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J.W. Smith moves forward with Minnesota Biomes Project

J.W. Smith Elementary School's plan to create a Minnesota-shaped outdoor learning environment is taking seed.

The Bemidji School Board agreed this week to allow the school to move forward with its Minnesota Biomes Project.

"Go forth and plant good things," said Ann Long Voelkner, board chairwoman, at a board meeting Monday night.

The outdoor learning environment, which will be built on part of a field south of the school, will be planted with trees, shrubs and other ground cover representing Minnesota's prairie, deciduous and coniferous biomes.

Walking trails that follow the paths of the state's major rivers will lead to an outdoor classroom furnished with benches and a podium, which have already been built by Bemidji High School students.

Trails will also outline the state's border. Along the outside edge of the border, trees native to neighboring states and provinces will be planted. "It's a once-in-150-years project," said project manager Jerry Stensing, a stewardship forester with Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District.

One of J.W. Smith's goals, through a Magnet School and Program Grant from the Minnesota Department of Education, is to allow students to cultivate their knowledge of natural resources and encourage educators to use nature as an outdoor classroom.

School staff members began planning the Minnesota Biomes Project during the 2006-07 school year -- the first year the school received the grant.

"The biome project started growing from the moment it was conceived," Stensing said.

J.W. Smith gifted and talented teacher Cindy VanBrunt, who is coordinating the grant, said the school lost some space where teachers brought students outside for learning when a school parking lot was built a couple of years ago. She said the Minnesota Biomes Project will not just be an outdoor classroom, but a place for students to learn about the environment.

"From a biomes perspective, it will be like having the entire state of Minnesota in our backyard," she said. "It's like a geography and environmental lesson wrapped up in one."

J.W. Smith, which hired Beltrami SWCD to assist with the project, received the Magnet School and Program Grant again for the current school year. From the $80,000 grant, the school budgeted $15,000 for tree cover planning and installation for the project.

When complete, the project will encompass 1.3 acres and include 120 trees, which will be planted in stages.

Construction is scheduled to begin in May. Installation of the first 20 trees, which all have been donated, is set to begin in August.

When trees are planted at the site, the conifers will be 5-7 feet high and the hardwoods will be 10-16 feet high.

"So this is an instant forest," Stensing said.

Besides the planting of 20 trees, VanBrunt said this year's budget for the project is providing for a vegetative management plan, site preparation, a project sign, benches and a podium.

The Beltrami SWCD will provide maintenance at the site for two years through a contract. After two years, the school district will be responsible for maintaining the site.

Also, the city of Bemidji is donating a year's worth of water to get the initial trees off to a good start, allowing time for an irrigation system at the school to be repaired, VanBrunt said.

For future funding, J.W. Smith hopes to renew the Magnet School and Program Grant next year, VanBrunt said. She said the school is also seeking other grant opportunities and private donations.

Donations may be sent to Principal Patricia Welte, J.W. Smith Elementary School, 3300 Gillett Drive N.W., Bemidji, MN 56601-5668.