When it comes to treasuring the environment, 26–year–old Alex Fetgatter knows he is fortunate. His parents took him hiking, fishing and boating from a young age. Now, as Patuxent Research Refuge’s first urban wildlife refuge intern, he is passing that outdoors ethic forward.

In cooperation with the refuge, this school year Fetgatter is bringing natural resources expertise to one of the nation’s largest and most diverse school systems.

“I really enjoy working with the kids,” he says. “I like the energizing feeling you get from knowing that you might be creating future environmental stewards.”

The urban wildlife refuge internship is Patuxent Refuge manager Brad Knudsen’s idea. Its main objective, he says, is to bring a conservation message to schools in accordance with Conserving the Future recommendation 13.

“We co–locate our biologists with other agency biologists. We co–locate our scientist/researchers with other agency scientist/researchers,” Knudsen says. “Why not co–locate our environmental education staff with other EE staff and realize the same sort of synergy?”

Remarkable Diversity

The Patuxent Refuge internship is unusual because the refuge is in Maryland and Fetgatter is based an hour away in the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. The school system and the refuge had worked together on outreach before, Knudsen says, so it made sense to collaborate on this partnership, too—especially given the demographics. The Fairfax County system, with 196 schools and 181,500 students, is the country’s 11th–largest. And its ethnic diversity is remarkable: 43 percent white, 22.1 percent Hispanic, 19.3 percent Asian American, 10.4 percent African American and 4.6 percent multiracial.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funds the internship. The school system provides office space and daily supervision for Fetgatter, a history major with two years’ local experience in invasive species control.

Guided by the schools’ environmental education coordinator, Elaine Tholen, Fetgatter spends 32 hours a week working with students and teachers on conservation projects.

One day Fetgatter might help a class dig a pond, cultivate a native garden, or set up a recycling or energy conservation effort. The next day he might help gather baseline data about the school district’s wildlife habitat or environmental projects (gardens, woodlands, no–mow zones, etc.).

Each week, he mentors a high school environmental group that is building native plant gardens and reaching out to elementary schools; an outdoor science/literature group; a fourth–grade class that is planting a native garden in the shape of Virginia; and students studying nature’s intricacies with a focus on change.

Leading by Example

“I try not to get up on a soapbox because I think that turns people off,” Fetgatter says. Rather, he leads through example. He gives hands–on demonstrations. He encourages students to take ownership of projects. He explains how their mulch garden benefits the ecosystem or how invasive species cause ecological harm. “It shows them that this not happening just in Brazil. It’s happening here. And it gets them to think, ‘Maybe there is something I can do about it.’ ” “Having an extra set of hands from the Fish and Wildlife Service is extremely valuable,” says Tholen, who appreciates the enthusiastic, step–by–step project guidance Fetgatter offers students and teachers. His passion, she suggests, is contagious. That he is a Service employee wearing a Service shirt “adds a level of importance to what we’re doing.”

Which is exactly what Patuxent Refuge manager Knudsen has in mind.

“As it becomes increasingly difficult for school systems to fund field trips,” he says. “I see the urban refuge initiative as a way to bring the refuge to the schools. My hopes are that hundreds, if not thousands, of people—only an hour away from Patuxent—will learn about the Service and the Refuge System. And, even more basic than that, they will learn about the nurturing and exciting experiences that await them in nature.”