Jill Scheffer

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On this 20th Anniversary of KEEN’s flagship event, Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe (GISS), it seems appropriate to reflect on our beginnings.

I can remember sitting around a booth at the Palace on frosty early spring mornings in 2000, drinking coffee and eating waffles with other like-minded folks talking about environmental education and why we all believed it mattered for our collective future. There was a university professor, a high-school teacher, a non-formal educator, and me, a conservation professional.

Those morning waffles fueled our interest and excitement as we built a vision for an organization that would bring learners of all ages, all backgrounds, all interest areas, together with opportunities to engage with the environment. Early on we decided to focus on the shrub-steppe. The unique and endangered habitat that rings our valley and stretches east and south of Ellensburg.

We settled on our name, Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN), in those early meetings. We crafted a vision to establish a natural history center in Ellensburg that would serve as a “networking” spot for all environmental education offerings in the region. And we planned ways to reach out to our community and expand our network.

The first year of GISS was held in the fall of 2000. We invited professors from CWU, local area experts who knew about plants, history, animals, geology and more, to join us and volunteer their time and knowledge. We called up friends from affinity groups in the area to put up a table with info about their work, secured a few dollars from sponsors, and invited the community to join us.

I remember that it was hot enough to scald a lizard that first GISS. The 500 people who joined us scampered up and down the hills at Umtanum Creek, held snakes, played with crawfish, and learned that the shrub-steppe has some of the highest species diversity of any habitat in the world. But, KEEN decided that it was the early spring wildflowers — lupine, phlox, and balsamroot — that really make the shrub-steppe POP for people… so we turned around and held the event that next spring.

That’s why, even though KEEN is only 19-years old, GISS is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

In those 20 years we’ve tried every possible structure for the event. We lost people who were diehard helpers when we changed the formula of the event, we gained new fans, and we’ve heard from people who return year after year to celebrate Mother’s Day with us at GISS. We’ve met people who have given us money, people who have remembered us in their wills, and people who left the event still not knowing what KEEN does. We’ve had every weather combination you can imagine — roasting heat, high winds that blew our tents away and bent them into pretzels, hail, rain, and cold. We’ve had big crowds and tiny crowds, lots of volunteers and barely enough volunteers to scrape by.

But I believe that one of the greatest legacies of GISS is that many of our field trip leaders return every year to share their data, studies, details, and passion for this endangered habitat. CWU professors James, Sun, Beck, and Hackenberger are such passionate educators — they have devoted their lives to their studies and love to share their passion with GISS attendees year after year. I like to think that Nick Zentner honed his public speaking skills with GISS before he became a TV star… but I’m sure I’m giving GISS and KEEN too much credit.

I have been privileged to watch this event grow, change, and evolve over the last 20 years. I have been honored to see curious and smiling faces of children of all ages holding rubber boas, touching the skulls of ancient creatures, clambering over basalt that is millions of years old (right Nick?!), learning to tell the difference between weed and wildflower, and so so so much more.

I can’t wait to celebrate with you this year — May 11 — with field trips at Umtanum Creek Recreation Area and booths and activities at Helen McCabe State Park. Come see us at both locations, the schedule is online at www.ycic.org, and then join us in the later afternoon at Ellensburg Canyon Winery to raise a glass to our 20th year.

To all of our volunteers — new and old — we love and appreciate each of you. We could not do it without your support and our gratitude runs deep. To our community, thank you for coming back year after year, bringing your kids and your visitors, and playing with us in nature. It is a beautiful thing. See you in the shrub-steppe.

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