RIVER FALLS – The River Falls High School Library was abuzz Tuesday, Oct. 12 as visitors chatted before the “Dream Big” event, the kickoff introduction to an initiative geared at developing the school forest into a district and community asset for generations to come.
“This is a resounding community statement we all have in advancing our vision for the school forest,” said Superintendent Jamie Benson about the number of people assembled, which totaled about 60.
The Dream Big event was meant to focus the community on keeping the enthusiasm for the River Falls School District school forest moving forward. But to do that, the district needs some help, Benson said.
“The SDRF Forest is a legacy project that will have a long-lasting impact,” Benson said in a video. “Developing trails with educational stations, a learning shelter, and an environmental curriculum will provide impactful and sustainable educational opportunities for generations to come.”
Students will also gain a greater appreciation for natural resources, become advocates for the planet, explore career opportunities and better understand the interconnectedness of human life to the environment, Benson added.
The renewed school forest activity is thanks to the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust’s purchase of property next to the school district’s land that will allow access to the landlocked parcel, which had been inaccessible for decades.
“That’s what’s really spurring this amazing activity,” Benson said. “It preserves acre upon acre of some of the area’s most pristine lands along the Kinnickinnic River. We have some mojo going here.”
In the 1930s or 1940s (the exact date is unclear), a tax forfeiture resulted in a parcel being deeded to the River Falls School District. In 1947, the school forest was registered with the state of Wisconsin, making it one of the oldest school forests in the state.
“It will be 75 years next year and we’ll finally have access,” ddddddd said.
The school forest, while an asset, was “landlocked” on all sides, surrounded by private property owners. From 1940-1980, little to nothing was done with the forest because it couldn’t be accessed.
In 1980, a group focused on gaining access to the property and in 1983, negotiated a gentlemen’s agreement with a neighboring landowner to gain access to the property through the north side (the school land was divided by the Kinnickinnic River). Thanks to an $87,000 grant and School Administrator Bernie Abrahamson, a Youth Conservation Corps was implemented and teaching stations, trails, benches and an open shelter were constructed.
Unfortunately, some “shenanigans” in 1986 ended the gentlemen’s agreement and the school district’s access to the forest. For the next 30 to 35 years, the school forest sat silent with only the wind in the trees and the squirrels rustling through. The trails cleared by the Youth Conservation Corps grew in again, and the open shelter deteriorated as the decades marched by.
School district staff member Rick Cleary took up the vision, along with Dale Jorgenson and others, in the 1990s. When a land purchase agreement in 1992 fell through, it was just more than a decade before dreams turned into action again.
In about 2003, Jorgenson said conversations with an adjoining land owner to purchase or swap land stalled, yet again. Then, RFSD proposed a land consolidation.
“At least 20 people touched this project, too many to count,” Jorgenson said.
When Kinnickinnic River Land Trust Executive Director Nelson French left in 2009, Jorgenson took on the role of interim director. He collaborated with then District Administrator Tom Westerhaus and proposed a land swap with landowners Lyle and Roberta Johnson, who had land adjacent to the school forest. The school had 20 acres north of the Kinni and 15 acres south of it, while the Johnsons had 35 acres adjacent to the north parcel. The proposal included swapping the south school district land for the Johnsons parcel. Jorgenson, who attended church with the Johnsons at Ezekiel Lutheran Church, worked out a deal with them and a handshake agreement. However, the land swap wasn’t made official until 2012, and at that time, the Johnsons also received $10,000 since the land parcels swapped were uneven in size.
Although this was a step in the right direction, the school forest was still landlocked and would remain so until 2019.
JoAnn Ailport Dreistadt owned land adjacent to the school forest that included a 66-foot-by-half-mile access road from County Road F. The district wanted to purchase the land, but a price couldn’t be agreed upon. However, when Dreistadt died in 2019, her three daughters reached out to retired teacher Carole Mottaz and informed her they wanted to sell the property. The family developed a relationship with KRLT Executive Director Charlene Brooks and arrived at an understanding which kicked off a fundraising drive by the KRLT.
On Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, the KRLT announced it had reached its $500,000 fundraising goal to fully purchase the 40-acre old growth forested parcel from the Ailport-Dreistadt Estate. The parcel, located in the lower river canyon downstream from River Falls and adjacent to the school forest, contains 1,500 feet of river frontage and includes the mouth of the Rocky Branch Creek.
“Now seems like an opportune time” to start focusing on student education and restoring the district’s relationship with its forest, which is described as a 70-acre gem of forest, prairie, bluffs and pristine land, Benson said.
The RF School Forest Advisory Committee is comprised of teachers, school administrators, school board members, city officials and River Falls Rotary Club members. The group of 15 has met about six times to hammer out a vision, next steps and school forest needs.
The RFSFAC’s mission is to ensure alignment with the goals of environmental education, and to develop a sustainable plan to help students become environmentally knowledgeable, skilled citizens who are connected with nature through exploration, wonder, and questioning while promoting a sustainable future.
Teachers Mallory Deziel and Nate Brown shared the committee’s vision with event-goers and helped them see what the school forest could truly mean to students and the community.
School forests, of which there are many across Wisconsin, can help schools meet state education standards, integrate environmental education into the curriculum, connect teachers and students to place, demonstrate sustainable natural resource management and strengthen school and community relationships.
The benefits to students are many, Brown said:
•Fosters a sense of pride and belonging.
•Encourages the development of research, communication, problemsolving, critical thinking and leadership skills.
•Offers students real-life, handson experiences.
•Demonstrates the complexities within the natural world.
•Develops a working knowledge of natural resource conservation, management and stewardship. Students will develop care and concern for the environment and examine their own environmental values.
•Connects academic studies to real-life learning experiences and to the community.
•Allows students to learn in a variety of ways, including cooperative learning, mentoring, active learning, and service learning.
Not just students glean value from the school forest. Community benefits listed were:
•Brings together organizations, businesses and educational institutions to form partnerships for stewardship.
•Provides a place for families and community members to explore and connect with nature.
•Contributes to the ecological health of the area by offering watershed and habitat protection.
•Provides educational, cultural and recreational opportunities.
•Demonstrates effective natural resource management techniques and planning.
Ideally, K-12 students would visit the forest three times per year: Fall, Winter and Spring. The curriculum and forest will be designed to be accessible to all students, Deziel said.
The curriculum will be established to align at every grade level, not just in science but in all content areas. Teachers will be encouraged to find creative additional uses for the forest as well.
“We’d like students to see it in a different light every single time,” Deziel said.
After the presentation ended, attendees were asked to consider joining sub-committees in order to help the advisory committee with: Curriculum/instruction: Develop lesson plans, grade level learning experiences and activities to allow students to learn specified units of study connected to the school forest. Grade level and course specific units of study will be designed with related equipment, materials, supplies and resources.
Handbook: Develop a handbook that contains details related to the school forest such as the mission statement, philosophy, goals, policies, procedures and guidelines.
Trails, signage, maps: Determine appropriate trails (universal access) and related signage. Coordinate labor and equipment to create trails. Design learning stations and informational kiosks as seemed appropriate. Develop maps for the trails and learning stations that comply with conservation easements.
Facilities: Identify and crate draft plans for any/all facilities on the school forest property (learning center/ building, restrooms, firepits, campsites, etc.) that comply with both conservation easements.
Communications and marketing: Provide communication to school staff and the community regarding all things related to the school forest. Develop infographics, leverage social media, cultivate partnerships and share the vision.
Land management: Work closely with the Department of Natural Resources and KRLT to develop a land management plan that complies with conservation easements. Identify specific land use and land management strategies.
Finance/fundraising: Organize and coordinate funding efforts based on identified needs.
“Preserving the beauty and integrity will be paramount,” Benson said. “We do not want to commercialize it.” Jorgenson echoed Benson, and said the Johnsons wanted to leave a legacy for schoolchildren and this group has a chance to do the same.
Students are welcome to join the sub-committees. To learn more about the sub-committees, contact Jennifer Ames at [email protected] To watch school forest videos or learn more about “Dream Big” efforts, visit www.rfsd.k12.wi.us/community/ rfsd-school-forest.cfm