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Looking to the foothills for natural inspiration

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In my Culture of Conservation column, I will focus on the Wenatchee foothills as a learning lab and introduce you to some of our valley's remarkable native plants and animals.

I hope to inspire you to get out into the foothills and to notice for yourself the natural history stories unfolding on the landscape. You can take the first steps toward becoming a naturalist by opening your eyes, looking carefully, and recording what you see with a photo, a sketch, or field notes.

Few communities on Earth are situated in such strikingly beautiful geography and have as many diverse habitats as we have in the Wenatchee area. On any given day, we can feel the wind on our face while watching a bald eagle soar above the Columbia River, glimpse a common merganser duck diving for fish in the cold, clear Wenatchee River and glance up to see snowcapped Mission Ridge outlined by a soaring raven.

During our four seasons, the landscape turns from white to green to brown, punctuated by spring-to-autumn explosions of wildflowers. Daily, this surround-sound of beauty nurtures our creativity, blankets us with joy, offers hope and solace when we are troubled. The view of monumental mountains helps to put our daily problems into perspective. Collectively as citizens, we are growing a new culture of conservation with the shared vision that it is important to protect the natural assets of our valley for future generations.

I have been privileged to explore Wenatchee's foothills for 20 years as my husband Paul and I have raised our three children. As a biologist and educator, my professional work has focused on creating field biology curriculum and designing experiential outdoor education programs.

As a volunteer, my work with Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, the Washington Native Plant Society, and North Central Washington Audubon Society has helped me understand the urgency and responsibility we all shoulder to take care of our lands that provide critical habitats.

Recently, I developed the Wenatchee Naturalist program with the mission to cultivate awareness, understanding, and stewardship of the Wenatchee River watershed by developing an active corps of well-informed community volunteers. Through three 12-week courses, I've been inspired by the 72 local adults who have already completed the course and embraced the mission with vigorous volunteering to support an array of environmental education, citizen science projects, and stewardship work.

This week, take an early morning or after-dinner walk (without ear buds!) on one of the foothills trails. Join others doing the 14.3 mile 2013 Hiking Challenge on five trail sections. To get started, print your own hiking postcard in English or Spanish at www.cdlandtrust.org/whats-new/foothills-hiking-challenge.

While you walk, look around to glimpse a retreating western fence lizard, catch a sweet whiff of lupine, admire a swooping violet-green swallow, and listen to the musical song of the Western Meadowlark. You'll come home with more questions than answers, as do all field biologists!

Susan Ballinger is a naturalist and educator who is involved with the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust. She can be reached at skylinebal@gmail.com.

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