School forest adapts to forces of nature
BEMIDJI - Students at Horace May Elementary this year will experience hands-on lessons on forest regeneration.
Horace May's school forest was heavily damaged by the July 2 storm that swept through Bemidji, bringing with it winds in excess of 80 mph.
The 40-acre forest, founded in 1972 and certified in 1997, serves as an outdoors classroom for students.
"It's an invaluable tool to get kids hands-on experience with science," said Ami Aalgaard, who after 19 years at Bemidji Middle School is entering her first year as Horace May principal.
First-grade students take digital cameras out to capture images of flowers, plants and bugs, and then return to the classroom to write about what they saw.
Fourth- and fifth-graders throughout the school year take pictures of the largest bur oak, watching to see how the changing seasons affect its leaves and the surrounding landscape.
Kindergartners plant trees and have their picture taken beside it. Then, as they approach their fifth-grade graduation, they have another picture taken to see not only their own growth but the growth of their tree.
"I think you could hit every state standard with this tool," Aalgaard said, "and do it hands-on, which reaches even more students."
Animal sightings have included a moose, mountain lion, bears and a porcupine. Once, a wolf was seen running at the heels of a deer.
Aidan Skala is an incoming third-grade student transferring to Horace May from within the district. Aidan said he was looking forward to joining the Horace May student body and experiencing the forest firsthand.
"There's bear and deer (in there)," he said, while visiting his future school grounds.
But the trail is about to enter a new stage in its life.
It has been intended to reflect the region's natural environment, so, as cleanup begins Monday, logging crews from Potlatch also will use selective harvesting - trees are hand-chosen for removal instead clear-cutting - to prepare the forest for future reforestation.
Non-native species in each region will be removed in preparation for regeneration of native plantings. Additionally, areas that need to be managed, including a grove of 33- and 34-year-old Aspens, will be removed to make room for new growth.
Kate Pearson, a second-grade teacher at Horace May who serves on the forest committee, estimated that 700 to 1,000 trees will be removed.
"We will talk to the kids about disturbances in ecology because that's what this is," Pearson said, referencing the storm. "We'll talk about how new growth will now occur, too, because of the increased sunlight."
One main trail, Diversity Trail, winds throughout the entire forest with loops traversing through ecological transitions.
Horace May is located in a biologically unique area where major bio-geographical transitions converge, Pearson said.
Those four converging influences are prairie, Aspen parkland, Boreal forest and eastern broadleaf forest.
They all are represented in loops within the Horace May forest. A child would walk through prairieland into a bur oak savannah into the hardwood forest.
"As a child walks through, they can feel the changes as they go," Pearson said.
Logging work will be done Aug. 6-13 at little or no cost to the district, thanks to a partnership with Potlatch.
Pearson noted that crews are using a method through which root and soil systems are protected.
"These roots and soils are really important to us," she said.
To protect native species, Horace May staff went through and flagged trees that should be preserved. The school works with a restoration ecologist who recommended that native species in all stages of growth - from the very young to very old - be preserved as much as possible.
A temporary access will be used for the work, with cooperation and support from area neighbors.
Once logging is complete, however, the access will be removed and a clover field will be planted in its place to attract deer and other wildlife.
Future plans include making loops handicap-accessible. Currently, students who use wheelchairs or walking aids are able to reach certain points within the forest but their options are limited.
"There's definitely a silver lining to it," Aalgaard said of the storm's damage.
Aalgaard and Pearson both said the forest has become a project supported by community members, neighbors, parents and others. Pete Aube and Brian Bignall, both with Potlatch; the Department of Natural Resources; and Civilian Conservation Corps have all worked closely with Horace May to preserve and manage the forest.
District staff, too, has been very supportive, Aalgaard noted.
Horace May is not unique in having its own forest. Beltrami County has six school forests, a formal designation in state statute which creates a partnership between the DNR and school districts to manage specific forest lands as an outdoor educational opportunity.
There are about 100 school forests left in Minnesota.
"A lot of schools are surrounded by cement and tar," Pearson said. "We are really fortunate."