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Female Champion of Water: Shelly Backlar

Wendy Ramallo, CWH Executive Director

Women's History Month for CWH is about celebrating the accomplishments of women in water and few have done more to educate generations of children and families about the power of the natural environment and the LA River than FoLAR's Shelly Backlar. If you have not had the pleasure of walking with Shelly on the LA River you are missing out on one of the true joys of being an Angeleno. Few people understand the importance of teaching our children about water conservation through nature-based education like Shelly. Fewer still have impacted thousands of lives like she has. It is the combination of fierce and fun in her advocacy that inspires me. Her decades of steady persistence helped to ensure the G2 Parcel would become open space for millions of Angelenos to enjoy for generations to come. I am not only lucky to have her as friend and mentor, I am also grateful for the work that she does.

One of Shelly’s earliest memories is catching a bird in her bare hands. After a weekend birding trip to Mono It’s just one of the reasons she is so passionate about plans and projects that re-create wetland habitat along the Los Angeles River. If you see Shelly out on the River don’t be surprised to hear her squeal, “Oh, look! There’s an osprey!” and she’ll talk about what it was like being out on the River with biologists during FoLAR’s first fish study. She knows that a swimmable, fishable, boatable Los Angeles River is possible, just ask her about what the time she fell out of a kayak in the Glendale Narrows.

How did you become to appreciate environmental education?

Shelly: Just like with many things in my life I stumbled into the world of environmental education. When you work for a non-profit organization you jump in as needed and, since education is part of Friends of the Los Angeles River’s mission, it’s been integral to the work I’ve been doing for almost 14 years. I started by giving PowerPoint presentations about the River’s past, present and possible future, in classrooms and at community gatherings. We used to hold an annual River School Day each year the day before the Great Los Angeles River CleanUp and brought up to 800 students from elementary, middle and high schools. We had educational activities in place, however, the students really enjoyed being outdoors and in the River. So we added an LA River Field Trip to our program and began integrating and adapting lessons from Project WET (Watershed Education for Teachers), a national curriculum available through the Water Education Foundation. While working on the educational content for our Los Angeles River Rover – a 38’ mobile visitor and education center – I learned more and more.

It’s the things that students say to you, the way they react when you show them a plant or walk down the channel wall to see the River close up. Seeing birds always gets me excited and I point them out to the groups, “Look, there’s an osprey. They eat fish so what do you think is in the River?” I’ve had students say things like, “You love nature, don’t you?” and “Do you get paid to do this?” and to both I say, “Yes.”

What female STEM leader inspired you?

Shelly: I have been inspired by the educators we’ve brought on to shape our programs for sure. Alicia Katano came to us by way of the Autry Museum and set up a program for grades 3 – 6. Kari Rasmussen followed and she taught me so much about how to interact with the students. She introduced macroinvertebrate sampling as an indicator of ecosystem health and water quality. That was such an eye-opener for me and something that people of all ages respond to. Ariel van Pelt worked with us over the past two years to develop the Source to Sea curriculum that we have today and I am absolutely in awe of what she created. We how have a four-part program with lesson plans, curriculum, PowerPoint presentations, worksheets, lessons using the River Rover and hands-on activities for our field trips that meet California State Standards and align with Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards.

Candice Russel, the CREEC Coordinator for Southern California (California Regional Environmental Education Community) is a constant source of inspiration and awe. However, I aspire to be more like Dr. Amy Lethbridge, the Deputy Executive Director for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and founder of Community Nature Connection. She makes everything look so effortless and her enthusiasm is palpable.

In your opinion, what is a hidden (natural) gem of Los Angeles?

Shelly: How can I NOT say, the Los Angeles River? But I really do believe and know that the River is such an amazing resource, not only for place-based environmental education, but also for recreation, relaxation, habitat and so much more.

Who do you think are the trail blazers in this field?

Shelly: Dr. Amy Lethbridge, Candice Russell, Kelly Decker, Meredith McCarthy, Barbara Romero, Irma Munoz, Wendy Ramallo! There are so many. Anyone who takes another person outdoors and shares that experience is an educator. Inspiration and education walk hand in hand.

What is your favorite activity during Earth Month?

Shelly: For me it’s the Great Los Angeles River CleanUp. The sites that are special to me are the Sepulveda Basin, the Bowtie Parcel at Fletcher Drive and Compton Creek at Del Amo. I’m a San Fernando Valley resident so it’s rewarding for me to connect with other SFV residents at the River. Coincidentally, these are all sites where the Los Angeles River Rover is on hand. Come by and visit!

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