops and bluefish were easy to find in the waters surrounding the North Fork when Audubon education chairwoman Debra O’Kane spent summers here as a child. There are a lot fewer now, she said, and she doesn’t want to see more species disappear so that today’s children will have similarly sad recollections in a few years.

Accordingly, she is launching a young naturalists program for students in grades seven through 12 with a kickoff roundtable discussion at the Audubon’s Red House in Greenport on Friday, Jan. 21. Ms. O’Kane will be building on an existing program of events for youths.

The roundtable won’t be a group of talking heads telling students what to do, Ms. O’Kane said. It will give them a chance to tell the adults what they would like to do to protect the environment. Organizers also hope the students will get involved in creating a science center at the Red House and that the Audubon headquarters will become a gathering place for students.

“It’s a forum for them to be empowered,” Audubon education committee member Laura Klahre said of the initial roundtable and the activities that will grow out of discussions with the youths. The women have been working with students well ahead of the Jan. 21 kickoff event to identify ideas that may interest the wider group of young environmentalists.

Among the ideas that have come up are:

• creating a group of “secret shoppers” to visit area stores and determine if they are selling any of the 63 plant species on Suffolk County’s “do not sell” list;

• gathering data about species that are either thriving or failing to thrive on the North Fork;

• cooperating with beach cleanup efforts to see what’s being discarded that poses danger to fish and birds.
Ms. O’Kane said she’d like to work with Dr. William Zitek, a retired veterinarian, in his ongoing effort to attract bluebirds back to the North Fork. Ms. Klahre said she would like to lead a group of students to Orient Point in February to learn if seals are still thriving there.

“We just need a dynamic group that’s gung ho,” Ms. Klahre said about enlisting the students.

To entice young people to attend the initial session, pizza, brownies and ice cream will be served, Ms. O’Kane said. But she and Ms. Klahre said they hope those who do come will leave feeling empowered to become involved.

“It’s a cool thing to do,” Ms. Klahre said. “We’re part of nature. North Fork Audubon isn’t just about birds — it’s about nature as a whole.”

“It’s about connecting people with nature,” Ms. O’Kane added. “That’s the greatest thing we can teach kids — that people are part of the natural world. We put so much stress on the environment,” she said. Unless a new generation of environmentally conscious people gets involved, Ms. O’Kane warned, “we’re going to lose our naturalists.”

Both women have long been involved in environmental causes. Ms. O’Kane, an Orient resident, is a former executive director of the North Fork Environmental Council. Ms. Klahre is an area beekeeper living in Southold who has been active with Nature Conservancy, the Long Island Native Grass Initiative and the Peconic Estuary. “Nature’s always been in my blood,” she said.

The roundtable gets under way at the Red House at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21.

[email protected]