It’s chaotic in the side yard of Butte Falls Charter School, but don’t let that fool you. The middle schoolers are locked in.
“Let’s get this log done!” calls design and build class teacher Chris Mathas over the cacophony of drills and giggles.
The class is planting shiitake mushroom mycelium into three-foot oak logs. It’s a lesson that’s part ecology, part agriculture and part traditional shop class - a perfect fit for the natural resource focus of their school.
“First you have to scrub all the stuff (bark and lichen) off, and then you have to drill holes in ‘em, about four inches apart or so. So we can put the mushroom seeds and stuff in them,” says seventh grader Hannah Morley as she drop an inoculated log into a bin of brown water. “We have to put the logs in the water so the mycelium, which is the mushroom seed, grows.”
Mr. Mathas monitors the assembly line of students working at sawhorses, offering advice, instruction and keeping the peace. When a student asks about doing this project at the school’s Natural Resource Center, Mathas gets excited.
“Next year we’re going to move it into the fish hatchery. So everything you’re doing now will be at bigger scale, they’ll be more of you,” he says. “We almost have it set up so we can move over there.”
The Natural Resource Center is what Mathas calls a decommissioned fish hatchery about a half mile from the school. He’s in charge of getting the facility up and running.
Opening the door to the main hatchery, we’re hit by a wall of stink.
“We have critters that live in here,” Mathas calls over his shoulder as he walks inside.
Inside the cavernous building, Mathas’ voice echos. The ceilings are high and there are lines of 40-foot concrete troughs that were once home to thousands of baby fish.
“This is where we will grow shiitake mushrooms,” he says pointing to the raceways.
Getting access to this kind of infrastructure is a rare opportunity.
“Generally speaking, we don’t close hatcheries, because hatcheries are very integral to the public service we provide,” says Russ Stauff, Rogue Watershed Manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In fact, Butte Falls Hatchery is the only hatchery the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has shuttered in nearly 40 years.
Stauff oversaw the closure of Butte Falls Hatchery back in 2011. The state decided to close a hatchery to save money. Butte Falls rose to the top of the list after multiple outbreaks of a fish disease had closed down hatchery production.
When the hatchery closed for good, the state transferred their part of the property to Butte Falls School District. The other piece of land, which houses the main hatchery building and several residences, reverted back to federal ownership. The District is currently undergoing a process to take ownership of the federal piece as well.
“Giving students opportunities is really what it’s all about. We don’t have some of the tools and potential that you would have in some of the bigger school districts have, but some of the bigger school districts don’t have what we have here,” says Mathas.
Not just for the school
The closure of Butte Falls hatchery was yet another loss of natural resource jobs for the town.
“We’re a town that’s really been lumber-based. The Forest Service has been presence here, and the lumber companies had been a big presence here. And now that we don’t have the lumbering, it’s quite difficult,” says Butte Falls Mayor Linda Spencer.
Spencer says most Butte Falls residents live near the poverty line. Thirty-six percent of the students in the district are considered homeless according to the Oregon Department of Education. This is by far the highest district homeless rate in the state.
Spencer says bringing back the hatchery and wooded property surrounding it as a natural resource education center would provide opportunity for the whole town. She talks a lot about it providing a thing for the community to rally around. She thinks it could help generate tourism by exposing students outside the district to the recreation and natural wonders of the area.
“It would be nice to exploit the forest in a different way,” she says.
Shop teacher Chris Mathas has at least a dozen different ideas for how to do just that. There’s the mushrooms and other possible niche agriculture crops. Mathas talks about setting up an indigenous species tree nursery, lab space, fish propagation and monarch butterfly programs, trails and wetland observation decks.
“And then we’ll have a natural history museum along with that local history museum,” he says.
And don’t forget the campsites, amphitheater and ropes course.
Mathas admits he doesn’t have all the details worked out yet, and that there’s a long way to go before the Natural Resource Center starts to live up to its potential.
“We would like to continue to thrive. We’d like to be a vibrant community. And we’d like to have a purpose. And I think it only fair that we have a site to recreate ourselves, reinvent ourselves,” he says.
The period is coming to an end and many students have drifted away from the mushroom logs. They’ve huddled into a rowdy blob near the building. One kid is literally climbing the wall.
“It keeps their attention for about an hour … Right now, you’re witnessing the beginning of the end,” he grimaces, realizing he doesn’t have much time left.
He yells over at the blob to rejoin the workforce, giving the wall-climber and other students specific clean-up instructions.
Despite the descent into chaos, Mr. Mathas seems pleased.
“You guys are rockstars as far as I’m concerned. We did a record number of logs here,” he tells the group.
It’s a good sign that his students were so engaged in today’s lesson.
It’s this kind of energy and enthusiasm Mathas will need to make the vision for the Butte Falls Natural Resource Center a reality.