EAST MACHIAS — Averted environmental disasters rarely make headlines, but they show a community’s priorities.

Recently, a pick-up truck rolled over near the Downeast Salmon Federation’s salmon hatchery, and the oil was leaking towards the river, said Dwayne Shaw, the federation’s executive director. Luckily, a volunteer firefighter knew the damage that oil could cause the endangered salmon, and he was able to create a ditch to block the flow. 

The firefighter knew of the hatchery’s importance because he had been a student in Don Sprangers’ unique science class at Washington Academy in East Machias, Shaw said. The program gives students hands-on experience in growing endangered Atlantic salmon and creating habitat for the salmon and alewives.

The impact of the curriculum has reached far beyond the classroom, as former students enter the community to work as blueberry farmers, skidder operators and lobstermen, Shaw said.

“They’re the eyes and ears of the river,” he said. “People become invested and aware.”

It’s only fitting. Sprangers says he’s been able to shape his award-winning Sustainable LIFE curriculum because of his experiences in the Washington County community.

An avid fisherman, Sprangers first became involved in Atlantic salmon restoration after moving from Oregon. As he began to understand the plight of the salmon in Washington County’s waterways, he got involved in the Downeast Salmon Federation. A few years later, he jumped at the chance to help U.S. Fish and Wildlife grow salmon in his classroom. He was given 200 salmon to grow in a class aquarium in 1996; his students now are in charge of some 400,000 eggs at the hatchery each year. 

“I just saw the need and the door was open for getting kids involved,” Sprangers said.

His students have become an integral labor force to protect the endangered salmon, and it has gone so much further than just raising eggs.

Sprangers, his fellow science teachers and the students have their hands in everything, from growing and planting more than a thousand shade trees a year for salmon habitat to removing culverts that block salmon from the sea. The work is part of his mission to get kids connected with science again; only then can they be effective stewards of the land, he said. 

“You’ve got to get your hands dirty,” Sprangers said. “I’m providing an opportunity for these kids to get outdoors and do authentic research-based learning.”

Sprangers and his program have won numerous national and state awards, including most recently the 2011 Excellence in Environmental Education Award from the Maine Environmental Education Association (MEEA).

His program wins accolades because it doesn’t just teach children about environmental problems. It also inspires them to take action, said MEEA secretary Olivia Griset.

And Sprangers inspires teachers as well, says Griset, who started to grow Atlantic salmon in her own classroom in Lisbon Falls at his urging.   

“He has been hugely influential on me personally and has inspired me to push my practice more than anyone I have met,” Griset said in an email. 

That’s just what Sprangers loves to hear.  He knows it’s going to take a state-wide effort to restore the waterways, and he’s determined to get the salmon back up to the level where they can be sustainable, and sustainably-fished. 

“Let me tell you, it’s going to happen,” Sprangers said.