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Youngsters Leave Mark on Shoreline : Environment: Fifty Oxnard elementary school students adopt oil-damaged McGrath State Beach in an effort to restore its natural habitat.


Sixth-grader Stephanie Ngo thinks that some adults are downright inconsiderate.

She says they do not seem to care for the planet's non-human species, because they leave their mark on the homes of thousands of birds, fish and insects on the once-unpolluted beaches of Ventura County.

"People don't care about the Earth," Stephanie said last week as she picked up an empty cigarette package that was buried in the wet sand. "I don't think it's fair. They only think of themselves. They don't think about the other creatures around here."

Stephanie is one of 50 students from Emilie Ritchen School in Oxnard who have adopted McGrath State Beach. The students and their teachers plan to spend parts of the winter and spring restoring the natural habitat of the shore, which was heavily damaged during an oil spill at Christmas.

Instead of reading science books in the classroom, the fifth- and sixth-graders will spend one day every two weeks picking up trash, cutting unwanted weeds and replanting natural flora.

While they're doing that, they'll get to watch plant-eating birds such as the coot eating greens, and carnivorous birds such as the turkey vulture eating dead lizards, squirrels and snakes.

"We want to give some real meaning to what kids learn," said Gene Figueroa, one of the two teachers involved in the project. "Being out here, they learn how to care for the environment and they become responsible human beings."

Figueroa and the second teacher, Evelyn Ybarra-Grosfield, said they chose McGrath State Beach because it's near their school and because they want to help restore some of the ecological damage the area--particularly McGrath Lake--incurred during the oil spill.

At Christmas, at least 84,000 gallons of oil leaked from a Bush Oil Co. pipeline into the lake and the ocean. At the time, the area was home to two endangered species--the California brown pelican and the snowy plover--and a range of other waterfowl.

Since the spill, state park rangers and environmentalists have been cleaning the area to make the wetlands safe again for the birds, including herons, sandpipers and ducks.

But as the students learned, the environmentalists have a long way to go.

"This is real sad," sixth-grader Laurena Guzar said as she compared the pinkish sand from the beach with the brown sand she collected near the lake. "The birds and other animals have had their homes ruined."

Laurena was taking the sand samples back to the classroom, where the students will study them.

During a two-mile morning walk on the southern part of the beach last week, the students began the six-month project by photographing the lake and its surroundings and taking notes on the plants affected by the oil spill.

They filled plastic bags with all sorts of litter found on the grayish dunes, including plastic, fiberglass, toothbrushes, bathing suits, soda bottles and cans, and such ocean debris as bird skulls.

As they reached the lake, state Park Ranger Thomas Hudson, who was guiding the group, pointed out a grebe, explaining that the migratory birds are just now returning to McGrath Lake after the spill.

Hudson said the students make a difference.

"The kids do provide us with a lot of positive support," he said. "It's exciting to see children caring for the environment as these ones do."

As their tour of the area continued, the students made notes on all their findings so they can prepare an environment report.

The report, Ybarra-Grosfield said, will be sent to ecologists at UC Santa Barbara for advice.

The report will include questions on how to increase the number of algae and brine shrimp in the lake, she said. Shrimp is one of the primary foods of the grebe and the egret, she said.

The four-hour evaluation of McGrath State Beach ended with a picnic. Some youngsters were tired, some were hungry and others couldn't stop talking about coming back.

"I want to help the wildlife," 10-year-old Christina Little said. "I want to show that kids can make a difference."

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