An endangered environment

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011

Caleb Collins thought that he had retrieved only wet leaves when he pulled his fishing basket from Swanson Creek earlier this week, but then the Laurel Elementary School fourth-grader spotted two finger-size fish among the pile.

"I got two fish in one!" he yelled excitedly.

Caleb soon discovered, however, that his fish were tadpoles and worth just one point. Tadpoles can live in polluted streams like the one at Camp Schmidt, where Caleb and his classmates were getting a lesson on life in the Patuxent. But had the 9-year-old caught a mayfly nymph, then Cathy Foutz, his instructor at the outdoor environmental education center, would have given him three points. The aquatic invertebrate insects live only in clean streams.

Since 1971, students in Prince George's County have been required to spend two days at Camp Schmidt, where they learn about the health of the streams whose waters flow into the Chesapeake Bay, the stars in the sky and urban legends such as "Old Man Clutch," who is rumored to roam the 450-acre site at night.

But the future of those visits is in jeopardy. Last month, the Prince George's County Board of Education voted to eliminate $1 million from its budget that went to pay for eight full-time positions at the facility.

School officials said they can no longer afford to fund Camp Schmidt, especially when faced with a $155 million gap in the school system's $1.6 billion budget. Officials are also cutting 400 teachers and 92 librarians, among other personnel. Barring a last-minute influx of cash, the camp will close June 30, officials said.

The possibility of closing the camp - which has hosted, on average, 7,000 students a year for nearly four decades - has sparked an outcry from politicians, parents and Camp Schmidt alumni. Bowie resident Rachael Dickey has started a Save Camp Schmidt group on Facebook. As of Friday, there were a little more than 200 people who had joined.

Dickey attended the camp with her fellow Kenmoor Elementary School classmates 16 years ago. She said the experience helped her to build confidence, and "the exposure to the nature in our own back yard is something that has stuck with me to this day," she added.

Named after William S. Schmidt, the county's school superintendent from 1951 to 1970, the camp has grown from a small, spare campground dotted with tents to a campus of 17 buildings spread across a vast acreage.

Donna Hathaway Beck, vice chairwoman of the county Board of Education, said the cuts to the camp have caused strife in her home. "I went to Camp Schmidt four times with my children in the 1990s," she said. "It is more than an environmental experience. It is a cultural experience that speaks to the wealth and beauty of the county."

John J. Neville, who has served as supervisor of environmental education for the county since 1973, agreed.

"When kids don't have authentic experiences in the natural environment, we have left blank some of the critical bricks that they need in their educational foundation," Neville said. "It is hard for young people to understand something like the importance of the Chesapeake Bay watershed when they have never visited a stream."

Earlier this week, school board member Carolyn M. Boston (District 6) paid a visit to Camp Schmidt. As she walked a trail down to Swanson Creek, she reflected on the time she brought her granddaughter to the camp.

"I am very sad this had to be part of the budget this year," Boston said. "I hope that we can find the money to keep Camp Schmidt open."

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