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San Joaquin County office of education to open outdoor learning center in Sierra Nevada

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STOCKTON — The San Joaquin County Office of Education announced this week it has purchased more than 60 acres of land in Placer County to be used as a new science camp for students of all ages.

Located at the top of the north fork of the American River in Tahoe National Forest, the Sky Mountain Outdoor Education Center will be open to science camp students next academic school year, according to SJCOE officials.

The 62-acre site was donated to SJCOE by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and includes cabins, a gymnasium, lodge and other facilities. The site has been leased as a camp and conference center by PG&E since 1976.

Sky Mountain will replace Camp Jones Gulch in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which SJCOE had used for science camp the last 60 years.

In a media statement released Thursday, San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas said his agency was grateful for the long-standing partnership it had with the YMCA to use Camp Jones Gulch.

“The memories and traditions created there are shared by generations of our county’s residents,” he said. “It is difficult to close this chapter in our history, but Sky Mountain allows us more opportunities to provide outdoor education experiences to students year-round. We are excited to offer Science Camp at Sky Mountain beginning in the 2021-2022 school year as we develop the next generation of innovative, ecologically literate community stewards and leaders. The possibilities are endless.”

In addition to the science camp, Sky Mountain has the potential to offer high school programs and teacher professional development, among other uses, officials said.

In 2016, the SJCOE applied to become a grantee of the property through the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council, which oversees more than 140,000 acres of watershed lands owned by PG&E to ensure they are used to benefit the residents of California.

The land’s pre-existing infrastructure, capital assets and $2.5 million to support code compliance and infrastructure reinforcement were donated by the stewardship council.

The SJCOE will work with the Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat and connecting Californians to the outdoors. As the holder of the conservation easement, the WHF will oversee the protection of the ecological habitat and ensure the appropriate use of natural open space.

In Thursday’s media statement, former science camp director Peter Ottesen said Sky Mountain will allow the outdoor school to flourish in the years to come.

“The opportunity to acquire Sky Mountain, complete with modern living spaces and food service facilities and a travel time not encumbered by dense traffic, provides assurances that the popular program will continue well into the future,” said Ottesen. “The change of sites couldn’t happen at a better time.”

Before opening the camp to students, SJCOE will spend the next several months renovating facilities and designing curriculum specific to an ecosystem that aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards and makes connections with California’s environmental principles and concepts.

Annie Cunial, SJCOE’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math director, said students attending the new camp will learn about different ecosystems and how watersheds are connected.

“And year-round activities will range from canoeing and archery in the summer to snowshoeing in the winter,” Cunial said. “These activities will enhance students’ experiences as they learn about the history of the land from the Native American tribes to early California explorers, as well as flora, hydroelectric dams, conifer forests, wildlife, industries, careers, and more.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, programming information for the new center will not be available until the 2021-22 school year. The SJCOE will provide an update once programming begins.

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