CADILLAC – Wildfire Prevention Education and Mitigation Specialist Debra-Ann Brabazon received the Forest Service’s Eastern Region 2019 Gifford Pinchot award for Excellence in Interpretation and Environmental Education in recognition of her significant achievements in conservation education. Winning the regional Gifford Pinchot award put Brabazon in the running for the national 2019 Gifford Pinchot award.
Brabazon is known in Wexford County for her youth engagement programs. She started by making the Forest Service Junior Ranger program an ongoing learning experience in her community. She then founded the Cadillac High School Ecology Club and the elementary-age “Junior Rangers in the Classroom” program. Programs which aim to teach students about the natural history of the forest and what lives there, the human uses of the forest, and how to be good stewards of their public lands.
“This award is as much the Jr. Rangers’ success as it is mine,” said Brabazon.
Brabazon’s Ecology Club program introduces high school students to local land management professionals and engages them in local environmental issues. It teaches new skills and leadership qualities, and allows students to grow as the next generation of land stewards. Students interested in going a step further become Jr. Ranger Volunteers and engage in high profile community service projects benefitting the Cadillac Community.
Collectively, the Jr. Rangers have contributed over 100 hours of community service time working with Huron-Manistee National Forests through litter clean ups, archeological digs, Senior Community Service Days, and other activities. Last year, Jr. Rangers and Ecology Club members built and installed 237 bluebird boxes to be monitored as part of the Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology NestWatch Program.
This year, the Jr. Rangers and Ecology Club have their eyes on Lake Mitchell and Lake Cadillac. They plan the research the impact of storm drains on water quality and to implement a “storm drain adoption” program while educating residents about water quality. It could be said they are taking Cadillac by storm, one drain at a time.
“By teaching the youth of today we are grooming the stewards of tomorrow,” said Brabazon. “If we take the time to teach them now, we won’t have to retrain them in the future because they have been instilled with respect for their natural resources through exposure and hands-on learning.”
The elementary-age “Jr. Ranger in the Classroom” program piloted in Mesick in 2018-19 at Jewett Elementary school in Miss Arnott’s 2nd grade class. Programs were done every other week for 90 minutes. In the 2019-2020 school year, the “Jr. Ranger in the Classroom” program is in Mrs. Elizabeth Becktel’s kindergarten class at Kenwood Elementary where students get 40 minutes of environmental education and a lesson in American Sign Language. Programs were designed to enrich what was already being taught in the class room and are aligned to Michigan Department of Education’s Common Core Curriculum.
Brabazon has worked for Huron-Manistee National Forests for 14 years. This is her first time being nominated for the Gifford Pinchot award and first time winning the regional award. Although she did not win the national award this time, Brabazon says she could not be prouder of the work her kids have done in their communities.
“These students are incredible individuals,” said Brabazon. “They will go on to win many awards themselves, I am sure of it!”