Hands-on nature preservation

As traffic zoomed by the Bolsa Chica Wetlands along Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny Surf City day, a group of Marina High School seniors were busily testing water quality and getting a tutorial in native plants and animals.

As the students touched a wild fennel plant, Laura Bandy of the Bolsa Chica Conservancy told them the plant is related to licorice and can be eaten. With bewildered stares, some questioned what she had said. Then two boys threw some down the chute.

"It's actually good," said Matt Ribas, 17, after he shoved a large piece of the plant in his mouth. "It's not like I would've thought ? it's not that strong."

Giggles exploded from the teenagers as Ben Shibata, 18, joined Matt in his feast.

The day wasn't just meant to introduce students to a smorgasbord of edible plants. Teacher Wendy Gingerich's goal for the year was to teach her students more about the environment and all its intricacies.

"Global warming is a significant force right now, and we're at the high point of global fossil-fuel resources," the Huntington Beach resident said. "For the next 50 years, there will be a dramatic decline [in resources], no matter what we drill and what we destroy."

"This class was really good for fundamental learning," said student Corie Radka, 18, who plans to study environmental science at UC Santa Barbara. "We learned about water testing and other things ? it was good for the basics."

Matt Ribas took the class because of his concerns about the environment.

"The general perception is that we [as individuals] can't prevent this," the Westminster resident said. "The reality is there are a lot of things we can do?. We just all need to do our part."

Bandy had the students testing water quality in the wetlands. The students found the oxygen and nitrate levels low and determined it was due to the recent rain.

"People see the aesthetic beauty of the pretty plants and pretty animals, but if people don't understand the biology and science of an area," they won't be able to protect the area, Bandy said.

The highlight of the day was the nature hike, where they learned, among other things, that the ice plants Cal Trans planted up and down Pacific Coast Highway are extremely invasive nonnative plants that need to be eradicated in the wetlands.

"The nature walk was the best part," Matt said, "finding out how unique our coastal line is. Just from driving past, it just looks like a lot of weeds, but it's not."

Gingerich taught a similar class in the 1970s, but after the University of California changed its science requirements, schools followed suit, and the environmental science class was eliminated.

"Colleges stopped acknowledging it, so it went away in the mid-1980s," she said. "A whole group of students fell through the cracks."

The class was reinstated, but only at an advanced level. Bandy and Gingerich agree that the future of the environment and the wetlands will lie in the hands of the students who are motivated to learn about them.

Not only that, but with a looming energy crisis, the population will be turning to renewable sources, creating a need for people educated in this field.

"There are going to be massive changes and enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs in renewable resources," Gingerich said. "The ecological revolution is going to be very big in the future and a major place of employment for [the students]. Not to mention, we've got to conserve what we've got left in the planet."

"Every day I walked in the class, I learned something new," said student Thanh Le, 17, who is tentatively planning to major in biology at UC Irvine.

Bandy had led about 5,000 students around the wetlands since January on similar educational programs.

"A lot of them are approaching their 18th birthday," she said. "These are going to be the future stewards and caretakers?. They have an opportunity to make educated decisions on how to regulate the system."hbi.01-itc-1-CPhotoInfo2S1RG1D220060601j03etdncKENT TREPTOW / INDEPENDENT(LA)Kirstin Byrne, 17, flings a bucket into the water at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands to retrieve a water sample for testing.

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