WOLFSVILLE - The quiet and peaceful cow pastures of Laurelane Angus Farm have turned into an environmental battlefield for almost 250 high school students this week.
They're measuring trees, examining deer jawbones and digging in 6-foot pits - doing their best to avoid the manure piles left by the fields' usual occupants.
By the end of the week, one of the 41 American and six Canadian teams will be named winner of the 2003 Canon Envirothon.
"It's fun, but it's a lot of hard work," said 16-year-old Angela Possinger of the team representing Massachusetts. "There are a lot of tough questions. We didn't know anything about this stuff when we started."
The 16-year-old event, which bills itself as North America's largest high school environmental education competition, tests students on their knowledge and hands-on skills in five areas: forestry, wildlife, water, soils and a current environmental issue chosen by the host state's organizing committee.
"It's an opportunity to encourage high school students to learn about the natural resources and think about it as an integrated discipline," said Barry Burch, co-chairman of the event and coordinator of the Catoctin and Frederick Soil Conservation districts.
Maryland is playing host to the competition for the second time, and organizers decided the fifth topic this year would be preserving agricultural land on the border between rural and urban areas. "Being in Frederick County, that seemed to be a really appropriate topic," said organizer Beth Horsey, who works on tributary strategies for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Yesterday marked a crucial day of the weeklong event: teams rotated from station to station, answering pages of written questions, solving environmental problems and conducting tests and measurements.
Marcus Fish of Pennsylvania peered through a prism to determine whether trees fall inside or outside of a designated survey area. About 30 feet away, Washington state team captain Lee Pickett stared through a clinometer, an instrument for measuring angles of elevation, to determine that a tree stood about 63 feet.
At the bottom of a 6-foot pit in the nearby soils testing area, New Jersey teammates Alex Carney and Graelyn Brashear used a large bowie knife to scrape away layers of dirt. Kneeling above them with a small chemistry set to test the acidity of the soil were Amanda Tweedy and Heather Stewart, 18-year-old teammates from Prince Edward Island's Charlottetown Rural High School.
"By the end of this, they have a really good understanding of the soils," said Joe Kraft, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "They're not Ph.D. candidates, but they have enough knowledge to go out and really evaluate the properties of the soil."
On the other side of the field, teams eyeballed stuffed animals (scientists called them "specimens") and tried to figure out their Latin names. The stuffed menagerie included such Maryland natives as bobcats, fishers and white-throated sparrows. Teams also answered questions about habitat management, checking the gender and age of animals, and deer overpopulation.
"We joke that we wouldn't want to have to take this test," said Karina Blizzard of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service. "These teams are really prepared. They know the material really well."
Started as the Environmental Olympics in 1979 by three Pennsylvania soil and water conservation districts, the Envirothon began inviting teams from other states in 1988 and has grown to include almost all of the United States and Canada. It is organized by the National Association of Conservation Districts. Last year's competition was held in Mississippi.
Planning for this year's competition began almost four years ago, when Maryland submitted its bid to the national organization. Organizers raised $230,000 from state agencies and corporate sponsors, and spent more than a year designing the questions, said Karen Miller, the Maryland co-chairwoman and coordinator of the Kent Soil Conservation District.
Staff members from those groups as well as federal agencies donated hundreds of hours.
Yesterday's Wolfsville site was chosen because it's close to Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg - where the teams are staying - and because it's on a private farm owned by Zene and Audrey Wolfe, who work with their local conservation district.
"For security reasons, it was a secluded location that wasn't accessible," Burch said. "There was an incident where a team was able to get access to a competition site before the competition. That wasn't possible here."
Although teams arrived Saturday afternoon, many said the competition is a yearlong event. To earn a spot in the contest, teams had to win at least a state or provincial competition, and some had to first win in their local districts.