On a cold January day in 1968, the Buffalo River in New York caught fire. It would be the first of several river fires in the Great Lakes over the following year. The Lakes had been long polluted by gallons of oil and grease being poured into them every day.
“We’re at the end of the Erie Canal, so Buffalo was the reason for the westward expansion in the United States,” Buffalo resident Marcus Rosten explains. “So we were an industrial hub and just abused our natural resources.”
As a result, people grew up learning to stay clear from the water, and the pollution in the waters increased with sewage and garbage being dumped in it. The less people interacted with the water, the less they cared about it.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Rosten teaches aquatic ecology at McKinley High School, which sits in front of a creek trickling off the Buffalo River. He says the creek could have been the school’s main water supply and even provide fish if it were clean enough. For now, he works to remind his students of the creek’s existence and to teach them the history behind why they cannot drink the water.
He started the job this school year and says it has not been easy teaching kids to appreciate nature from a screen. It often can feel like he is talking to himself, but he does his best to at least get his students out virtually by using his phone to take class outside to sample bird songs.
“I can put my phone on my scope and zoom in so they’re looking at the robins like they would with binoculars,” Rosten says. “Digital outside is better than no outside.”
Luckily, the aquatic ecology class at McKinley is unique. As a vocational school, students pick between multiple hands-on tracks, such as carpentry, plumbing, printing, and aquatic ecology. Once they choose a track, the vocational teacher works with the students for an hour and a half every school day for the next three years.
Rosten teaches his students fish husbandry, conservation, and ecology through a combination of lectures, guest speakers, field trips, and hands-on labs. The school’s campus holds a greenhouse and two large ponds filled with tilapia especially for this class. Until in-person teaching can fully resume, Rosten has taken the opportunity to familiarize his students with the ins and outs of these systems.
“The whole idea is that we have all these living systems and we teach environmental education and career and technical education using those living systems with a hands-on approach—getting kids out in the fields doing sampling work,” Rosten says.
The western New York native focuses his lessons with a regional lens as a way to personalize environmental lessons to the students. It also just makes sense to do so with how much environmental history surrounds them.
Just a half hour drive away from Buffalo sits Love Canal, Niagara Falls. The area was originally slated to be a canal between the upper and lower Niagara Falls, but it became a municipal and industrial chemical dumpsite when the plan fell through in the 1920s. The property’s owners, the Hooker Chemical Company, then covered the landfill up in the 1950s and sold it to the city for a dollar.
Unaware of what was just beneath the soil, the city built about 100 homes and a school there, which was fine until it poured the first day of August 1978. The ground began leaching chemicals into the streams and drinking water. Trees began to turn black and die. Cases of birth defects and miscarriages began to skyrocket. Kids got cancer after playing in the creek. Community members, particularly members of the homeowners association, demanded government action.
The Love Canal disaster sparked the movement to start the EPA’s Superfund, or CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980). Love Canal became one of the first locations to receive a Superfund to clean up the hazardous waste. Now the area lies abandoned. Since this tragedy, many other similar developed dumpsites have been found around the country.
Rosten brings this story home to his students by inviting one former Love Canal homeowners association member, a mother whose son died of cancer after playing in the creek by Love Canal, to speak. For Rosten’s class, this is both an environmental disaster to learn from and an example of how impactful community action can be. It also reminds his students how fragile ecosystems can be.
“I worry about getting too doom and gloom sometimes,” Rosten admits. “The more you are aware of your environment, of the fragility of our ecosystem, the more you see the environmental detriment and harms.”
He mitigates this by focusing on the complexity of the system and inspiring stewardship. He likes to remind students of what the lakes and streams used to be like before industrialization, and what they can become again. For example, the creek behind McKinley High School used to be known for its water sports.
Rosten says he is starting to see the creek come back to life again as people are realizing the value of being a waterfront city, if not environmentally then definitely economically. A 2018 study by the Great Lakes Commission showed that for every dollar invested in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an average of $4 in economic activity will be paid back to the region.
Health is another factor inextricably linked to the environment. Rosten says it is more compelling to remind people how the health of the water connects to human health, rather than relying on them to care for nature’s intrinsic value. So far this adjustment in communication seems to be working.
“What we’re seeing now is a reawakening,” Rosten says. “People are starting to realize that a clean waterway is the key to our revitalization and a clean environment is the key to our economic revival.”
This reawakening is in big part thanks to community effort via nonprofits and dedicated citizens. Rosten emphasizes the importance of community-based action by inviting different local environmental organizations to speak to his students. He invited many of his contacts from his previous roles as an aquatic invasive species program manager for the West New York Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management and as a fish and wildlife technician for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, among other jobs.
Western New York is turning a corner, thanks in part to Rosten's work. Named one of North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE)’s 30 Under 30, Rosten has spent his career fostering environmental stewardship through the Youth Environmental Leadership Program (YELP) with the non-profit Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. He takes what he has learned out in the field back to community members and educational programs. While Rosten has worked in positions that hold educational elements, he chose to go all in to an education position to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards.
“I realize these problems that we have in the environment and our natural resources are so complex, and I can’t solve them [on my own],” Rosten says. “The only thing I could do is hopefully change and inspire the next generation of stewards to take the lead and shift society in a better direction.”
*Becky Hoag is a science writer with a special interest in climate change communication. You can find her work on her site beckyhoag.com or through her YouTube channel Beckisphere at https://www.youtube.com/c/Beckisphere.