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Sunnyside and the Wolf

Originally appears in the Summer 2006 issue

Before every election my neighbors place a sign on their lawn: “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Yet all too often, students learn about democracy as spectators. They may discuss current events and gain important textbook knowledge of democratic institutions in school, but they are rarely asked to participate in the democratic processes of their government. As a result, many young people miss opportunities to express their opinions on controversial issues and gain an understanding of their role as citizens.

Thirty-five middle school students at Sunnyside Environmental School in Portland, Oregon, had an opportunity to participate directly in government decision making last year when the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission solicited the public’s comments on a plan to manage wolves. Gray wolves had recently begun to migrate into the state, and a citizens’ advisory committee had been convened by the Commission to draft a plan for dealing with problems that might arise. The wolf has long been an icon of wilderness, and many animal lovers were ecstatic about its return to the wilds of Oregon; but ranchers and others living in rural areas were deeply concerned. The issue was perceived as dividing rural Oregonians from their urban counterparts. At least one member of the state Fish and Wildlife Commission described the state’s response to the return of wolves as the most important issue the Commission had ever faced.

At the time, the students in Jan Zuckerman’s Grade 6-8 class were studying the westward expansion of the U.S. population and historic attitudes toward nature. The public hearing presented a chance for them to become actors in the public drama playing out and to examine the extent to which historic attitudes toward nature persist in our society today.

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Steven Siegel plans to be teaching in the Chicago area this fall after a 16-year career working to protect wildlife and the environment as an attorney in the U.S. federal government. He lived in Portland, Oregon, at the time this article was written.