Middle school students swarm the south spit for beach cleanup day

More than a thousand middle school students from schools across the county participated in the annual beach cleanup event in celebration of Ocean Day on Thursday.
More than a thousand middle school students from schools across the county participated in the annual beach cleanup event in celebration of Ocean Day on Thursday. Patrick Cudahy and Mark Harris — contributed
Trinidad School fifth-grader Summit Miner, 11, helps pull non-native beach grass on Ocean Day near the South Spit of Humboldt Bay on Thursday.
Trinidad School fifth-grader Summit Miner, 11, helps pull non-native beach grass on Ocean Day near the South Spit of Humboldt Bay on Thursday. Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard

The Friends of the Dunes couldn’t have asked for a better day to welcome more than 1,000 middle and elementary school students from schools across Humboldt County to the 14th annual beach cleanup Thursday in anticipation of World Oceans Day today.

This year’s cleanup effort was focused on the South Spit at the Mike Thompson Wildlife Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The students, who arrived in a fleet of buses provided and paid for by the California Coastal Commission, were tasked with pulling up invasive vegetation in an effort to restore the natural habitat and allow native plants to flourish.

“They are out here today being stewards of the environment,” said Suzie Fortner, program director for Friends of the Dunes. “This is a statewide program funded by the Coastal Commission.”

Humboldt County is one of five sites across the state that participates in the beach cleanup effort, she said.

BLM roped off sections of the dunes for each school to work and the students built piles of European grass. It was the hands-on portion of the Ocean Day program — students learned about the dunes and the ecosystem of the beach before coming out.

“At the other sites in the state, the students normally pick up trash,” Fortner said. “But here in Humboldt County, we are fortunate because we don’t have a lot of trash on the beach so we have them digging up weeds.”

The view from above as you came down the roadway from Table Bluff was quite impressive as the dunes were covered with swarming students scrambling up and down the dunes pulling weeds and grass and Fortner pointed to an area adjacent to Thursday’s site as an example of what clearing out invasive species does for native plants.

The area had been cleared by California Conservation Corps members and while the students won’t clear the entire spit made a marked difference.

“They can make a pretty big impact,” Fortner added, “just with the amount of kids we have out here today it’s really impressive the amount of work they can do.”

Summit Miner, an 11-year-old fifth-grade student was busy at work, and it showed. He had sand on his chin, in his hair and across the front of his shirt and shorts as he stopped for a short interview.

“I really like helping the beach and doing stuff on the beach to make it better,” Summit said. “I want to protect the beach, it’s a really big part of our community. If we allow the European grass to grow over, it will probably make these native plants extinct.”

For Summit, being on the beach, even if it means some work and weeding, is a preferable learning environment .

“It’s lot better out here than in class,” Summit added before he went back to his task.

Kloee Donnelly, 11, is a weed-pulling veteran. She had a clear understanding of the work she and the other students were doing.

“I have done this before and we take the non-native beach grass away so that the native plants can grow,” she said. “The beach is a really big part of our community and it’s important because we need more native plants to grow.”

When asked if it was hard work, Kloee responded, “yeah, it’s kind of hard work but it’s fun.”

The size of the event and the number of people present was surprising and it took a lot of coordination to make the event happen, organizers said.

The beach cleanup event is coordinated by Friends of the Dunes and BLM with assistance from Fish and Wildlife, the Conservation Corps and chaperones and volunteers from the schools.

“Suzie and I work for months to prepare for this event,” said Leisyka Parrott, interpretive specialist with BLM. “We provide traffic control to keep students away from the vehicles and we have BLM staff in the plots with the students.”

The cleanup effort serves as a chance to get children involved in environmental stewardship at a young age, and according to Parrott, it pays off as they get older.

“This is an educational opportunity for these students and I think the students who participate in Ocean Day come back older and volunteer with Friends of the Dunes or with BLM and they want to participate in the event as leaders,” she said.

The students spent about an hour to an hour-and-a-half pulling up weeds before a break, and then they gathered on the beach for a group shot. You can find out more information about Ocean Day and the beach cleanup event by visiting http://www.friendsofthedunes.org/.

Dan Squier can be reached at 707-441-0528.

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