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Learning in the wild

CORVALLIS — About half of all Oregon students participate in outdoor school at some point in their education.

But Save Outdoor School for All, a Portland-based political action committee, is gathering signatures to create a new fund that would expand the opportunity.

Their proposal is Initiative Petition 67, which would require that about $22 million in lottery funds be set aside each year for the purpose of giving all fifth- or sixth-graders in Oregon one week of outdoor education. The petition must be signed by 87,000 registered voters to earn a spot on the November ballot.

Caroline Fitchett, campaign director for the political action committee advancing the petition, said the initiative had its origins in parent groups in Portland that had to raise money so their local schools could offer outdoor school programs, where kids get science-based education curriculum while staying at a camp for few nights.

"Outdoor school is one of the most impactful experiences Oregon kids can have," said Fitchett.

According to reports filed with the Oregon Secretary of State, the campaign has received more than $251,000 in cash contributions thus far. Nike Inc. and Columbia Sportswear are two of the campaign's largest donors, having each contributed $10,000.

The PAC's largest expenditure to date is nearly $148,000 to Fieldworks, LLC, an organization that advertises on its website that it provides canvassing operations using both volunteers and paid workers to gather signatures for ballot initiatives.

So far, Fitchett said, the campaign has gathered about 15,000 signatures.

If the measure makes the ballot and is approved by voters, Fitchett said the funds needed to run the outdoor school programs would be taken from Oregon lottery funds presently allocated for economic development. According to the Oregon Lottery's website, 57 percent of lottery funds already go to education, 27 percent is allocated for economic development and job creation, 15 percent goes to state parks and natural resources, and 1 percent goes to treating problem gambling.

According to state of Oregon budget documents, for the two-year budget period of 2013-15, the lottery contributed $125 million to economic development. A representative of Business Oregon, the state's economic development agency, said about 25 percent of its budget comes from lottery funds.

According to Business Oregon's annual report, in 2015 it created more than 2,200 jobs and helped retain nearly 6,800 more.

Fitchett said outdoor school supporters wrote the initiative to draw from economic development funds because they believe increasing the number of outdoor programs would benefit rural Oregon. She said a study commissioned by supporters concludes that by doubling the number of students attending camps from 25,000 each year to about 50,000, the funds would create 500 new jobs in rural Oregon to serve the facilities and programs the schools would use.

"Outdoor school funds go directly back into local economies," she said.

However, Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, a state senator who is on the Business Oregon Commission, expressed skepticism about outdoor school's fit in economic development.

"To talk about outdoor school in terms of economic development is a bit of a stretch," she said an interview Sunday.

Johnson gave examples of projects that have received economic development grants that she thought were a better fit for the definition, such as a roughly $200,000 investment in the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery near Tillamook, which in 2008 saw most of its oyster larvae die unexpectedly.

The Los Angeles Times newspaper reported on the event four years later and said that Whiskey Creek supplied the majority of the oyster seed stock used by independent shellfish farms on the West Coast before the collapse.

"Overnight their production went to zero," said Johnson.

Johnson said with the investment of public funds the hatchery was able to bring in researchers from Oregon State University to investigate the larvae collapse. The researchers were able to discover the culprit, ocean acidification resulting from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, and then found a solution to help the hatchery work around the issue. It's an example Johnson said has billions of dollars in impact.

"There are examples where the state's investment in economic development has . made all the difference in the world," she said.

Initiative 67's text says that it would place Oregon State University in charge of distributing the outdoor school funds as grants to school districts throughout the state. Fitchett said OSU's Extension Service already handles smaller amounts of grants to create outdoor school programs. The service also houses the state's Oregon Environmental Literacy Program, which helps schools with materials and curriculum for outdoor education.

"It was a natural fit for outdoor school to sit at OSU Extension," said Fitchett.

Philomath Middle School is rare in Oregon in that it offers a week-long residential outdoor school program for its sixth-graders, which is funded by the community and district's budget. Steve Bell, the school's principal, said outdoor school has value for the middle school students who attend and the high school and college students who serve as counselors and teach lessons.

"While at outdoor school the students learn with a hands-on discovery approach to science and the environment that surrounds them," Bell said. "They also learn to live with their fellow students in an environment where they are responsible for taking care of themselves and the area they are living in. All of this learning is accompanied by songs, skits and a lot of laughter."

Philomath Middle School Students Emma Pankalla, left, and Maggie Ross run a hose into the woods Friday so they can spray some water on an imaginary fire during a forestry expo put on by the Philomath High School forestry program. (Andy Cripe/Corvallis Gazette-Times via AP)
Paul Struiksm, holding the antenna, and other members of his team search for a radio-tagged animal Friday during the forestry expo at Philomath Middle School in Philomath. Philomath Middle School also has a weeklong outdoor school program for sixth-graders each year. (Andy Cripe/Corvallis Gazette-Times via AP)