While 475 fourth-graders celebrated Arbor Day Thursday gleefully by being hoisted into trees or scaling a rock wall, they also learned a thing or two.
“I have enjoyed learning about different kinds of bugs,” said Sara Shimamoto, who attends Eagle Cliffs Elementary School. “Sometimes I smash them, but sometimes I just watch them.”
Shimamoto and her classmates had just attended a “Have We Met? I’m Your Worst Nightmare!” invasive insect workshop put on by Lori Witham and Taelor Anderson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. That stop was one of 21 environmental stations offered up at Veterans Park during an annual event put on by the Billings Department of Parks, Recreation and Public Lands, and more than a dozen sponsors.
About 200 volunteers were on hand leading workshops and improving the park by planting shrubs and laying sod, building a retaining wall, painting bleachers and laying another layer of fall protection beneath the park’s playground.
The two bug specialists introduced students to a number of tiny unwelcome guests, including Asian long-horned beetles, who came to New York and Massachusetts half a century ago on imported pallets.
Then there's the coconut rhinoceros beetle, which alarm Hawaii residents with their ability to gnaw their way into toppling entire palm trees.
Anderson held up a jar with a preserved Giant African land snail, a creature accidentally introduced into South Florida by a boy returning from a visit to Puerto Rico. Slowly but surely, the large snails get around to eating plants and flowers. They're also known for latching themselves onto Floridians' garages.
Closer to home is the Japanese beetle, a copper beauty that probably entered Billings the way many other visitors do — through Billings Logan International Airport.
The adult beetles made their way down the Rimrocks to chomp on roses and flowering shrubs on the Montana State University Billings campus while their younger offspring cut their teeth on tender grass roots, eventually destroying lawns.
“We’re trying to trap them,” Witham said.
At another educational booth, Robyn Sargent, who manages environmental services for the engineering and scientific firm Terracon, demonstrated how engineers help make the environment safe — “or at least safer than it was before we got there,” she said.
She demonstrated the tools engineers use to evaluate the cleanliness of water resources, then performed a little chemical magic by dropping a couple of antacids into a cup of water, vegetable oil and food coloring to demonstrate how chemicals can be used to improve water quality.
“You can do this at home,” she said. “Just put a lid on it and watch it go.”
Tom Yelvington of Yellowstone Valley Tree Surgeons helped hoist eager students up to 50 feet in the air using pulleys and ropes hung from an 80-year-old cottonwood tree.
“These are pulleys and carabiners we use every day in tree work,” said the veteran of more than 40 years in the tree care business. “If they can handle a 200-pound adult, they can handle a fourth-grader.”
At the day’s conclusion, one student from each classroom was given a kid-sized golden shovel to ceremoniously plant a Valley Forge American elm tree, which Jon Thompson, the city’s parks superintendent, said was appropriate for Veterans Park, “since George Washington, one of our nation’s greatest veterans, spent that very cold winter at Valley Forge.”
“Would you rather be in school having fun?” asked Mayor Tom Hanel. “Or would you rather be here having fun?”
Not surprisingly, students chose the latter.