Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The ERC has wheels

Mobile education program plans to spread stewardship throughout the valley

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum-based Environmental Resource Center is introducing its Wild Connections trailer, which is pulled by an eco-friendly truck that runs on used vegetable oil.

The Ketchum-based Environmental Resource Center has a new set of wheels. While it is no fancy Corvette or Mini Cooper, it is a one-of-a-kind vehicle. The trailer, which is called Wild Connections, is the ERC's new traveling nature center. Inside it contains a number of teaching modules that allow kids and adults to enjoy a hands-on environmental learning experience.

Lisa Huttinger, education coordinator for the ERC, came up with the idea for Wild Connections out of a desire to share nature education programs throughout the Wood River Valley.

"In a valley such as ours, where the community is comprised of several towns, mobility is an important feature," Huttinger said. "With Wild Connections, we will be able to bring nature programs and experiences directly to community members."

The program has a variety of activities for kids and adults. There are skulls of animals which people can touch and explore. They can also use hand mirrors to make comparisons between themselves and other animals.

"The goal is to find creative and meaningful ways of teaching science in the outdoors," Huttinger said, "so, you really connect people to their surroundings."

Wild Connections will also allow for field research. For example, there are instruments to look at tiny spineless organisms in local rivers in order to determine the quality of the water and the needs of that particular habit. The mobile unit also has a number of computers and other tech gadgets that allow more experienced explorers to crunch numbers while researching in the field.

In line with its educational tenets, the Wild Connections trailer is made mobile by a pick-up that runs on used vegetable oil.

The ERC relied on Plant Drive, a Washington-based company that sells the essential components necessary to convert an engine, and John Strokes, of Burley, to install the new technology.

For the car to work, it has to start up and shut down using diesel or bio-diesel. Once the car reaches a certain temperature, it changes from using diesel fuel to use waste vegetable grease.

"Basically, the trailer is pulled by a truck that runs on french fry grease," said Craig Barry, executive director of the ERC.

There are two main benefits of a car that runs on used vegetable oil. One, there is no increase of carbon into the atmosphere, as the car is burning carbon that was already in the plant. Two, rather than ethanol, which uses a crop like edible corn to serve as fuel, the ERC's truck uses vegetable oil that has been used and then discarded by a restaurant.

Additionally, according to Will Perk, education coordinator for the ERC, cars using vegetable grease actually run smoother and quieter than normal diesel- or gas-fueled cars.

"The exhaust definitely smells different," Peck said. "Some people say it is kind of like french fry grease, but I think of a Chinese restaurant when they're cooking a lot."

Wild Connections is made possible by a three-year grant from the Raynier Institute and Foundation. Based out of Washington, the foundation is a private fund for individuals and programs doing work in culture, arts, education and the environment.

On July Fourth, Wild Connections will make its public debut at the annual Hailey Independence Day parade. After the parade, children and parents are invited to stop by the carnival in downtown Hailey to take a look inside.

For more information about the Fourth of July event, or to learn about other Wild Connections programs, please contact Huttinger at 726-4333, ext. 4.

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