Gene Van Liew grew up in Colorado camping, hunting and fishing with family and the Boy Scouts.

It’s a way of life he’s working hard to make sure the kids of the Tri-Cities also get a chance to enjoy.

This week he was helping organize the volunteers he’d recruited and the 3,000 elementary students who came to Columbia Park in Kennewick to release salmon into the Columbia River.

It’s the 16th year Van Liew, 85, of Richland, has played a key role in the Salmon Summit organized by the Benton Conservation District.

Hatchery eggs are delivered to classrooms in 37 Tri-City schools in January.

Students take care of the fish until they grow to about 3 inches long, monitoring water temperature and chemistry and feeding them.

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In late April, each student releases a tiny salmon into the river.

“Some have tears in their eyes” as they release fish after watching them in their classroom for months, Van Liew said.

It’s one way Van Liew is helping children learn about conservation and passing on his own love for the outdoors.

“It gets us away from our normal routines and we get to feel the greatness of the outdoors and the solitude — all that we take for granted that we should have more praise and thanks for,” he said.

He started volunteering for the salmon in the classroom project in 2003 when only five classes participated.

Now he organizes and recruits volunteers for the event from the Richland Rod and Gun Club, and secures donations, according to the Benton Conservation District.

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That’s only part of what he does throughout the year to conserve natural resources and eduction students to follow his example, according to the district.

It nominated him for the Washington Association of Conservation Districts Special Service Award, which he received a little over a year ago.

The conservation district estimates that he shares his knowledge of conservation and love of the outdoors with about 10,000 youth a year.

He was one of the original members of the nonprofit Kids Outdoor Education.

He has recruited and organized the “volunteer army” needed to assemble and string the 2,500 fishing rods used each year for the nonprofit’s Kids Fishing Day in Columbia Park.

“For Gene, it does not matter if his volunteer role is in the public eye or behind the scenes,” said Rachel Little, outreach coordinator for the Benton Conservation District. “He does not serve for the recognition. He serves because he believes in the value of conservation.”

He also helps with pheasant hunts organized by the Richland Rod and Gun Club for youth who are new graduates of the hunter education classes the club teaches.

His work goes beyond educating youth and others about conservation and outdoor recreation.

He’s installed and maintained dozens of wildlife water guzzlers that collect and provide water to wildlife in the arid Mid-Columbia.

He also regularly volunteers for the maintenance of wood duck boxes on the Walla Walla River, according to the Benton Conservation District.

His place is typically in the bow of the boat, where he still sometimes wades into cold water or crawls across a ladder laid from boat to shore to get to the boxes.

“He is truly a treasure within the conservation community,” Little said.