After more than 40 years as a beloved outdoor learning center for northern Arizona’s sixth graders, Camp Colton is modernizing, starting with its curriculum.

This month, educational staff members at the 44-acre camp tucked into the western slope of the San Francisco Peaks have been piloting new forest health lessons for use in the coming school year. Educational programs are one component of a 50-year master plan that the team has been developing for the last year. The plan features forestry plots in areas of differently spaced trees, cabins to replace platform tents, preservation of the stream that runs through the property, expansion of the historic lodge and more.

The camp has already added two cabins and a nature play area where students can step from one flat-topped log to another.

Camp Colton was donated to Flagstaff Unified School District in 1976; however, it welcomes other school groups in the spring for residential overnight camps where students participate in environmental education programs and other activities like square dancing, which has been offered since the camp was formed.

“Camp Colton is this beautiful balance of innovation but also tradition. To make it an outdoor environmental camp of the future, there are changes that need to come,” said Ari Wilder, executive director of Friends of Camp Colton.

Wilder said the draft of the master plan will be open for community feedback in the fall.

To make the camp curriculum more relevant to northern Arizona students – and their families – the forest health lessons will replace those on climate change and botany, which instead will be taught by teachers prior to their classes’ camp visits.

“So many people don’t understand why we need to cut down trees, how wildfire is a natural part of many ecosystems around here, how it’s been suppressed for many years and what we have to do to make things healthy now. That was the impetus behind having this program,” Wilder said.


More than 100 students from Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, the Peak School and Williams Elementary-Middle School visited the camp this week. In their forest health lesson, small groups gathered to count the age rings in cores from several different trees. Each of them leaned in, quietly running their fingers along the smooth, long wooden tubes before jumping to their feet and gleefully shouting out the age of their sample.

As they moved onto the next activity, Janesah Hammond, a 12-year-old from FALA, proudly displayed a fragment of the core she was able to keep. Though smaller than the width of her palm, the piece represented nine years of the tree’s life.

“The curriculum I’m seeing is just outstanding,” Williams Elementary-Middle School social studies teacher Allie Mitkowski said. “It’s incredibly well-organized, it’s aligned with standards. It has the classroom portion and then they go right to the kinesthetic, the hands-on.”

Twelve-year-old Mikey Scott’s favorite piece of new forest knowledge was about “widowmakers,” broken branches caught in trees named for their tendency to fall and, historically, make widows of loggers’ wives.

“One of our goals is to make sure that anything that’s happening at camp can’t be done in the classroom. If they’re up here, we want it to be hands-on, outdoor, exploring in nature,” Wilder said.

When students return to school, they will create a model of a healthy northern Arizona forest, based on Camp Colton’s lessons.

“These lessons are really grounded in scientific evidence and study and show kids at an early age that you don’t need to sit at a desk, write and read, to learn the concepts of forestry, wildlife and aquatics. You can go out and actually do and see these things happening,” said environmental educator James Kirkham.

These activities also have additional benefits for modern students’ everyday activities.

“It was a nice experience being unconnected from social media, to just go out and see where you live,” FALA’s Evi Nuno, 12, said.

Trevor Baldner-Hathaway, the environmental educator who wrote the forest health curriculum, said the camp team will work to make all lessons more engaging and data-driven, like the new forest health program.

“We really wanted the kids to use the actual tools that these scientists use to get their evidence to support their claims as to whether they think the forest is healthy or not. And we’re not really telling them whether it’s healthy or not. We would like to see them debate about it and use evidence to support their claims,” Baldner-Hathaway said.

This spring, the Friends of Camp Colton purchased densitometers (to measure the density of the forest canopy) as well as metal clipboards, diameter tape measures and increment borers used to extract tree cores.

These tools were purchased with funding from sponsors including the Arizona Community Foundation of Flagstaff, W.L. Gore & Associates and GeoFund, while a grant from Arizona Public Service (APS) was used to develop the new curriculum.

“This healthy forests project really spoke to us because it combines STEM education with helping kids understand the importance of a healthy forest environment, which we need for the sake of the whole state,” said Janet Dean, the APS community affairs manager in Flagstaff.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 


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