Billings fourth-graders discovered on Friday that the best way to learn about trees is to swing from them.
As part of Friday’s Arbor Day celebration at Pioneer Park, certified arborists with the Billings Arboriculture Association treated almost 400 students to a safe swing using harnesses, helmets and a belaying rope, about 15 of which were hung high from the branches of a large cottonwood tree.
Gleeful students were as high as 25 feet off the ground, swinging a little like Tarzan and Jane.
“The only hard part,” said Libbi Popelka, the group’s secretary, “has been to convince some of them to come down.”
“This has been the best field trip ever,” said Cydney Pfaff, a fourth-grader at Alkali Creek Elementary, as she watched her teacher, Kayla Sanchez, laugh while hanging upside-down, safe and secure in her harness. Unlike their teacher, the children stayed right-side-up and were each attended by a watchful volunteer.
After she’d returned to Earth safely, Sanchez said her style is to model her enthusiasm for learning and for having fun.
“If their teacher is excited and makes things fun,” she said, “then they’ll have fun.”
Students had plenty of opportunities for fun learning. About 20 groups staffed learning stations to share ideas about nature and the environment with the students — and, later in the afternoon, any grownups who wandered by.
Simone Durney, a member of the Rocky Mountain College Environmental Club, came dressed as a bag lady. Durney snagged hundreds of plastic grocery bags from campus trash cans, then sewed them to clothing to make her costume — and a point.
“We made this costume to make people aware how important it is to shop using reusable bags,” she said. As club president Renee Seacor recited the 4 Rs — reuse, reduce, recycle and reinvent — Durney brightened.
“This is reinventing,” she said, striking a pose in her unique costume.
Students were then invited to hoist a bin containing 28 pounds of materials, the amount of trash the average American produces in a week. Most were able to lift it some, but organizers said they hope the effort will remind students of the 4 Rs.
At another booth, Joe Lockwood, weed coordinator for the Yellowstone County Weed District, unfurled a 30-foot-long painted banner showing students just how long leafy spurge roots can grow — and what makes the noxious weed such a bugaboo for weed-fighters.
McKinley Elementary School teacher Pat Lothian put it in terms her students could understand: “It’s like something invading your body and sucking all the blood out.”
While students learned, more than 100 volunteers got to work around the park, grinding stumps, edging sidewalks, removing graffiti, picking up trash — and, of course, planting trees.
Kierney Findon was one of about eight Montana State University Billings volleyball players working to remove rocks, plant and spread fresh groundcover around a park memorial.
“This is our way of showing people what MSUB is all about — giving something back to the community,” she said.
Once students ate their sack lunches and volunteers were fed, Gov. Steve Bullock was the featured speaker leading up to a tree-planting ceremony.
Bullock told students that while the event might feel like “a bunch of adults coming here to blah, blah blah," Arbor Day is more about “your making sure that Billings, Montana and the country are better tomorrow than they are today.”
Bullock presented Mayor Tom Hanel with a plaque, flag and other gifts commemorating Billings’ 30th year as a Tree City USA and its designation as 2013 Montana Tree City USA for large cities. Billings, the governor assured students, has “a healthy, resilient urban forest.”
A handful of selected students then helped Bullock and Hanel make Pioneer Park even more so. The grown-up dignitaries used golden shovels and the youth turned smaller golden spades to plant a Kentucky coffee tree, Gymnocladus dioicus, which Parks Superintendent Jon Thompson suggested they nickname "Joe."
Billings city forester Fred Bicha said the volunteers completed Arbor Day work valued at about $35,000.
“This is my Christmas,” he said with a smile.