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'Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour' educates the public about local pollution issues

RELEASED: April 20, 2011

Students canoing on Chippewa River
Students in UW-Eau Claire's "Environmental Conservation and Action" class canoed the Chippewa River last fall to establish the route of the "Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour."(UW-Eau Claire photo by Bill Hoepner)
Dr. Paula Kleintjes with students
Dr. Paula Kleintjes Neff, professor of biology and one of the faculty members who co-taught UW-Eau Claire's "Environmental Conservation and Action" class, talked last fall to students before a canoe trip to research pollution issues along the Chippewa River. (Photo by Bill Hoepner, copyright © 2010 UW-Eau Claire)

EAU CLAIRE — Chippewa Valley residents soon will be able to follow a map to GPS waypoints along the Lower Chippewa River to learn about local pollution that affects the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area.

The "Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour" — created by University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students in an "Environmental Conservation and Action" class — is accessible from Eau Claire bike trails or the Chippewa River as people hike, kayak, canoe or bike to pre-set GPS waypoints on the river, where they can read messages about various types of pollution affecting the river.

"Our goal is to inspire citizens who take this tour to actively steward our valuable river," said Dr. Ruth Cronje, an associate professor of English who co-taught the interdisciplinary course in fall 2010. "We want people to use the tour as a way to connect to the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area and to learn about the things they can do to help conserve our beautiful local resource.

"When you go on the Chippewa River, you can't help but fall in love with it. If we can get the public on the water for the tour, it will be a powerful experience. If this tour encourages even 50 people from the community to get out on the river, it will be worth it."

The tour features 11 stops, each highlighting different pollution issues affecting the river basin. Topics vary from invasive species issues to light and noise pollution to road salt to pharmaceuticals. The first stop, in Phoenix Park, provides an overview of the river basin, its importance to the region and the pollution threats it faces.

The "Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour" also can be found online. The virtual tour features 10 three-minute student-created videos about different environmental issues found along the river.

Maps highlighting the tour stops also soon will be available at stores and other locations throughout the Chippewa Valley.

"Education is key when it comes to changing social behaviors," said senior Hillary Johnson, Stoughton, who was among the 20 students who created the tour. "If people are aware of the pollution affecting the Chippewa River and ways they can prevent it, serious changes can be made toward making the river a cleaner and safer place."

Sarah Peterson, a project mentor, was surprised by the extent of the water pollution in the Chippewa River area.

"We're fortunate to have the Chippewa River area here with so many native plants and animals, but pollution is a huge issue," said Peterson, an English major who graduated in December 2010. "Through this project, I've come to feel like it's my obligation to know more about water pollution issues so I can make better choices in my day-to-day life."

Peterson and her project partners hope community members feel the same way once they learn about the variety and severity of pollution problems in the region.

"These problems have an impact on humans and animals," Peterson said. "In the project, we're addressing problems from a biological standpoint and from a human standpoint. We want people to understand how interconnected our health is with our environment."

Johnson and Lauren Kurkowski, Green Bay, a junior English major, studied the impact lawn and garden pesticides have on the river basin. In their video, they share their findings and offer simple ways community members can use pesticide alternatives, as well as share ways to prevent contaminated runoff from getting into the river.

"We hope that by educating the public about the dangers of pesticides getting into the river, people will change their behaviors regarding pesticide use," Johnson said, noting that she and Kurkowski worked closely with on- and off-campus environmental experts to complete their portion of the tour project.

Agencies that worked with the students were Clear Vision Eau Claire — Sustainability Task Force; Lower Chippewa River Alliance; River Country Resource Conservation and Development Council; UW-Extension Lower Chippewa River Basin educator; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; and UW-Eau Claire Environmental Adventure Center.

Fostering those community connections was an important part of the class, said Dr. Garry Running, professor of geography. The community partners served as resources, helping students better understand complex issues, he said. They also directed students to legal documents, research studies and other resources that helped them gather and verify information that was critical to their presentations, he said.

Most importantly, the partners helped students learn to be effective civic change agents, said Running, who taught the course with Cronje; Dr. Paula Kleintjes Neff, professor of biology; and Dr. Don Mowry, professor of social work and director of the Center for Service-Learning.

"The students learned there are a lot of people and organizations working on these issues," Running said. "And they learned they can have a seat at the table if they listen and share information in ways that lay people can understand."

Katrina Smith, Hudson, and senior German major Kate Ebnet, Owatonna, Minn., spent hours researching and creating the project's introduction, which touches on the biological, economic and recreational significance of the area and provides an overview of how and why everyone who lives and works within the river basin is responsible for the pollution that flows into the river.

"The conversations I've had with people who are highly involved with the river and show a passion for this area have been invaluable in inspiring me to work toward a better future for our environment," said Smith, an ecology and environmental biology major who graduated in December 2010. "But the real value of the course comes in its application. We hope the project will share knowledge about important environmental issues with the public and that our community will move in the right direction to protect and preserve the beauty and biodiversity of the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area."

Helping students learn to communicate effectively about environmental issues was a primary goal of the course, said Cronje, noting that creating projects that would resonate with the public — not just a professor — was a new experience for many of the students.

Faculty who oversaw the pollution tour project hope future classes will build on the tour, Kleintjes Neff said. Creating a similar tour for children or a version that addresses environmental concerns in rural areas might be viable future projects, she said.

The "Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour" received financial support from UW-Eau Claire's Blugold Commitment and the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board. A year ago, the Student Senate and the UW System Board of Regents supported increasing the amount of differential tuition UW-Eau Claire students pay, with the new dollars going to fund Blugold Commitment projects that enhance student learning.

For details about the tour, contact Dr. Ruth Cronje at 715-836-5384 or cronjerj@uwec.edu; Dr. Paula Kleintjes Neff at 715-836-5284 or kleintpk@uwec.edu; Dr. Garry Running at 715-836-2731 or running@uwec.edu; or Dr. Don Mowry at 715-836-4649 or dmowry@uwec.edu.

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JB/DW

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