Whitnall School District's woodland could get natural boost

Published on: 12/10/2013

Greenfield — A new chapter of outdoor appreciation and understanding is about to be written with the Whitnall School District's 16.8-acre natural area off South 116th Street.

Known as the nature pod, the land near the district's high and middle schools will become a state school forest, enabling the district to apply for a $5,000 Wisconsin Environmental Education Board grant to develop science, nature, physical education and wellness programming there.

The main stand of woodland located on both sides of 116th Street in several locations is a central hardwood forest including black walnut, green ash, elm, black locust, hickory, cottonwood, red oak and a few planted conifers.

In addition to the woods, the nature pod has a small pond and meadow nearby.

Invasive problems

Environmental Education grants for as much as $20,000 also could be obtained to remove the invasive species, such as buckthorn and honeysuckle plants, from the natural area.

Whitnall High School currently has some science activities in the nature pod, but it's not easy to show how ecosystems work when those systems are upset by invasive species.

'From a biological standpoint, the property is almost consumed with invasive species,' said Whitnall High School science teacher Laura Cerletty, the driving force behind the school forest effort.

Indeed, the forester from the state Department of Natural Resources who inspected the site for school forest designation wrote of the main 11.6-acre stand: 'The understory of this stand is generally choked with undesirable brush.'

As part of the curriculum now being planned for the nature pod, students could tag invasive species for removal and plant young trees in their place, Cerletty said. The invasive species will be shredded and the older students could put the shreds on hiking paths to improve them.

Also, if earthworms become too numerous, they can be an invasive species, Cerletty said, so some science students have performed earthworm counts in the nature pod.

Natural lessons

Whitnall High School science classes have actually used the nature pod to help state researchers keep track of ozone damage by monitoring damage to milkweed leaves in the pod, Cerletty said.

'But the intent is to make this a K-12 site,' Cerletty said, encouraging environmental understanding and appreciation from kindergarten through 12th grade.

To do that, a team of teachers from elementary through high school will be formed to develop a curriculum that would involve all subjects, including physical education and art.

'We want to incorporate the outdoor classroom into the daily curriculum,' Cerletty said.

The students themselves will be heavily involved in creating a master plan for the forest.

Well-rooted support

The School Board vote to seek school forest designation for the nature pod was unanimous.

School Board President Bernard Shaw said the outdoor classroom enables students to see the plants they study in their actual surroundings. He noted the schools could win grants that would enable them to manage the forest to make the most of environmental education.

Board member LuAnn Bird said, 'There are great resources available through the state to identify what's in our forest and to educate our students on conservation.'