A watery world lies next to ours, and it’s inhabited by fish, mussels, and aquatic plants and insects. Snorkeling is a way to visit this realm.
“Snorkeling is how managers and researchers have done fish surveys for decades,” says Craig Roghair, a USDA Forest Service fisheries biologist. From these surveys, a snorkel education program emerged.
In the Southeast, it started with Jim Herrig, who recently retired from the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. As Roghair recalls, Herrig would snorkel to do fish surveys. “It worried visitors – they would see him lying motionless, face-down in the water,” says Roghair. “He tried to explain what he was seeing, but it’s hard to describe. So Herrig got a grant and started taking groups – mostly kids – out snorkeling.”
That was years ago, and the program has only grown. Today, the program operates nationally and is coordinated by Kim Winter with the Forest Service NatureWatch program.
The CATT team exists to solve problems facing national forest managers, with funding from the National Forest System. “We start out every year with zero budget,” says Dolloff. “Every year, for the last 25 years, the NFS has said that ‘the work you do is so important and so valuable that we want to fund you.’ You won’t find this anywhere else in government.”
“We use the best available science in everything we do,” says Dolloff, whose research focuses on coldwater fisheries. “If land management decisions are challenged in court, we will be there to explain the science. Our monitoring projects are done to a degree of accuracy and precision that you may not see all the time.”
An afternoon of fish sampling or a survey for threatened or endangered mussels are among the list of CATT projects. And the team regularly tackles longer-term and more complex projects, such as helping national forests prioritize road-stream crossing replacements, identifying areas affected by legacy mines, and delineating streamside management zones in timber harvest areas — along with using efficient new sampling approaches such as eDNA, region-wide sampling designs, data analysis, and other multi-year efforts.
“The snorkeling project is very different than anything else we’ve tried to do through the CATT program,” says Roghair.
Until 2016 the Cherokee and Monongahela National Forests had snorkeling programs, but no other forests did.
Before Jim Herrig retired, he worked with Kim Winter, Nat Gillespie, and members of the NorthBay Foundation to share the knowledge and best practices he’d developed over decades of taking kids on snorkeling trips. The result was the Freshwater Snorkeling Toolkit (PDF).
Then, Winter contacted the CATT team. “She knew we had experience with field teams and working with partners to establish new programs,” says Roghair. “We used the Toolkit to start pilot programs on national forests in Alabama, Florida, Vermont, and Virginia.” National forests in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Oregon have also started programs.
“I had this vision of just snorkeling with kids all day, but turns out, it’s a lot of work,” says Roghair, who is also is also training as a Scientific Diver and sits on the Forest Service Diving Control Board .
When setting up a new program, Roghair and others on the CATT team bring the snorkels, masks, and wetsuits, and ask the local forests to bring partners. Gradually, the forests and local partners take over and usually work directly with school systems. “Our hope is that by year three, we’re basically there as consultants,” says Roghair.
It can be a challenge to find snorkeling locations convenient to some communities. “How far are schools willing to bus kids? And the water has to be clean enough to stick your face in,” says Roghair. It took three years to find a location for the program in Virginia – partly because Kim Winter requested a snorkeling site within driving distance of downtown Washington, DC. About 47 percent of the DC population is African American. Urban people of color are considered an under-served community.
Reaching under-served communities is part of the Forest Service national strategy for fish conservation: the second strategic priority is to boost recreational fishing, boating, and snorkeling on National Forest System lands through programs that connect people – especially those in urban, rural, and under-served communities – to the outdoors. Roghair contributed to the strategy, along with 60 experts from partner organizations and throughout the Forest Service.
One in five Americans relies on water that comes from National Forest System lands. These public lands include some of the best remaining habitats in the U.S. for threatened and endangered fish species.