Foster students fix up their own forest

Students at Foster School are working to restore their own little forest through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

The partnership of community organizations, led by the U.S. Forest Service and the Foster School 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, has plans to improve the small forest and trail at the school to help create outdoor hands-on learning opportunities there.

The trail, called Fox Trail, is a little more than a third of a mile long through about three acres of forest, known as Foster Forest. Although it’s short, visitors can walk through a variety of habitat types, including a savanna-prairie area, a wet forest, successional forest and a wild berry patch.

The project and partnerships created through it will help ensure the continuation of the Community Learning Centers program after next school year, the final year it will be funded, said Rich Little, coordinator and site director for the program. The program, funded through a federal grant, provides after-school activities to Foster School students.

He hopes the development of the forest and trail will help continue to develop a sense of community, Little said. In school, it will provide opportunities to study science, social studies, writing, math and area history, such as the development of the railroad, which runs along the east edge of the forest.

Foster teacher Sue Walling, who teaches second and third grade this year, started the trail about eight years ago with her class, said Krista Lopez, a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service who works with the Youth Watershed Council. Many of those students are among the high school students and members of the council who have gone to work on the trail this year. They are joined by Foster School students, some of them younger siblings.

At that time, members of the 4-H Stewards program also cut back some of the blackberries and took the first tree measurements in the forest.

Kate Skelton, a graduate student on an internship with the Forest Service, completed a design plan for the forest interpretive trail in December.

The Forest Service provides a variety of scientists, including hydrologists, biologists and botanists, for Foster’s annual Outdoor School, a weeklong program held at Camp Tadmor designed to emphasize science, while connecting it to other subject areas, Lopez said.

“This interpretive trail plays perfectly with that. It’s three acres of intact forest.”

Among the ideas for developing the forest are podcasts that can be loaded onto mp3 players carried by students walking the trail, timed to the things they’ll see, simplifying preparation by teachers, Lopez said.

“It’s somewhat more effective when it’s visual, auditory and tangible when you see what you’re talking about.”

The program can help create better environmental stewards, she said. Competing in a global market, it’s easy to forget about forestry and natural resources, even in Sweet Home.

Loggers are among the best stewards, she said. They know the forests, but today “kids are not thinking about growing up in logging. We can manage our resources so much better if children understand them from an early age.”

Those resources provide important services to the community, providing air, food and more, she said.

Sweet Home families depended on logging for generations, Little said, and it’s still a big part of the community’s history.

The project may help students make those kinds of connections and build a stronger sense of community, he said. Also, as they help develop the forest and trail, youngsters will remember planting vegetation and grow up with their environment.

Completion of the project will require the removal of large patches of weeds, particularly Himalayan blackberries and English ivy, and replacing them with native vegetation to connect large patches of trees.

Among the native plants will be species such as salmonberries, thimbleberries and other native berries, Lopez said. Trees include Garry oaks, Oregon ash and western red cedar.

As weeks pass throughout the year, different species will be more apparent as they grow and flower, Lopez said, constantly presenting different features for teachers to present to their classes.

Maintenance will be the most difficult part, she said. For the first two summers, the young trees will need to be watered, but most everything along the trail itself will be low-maintenance.

Benches will be placed within two different areas to allow visitors to rest, observe and contemplate their surroundings. A gazebo, to be constructed by Dustin Nichol’s high school construction trades class, will serve as an outdoor classroom allows groups to enjoy the seasonal changes in nature throughout the year and give teachers the infrastructure and habitat diversity to easily integrate the Foster Forest and prairie into their curriculum.

The structure will allow teachers to use it in any weather, hot or rainy, Lopez said.

Beyond the school forest, Lopez and others involved hope to connect to the Foster Lake Trail, which circles most of the lake, including a stretch along the north side from the dam to Sunnyside Park.

“You almost have a complete loop around the lake,” she said. “And this could be connected to that.”

Partners in the project include the Institute of Applied Ecology; the city of Sweet Home and Tree Commission, which are providing trees; Ames Creek Community Chapel; the South Santiam Watershed Council, the Forest Service; Foster School and the Community Learning Centers program; the U.S. Corps of Engineers; Sweet Home High School; the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife; and Native Grounds Nursery. Future contributors include Cascade Timber Consulting, several local artists and woodworkers, Edgewater Marina, 4-H groups and Samaritan Wiley Creek Community. The program will eventually include an organic garden, possibly providing extra food for organizations such as Sweet Home Emergency Ministries.