Understanding the watershed

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Lori Curtis has released the second edition of her book, “Flathead Watershed Sourcebook.” The book takes a comprehensive look at the Flathead Watershed. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

When Lori Curtis began working on her master’s thesis project she held the opinion that little was being done to protect the Flathead watershed.

Through the process she disproved her own theory and authored the “Flathead Watershed Sourcebook: A Guide to an Extraordinary Place.” Today she has become a scientist in that same watershed and an advocate for its protection through her work as the science and education director for the Whitefish Lake Institute.

“People have come together in an amazing way to fight for the watershed,” she said. “I had a vision that no one was working to protect the watershed and I was vehement that something should be done, but so many organizations are working to protect some part of the basin. All these groups are fighting for specific things and it floored me that there was so much activity.”

Curtis recently released the second edition of the sourcebook, which has been out of print since its initial limited release in 2010. The new edition has also been updated and is being released alongside a companion educators’ guide.

The book includes 57 watershed perspectives — short narratives written by or as the result of interviews with a cross section of individuals from throughout the Flathead — people from diverse backgrounds representing non-governmental organizations, citizen groups, tribes, agencies, schools, and industries.

“This book gives a collective ‘voice’ to the watershed,” Curtis said. “The project also exemplifies the importance and effectiveness of joining forces to describe, appreciate, and protect our home at the watershed level.”

The book was Curtis’s conservation biology master’s thesis for the Master of Science in environmental studies program at Green Mountain College. As a non-traditional student Curtis graduated just before turning 55.

When she was looking for a project for her thesis she turned to experts in the Flathead watershed, in particular Lex Blood, who was her mentor on the project. He is a geologist, geographer, a respected member of Flathead conservation community and retired educator with Flathead Valley Community College and the University of Montana. The book was developed for and with extensive content contributions from the Flathead Community of Resource Educators Watershed Education Committee.

Curtis applied experience from her first career in business — writing, researching and interviewing people — to pull together a full picture of the watershed.

“I wasn’t ever daunted by the project, but I’ve never worked so hard on a project,” she said.

The 264-page book is filled with over 300 full color photos, graphics, and maps, as well as numerous scientific and informational sidebars. It includes chapters on the Flathead watershed’s natural history, cultural history, water quality and usage, human influences, land ownership and management, and economics, and an in-depth description of watersheds.

Curtis notes that it’s unusual for a sourcebook to encompass such a wide range of topics related to a watershed, but that was important to her because she says every piece influences the watershed.

“I wanted to put it all together — it was important to do,” she said. “You won’t find another like it.”

Along with the release of the second edition, the Flathead CORE WEC has also released the Flathead Watershed Sourcebook Educators’ Guide, a companion curriculum for use with the book. Montana State University professor Michael Brody and master’s student Rose Vallor developed the educators’ guide.

The goal for the guide was to create a place-based watershed curriculum that would be easy for teachers to use in their classroom while meeting current teaching standards.

Curtis is excited about the education component the guide brings to the sourcebook. She says it allows often busy teachers to bring in lessons that introduce students to conservation concepts through engaging activities focused on outdoor learning.

“This gives a richer introduction to the watershed,” she said. “Our society has been uprooted because we move so much and when we don’t have roots we miss learning the cultural and natural history. Students don’t always know about this extraordinary place.”

She says deeper learning about the natural world is key for the future of the Flathead watershed.

“Students who learn about the environment through inquiry-based learning will be engaging citizens,” she said. “You don’t take care of things you don’t know and love, but if you love a place you tend to take care of that place.”

While the sourcebook was designed as an educational tool, it has a narrative feel that makes it useful to anyone interested in the watershed.

Following the completion of the first edition and her master’s degree, Curtis began to seek out jobs. Through the work on the book, she met Whitefish Lake Institute’s executive director Mike Koopal, who also contributed to the sourcebook. When Koopal offered her a job with the nonprofit institute, which is committed to acquiring scientific research, and educating the public about protecting the Whitefish area water resources, it was a chance to work as a scientist in the watershed where she was already living, and had put such hard work into learning and writing about.

“He gave me an opportunity,” she said. “I loved it here — the people and the place. The Flathead became the place I wanted to be.”

The sourcebook and educators’ guide will be available online at the end of April at www.flatheadwatershed.org. The first and second edition of the book were designed by eBizServices in Whitefish and printed by Thomas Printing in Kalispell.

Funding for the second edition of the sourcebook and the educators’ guide was provided by the Flathead Conservation District, Flathead National Forest Resource Advisory Committee, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Soil and Water Conservation Districts of Montana, Inc. Applied Materials, Inc., Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Flathead Basin Commission, Flathead Conservation District, Flathead Lakers, Flathead National Forest, Glacier National Park Conservancy, and the Sustainability Fund. In-kind services were provided by Montana State University, the Whitefish Lake Institute and eBizServices.

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