The elk herd takes up residence on the Valley Floor periodically throughout the year. As part of Friday’s Valley Floor Education Day, a collaboration between the Pinhead Institute, Sheep Mountain Alliance, Telluride Institute and the Telluride Historical Museum, Telluride students will learn about the elk and other natural and historical aspects of the Valley Floor. (Photo by Suzanne Cheavens/Telluride Daily Planet)

On Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., the Valley Floor will play host to not only elk, prairie dogs, hawks, bluebirds, trout, and countless grasses and trees, but to 169 children attending Telluride public schools in grades K-2 who will explore the 560-acre expanse in a day of hands-on learning about the natural world that surrounds them. The fourth annual Valley Floor Education Day, a collaboration of the Pinhead Institute, Sheep Mountain Alliance, Telluride Institute and newest partner in the Telluride Historical Museum, shows Telluride’s youngest citizens the value of stewardship of and appreciation for the natural world in a series of four stations located throughout the Valley Floor.

According to Sheep Mountain Alliance Executive Director Lexi Tuddenham, the first education day was hatched in 2018 by then-intern Joe Cullen. The inaugural event, Tuddenham said, was eye opening.

“The first year we were inspired by how many of the students were visiting the Valley Floor for the first time, though it is just a scant half mile or so from their school,” she said. “We knew we had to do it again.”

Sheep Mountain Alliance helps with the planning and curriculum development for the event every year, and relies on the extra staffing, STEM expertise, and strong school relationships that Pinhead and the Watershed Education Program of the Telluride Institute have to put it all together, Tuddenham explained.

“All our groups work closely together, and we are lucky enough to also have local experts like Eric Hynes who volunteer their time and expertise to teach that day as well,” she said.

Telluride Institute’s Garrett Smith is the director of the Watershed Education Program. The institute has been studying the Valley Floor’s most notable mammalian residents, the elk that roam the grassy and wooded expanse.

“(Our) role will be to talk about our citizen science wildlife monitoring project that we are undertaking on the Valley Floor in collaboration with Sheep Mountain Alliance and Mountain Studies Institute out of Silverton,” Smith explained. “In particular, this study is focused on how and when elk use the Valley Floor during the year. We will be talking about the importance of the Valley Floor as a transition zone during the elk's seasonal cycles between their winter and summer ranges. We will also discuss the decline of the elk populations in southwestern Colorado and how projects like ours may help managers understand what may be causing this decline.”

The four stations awaiting the students will cover various aspects of the Valley Floor’s diverse ecosystem, including a pond on the east end, a spruce grove, a willow grove and a riverside excursion, where the kids will study stream flows in a “STEM-y” exercise, according to Pinhead Institute Executive Director Sarah Holbrooke,

The Telluride Historical Museum, which will be stationed in the willow grove. In addition to hands-on willow branch crafts, the young students will learn the history of the Valley Floor’s earliest human inhabitants, the Ute tribes who spent summers in the valley. The museum’s new programs assistant, Molly Daniel, will be presenting.

“Molly will be giving a little background on how the Valley Floor and similar areas are a traditional summer camp and hunting area for the Uncompahgre (Tabaguche) bands in particular,” said Theresa Koenigsknecht, the museum’s director of programs and exhibits. “She’s going to chat about how Natives used the natural world to survive. The main thing we want to point out is that we not talk about Natives in the past tense … they are still here.”

Holbrooke stressed the importance of sharing the area’s history, as well as its natural attributes.

“We wanted more history this year,” she said of the museum’s participation. “These are amazing collaborations.”

All of the day’s collaborators stress the importance of engaging young people with the natural world in order to help them understand their crucial role in its care and understanding.

“There couldn’t be anything more important,” Holbrooke said. “Our goal is to influence young minds to be good shepherds of the Valley Floor. Children are our future. The Valley Floor is a resource they need to take care of.”

Tuddenham concurs.

“Stewardship and the ability to care for the natural world starts with building a lifelong relationship with the environment you are so much a part of. For young people, it creates resilience, a sense of awe, an awareness of being part of a larger community made up of intertwined entities and systems, and a place to be connected to in the world that they can come back to,” she said. “A large body of research has shown that time spent outside is critical for child development, as well as child and adult mental and physical health, and the formation of strong social structures.”

Additionally, she and others working to protect natural resources have noted how the outdoors has become a strong draw during the pandemic for those seeking solitude and comfort.

“Nature, and the physical, hands-on experiences it offers, is a grounding antidote to hours of virtual learning on Zoom,” Tuddenham said. “In addition, we know that building these healthy relationships and creating learning opportunities and equitable access to the outdoors early in life will empower these young people to someday speak up and be the advocates that our wild lands, waters, and wildlife so critically need.”

Smith spoke of connecting and engaging young people with the outdoors as a kind of investment in the future.

“More than anything young people are our future and eventually these special places, such as the Valley Floor, that we all appreciate and love will fall into their hands,” he said. “By building a solid foundation of environmental and conservation knowledge and awareness I feel like my generation and those that came before me can rest assured that a more informed younger generation will continue to keep these places special.”

Though there is a 30 percent chance of showers forecast for Friday afternoon, the day promises to be sunny and warm, a departure from past Valley Floor education days that were made challenging by a blizzard — that weather event curtailed the day by half in 2019 — or outright canceled as it was in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.