Campus News - June 4, 2001


Morgan introduces youth to environmental protection

By Claudio Serrano

Paula Morgan, Program Manager, College of Education/Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies“The first thing you’ve got to do is know how to swim,” says Paula Morgan, founder and executive director of the Reef Ranger Project, a mid- and high-school student project in the Virgin Islands that cares for the world’s coral reefs.

Corals are tiny animals that live in a colony called a reef, she explains. It takes hundreds of years for a reef to grow a foot. Reefs act as a birthing nursery for many ocean fish. If the reef dies, so do the fish.

Morgan, program manager for Special Projects in the College of Education division of Language, Literature and Sociocultural Studies, and a native of Cheyenne, Wyo., earned her bachelor's degree in history with a minor in English at UNM in 1989.

She worked at the Maxwell Museum for two years before moving to the Virgin Islands in 1992. She was inspired to start the Reef Ranger Project after swimming by the coral reef of the Virgin Islands while showing native boys what jellyfish looked like through a snorkel.

“I wanted to get mid-school students to come to the University,” says Morgan, who believes that Reef Rangers is not a club, but a lifetime commitment to the ocean. This commitment starts when children are around 12 years of age with a three-day seminar, where they work with marine biologists, deep sea divers and coral reef preservationists.

The Reef Rangers know how to swim, snorkel, scuba dive and sail, so many younger kids look up to them as mentors and guides. “The students also teach adults on subjects like mangrove systems and salt pond biomes,” says Morgan.

Living in the Virgin Islands was not easy for Morgan, she had to get accustomed to a new culture. Morgan also endured six hurricanes, which paralyzed the islands. “I lost a lot because of Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. The power and phones were down for months,” she remembers.

Soon after, she decided to give up one paradise for another when she moved back to New Mexico with her husband.

She is launching a new project this fall. Morgan is creating a multicultural environmental curriculum for the cultures of New Mexico and the Caribbean with the assistance of UNM's Dr. Quincy Spurlin. She plans to take New Mexico kids to the islands. “My wish is to establish a world-wide, non-profit foundation that puts students at the forefront of environmental protection,” says Morgan.

Morgan says that the Reef Ranger Project was awarded the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Quality Award, the Seaworld Environmental Excellence Prize as well as a U.S. Presidential Commendation.

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