In Patty Ferrentino’s 4th- and 5th-grade classroom at the Kermit S. Nickerson School in Swanville one recent morning, 18 eager students crowded around a table at the front of the room. They were equipped with spray bottles of water and small plastic shakers marked “fertilizer,” “pesticide” and “soil.” They clutched colored strips of paper with vocabulary words written neatly on one side and their definitions on the other — words such as “nutrient,” “runoff,” “turbid” and “non point-source pollution.”
Volunteer Cloe Chunn, 69, of the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition stood among them, discussing different features of the tabletop watershed model in the center of their circle.
Chunn is one of hundreds of area residents trained through the Penobscot Bay Stewards program, which is currently enrolling for the 2017 session. Established in 2000, the free program provides a month of classroom lectures and field trips aimed at creating and harnessing an educated workforce of lay volunteers who, like Chunn, understand the natural workings of the bay, its long history and the largely man-made forces that threaten its health.
“Let’s see. This golf course uses a lot of fertilizer,” Chunn said, pointing out the rolling, green undulations on the watershed model. “So, let’s give it some fertilizer.” A student delivered an enthusiastic sprinkling of green sugar. “Oh, and pesticides, too,” Chunn added. On went some pink sugar granules, while another student, at Chunn’s direction, read aloud the definition of “pesticide.”
The colorful model also featured a small farm with livestock and a plowed field, a factory, some homes, a sewage treatment plant and a forest. There were roads, bridges, a small stream, a parking lot and a construction site. And, critically, there was a lake, complete with sweet, fresh water and a dime-sized turtle.
Over the course of an hour, Chunn and her helper, Jenny McVeigh, led the students through a lively discussion and demonstration of oil spills, factory waste, soil erosion, road salt, manure leachate and sewer sludge. When the rains came, in the form of energetic spraying from the water bottles, they watched together as all the vari-colored contaminants — including chocolate syrup standing in for spilled oil at the construction site — washed downhill and plumed darkly into the lake.
“How happy do you think this turtle is?” Chunn asked as the lake water changed color. “Not happy,” came the chorus of responses. “Because now his home is polluted,” added one youngster, sadly.
Chunn and her desktop watershed model, which is on loan from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, are popular visitors in Ferrentino’s classroom. In fact, she maintains a busy school-year schedule of presentations and field trips in Waldo County, with a goal of educating youngsters and building broad-based environmental advocacy for the Belfast Bay watershed and all of Penobscot Bay beyond it.
Chunn and McVeigh, who is also 69, are both alums of the PenBay Stewards program. Chunn is retired from a professional background in teaching. McVeigh is a former nurse and stay-at-home mom who relocated from Portland to Prospect about six years ago and found her way into the program, attracted by the promise of getting to know her new surroundings, meeting new friends and becoming involved in local activities.
Each spring, a new training class of about 20 men and women — including many at retirement age or beyond and many recent transplants to the area — convene for a series of lectures and field trips. This year, the program will meet every Tuesday and Thursday from April 25 through March 25. Guided day trips may include the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington, the Penobscot Nation’s reservation at Indian Island, the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in Orland, Hurricane Island off Rockland, the Marine and Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, the site of the former Veazie Dam on the Penobscot River above Bangor and other destinations. Volunteers will learn about organizations such as the Audubon Puffin Project in Rockland, the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Friends of Sears Island in Searsport. There will be boat trips and short hikes, picnic lunches and more.
At the end, participants are expected to sign up for 30 hours or more of volunteer service to the nonprofit environmental group of their choice. Many graduates, said Tom King — class of 2011 with the PenBay Stewards and president since 2014 of the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition — turn their energies to planning the next year’s stewards’ program. But many others, like Chunn and McVeigh, join forces with existing organizations or start projects of their own, making long-term commitments to protecting the welfare of Penobscot Bay.
“People have a lot of interest in learning about the bay,” he said, “We can teach them about Indian cultures, the history of the quarries and the fisheries and the development of our little harbor here in Belfast.”
In exchange, “we want to make people aware of what’s happening in the bay and how they can interact positively with the environment,” King said.
Since its founding in 2000, the Penobscot Bay Stewards program has been funded with a $2,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administered through the Department of Marine Resources. This year, King said, the state did not renew the NOAA grant, so BBWC has partnered with Searsport Shores Ocean Campground in Searsport to fund the training. “This program is an important cog in our activities,” he said.
At Searsport Shores, co-owner Astrig Tanguay, also a PenBay Stewards alum, said the protection and preservation of Maine’s coastal environment is vital to the success of her business and the state’s tourism economy.
“People come to Maine because we are so well known for our rocky coastline and for being one of the last places you can go to be alone on the beach or paddle among the loons and the seals,” she said. “People come here from all over the country because we live in such a clean and beautiful place.”
But beyond that, she said, it’s important to support the work of the Penobscot Bay Stewards because it makes good ethical sense to do so. “We do it because we believe in it,” she said.
Applications technically close Saturday, April 1 for the 2017 Penobscot Bay Stewards training, but the deadline will be extended if enrollment is not complete.