The "Nuts and Bolts" of the Nevis School Forest renaissance.
Sometimes, being told "no," triggers action. Kevin Longtin, science teacher; and Jodi Sandmeyer, math/science/career advisor at Nevis School, had applied for a No Child Left Inside grant. They wanted to use the grant to refresh their school forest…clearing trails, planting trees, installing benches. Both know that students learn best outdoors, but also understood that teachers need a good place to do it: the Nevis School Forest. So they applied for the grant.
And didn’t get it.
The process of applying for a large grant like NCLI can be daunting. The best grant writers enlist help and brainstorm ideas from a variety of stakeholders, such as other teachers, the school board, parents, and community volunteers. In the long run, this group of dreamers provided the silver lining to being rejected from the grant. Now Kevin had a small army of support!
With this silver lining, here’s what they did, and how they did it:
Cleared and widened 2.5 miles of existing trails and cut more trails. First, Kevin marked the trails. He used the OnX app to find property boundaries, open areas, and best locations for new trails. He spent hours walking through the forest looking for areas he wanted in spring before leaves blocked views.
Clearing new trails came next. The small community of Nevis embraced the project and wanted to offer tools, skills, and labor. All they needed was to be asked! The school rented a forestry mulcher and a local rancher with a heavy machine operator license volunteered to clear the trails. Renting the machine for one week required a million-dollar liability policy. The rancher transported the machine from the dealership to the forest and back. Because mulchers take down shrubs and trees up to 9 inches in diameter, creates mulch, and then sprays it (along with rocks and other debris) onto the trail, it was important to keep people away from the site while work was being done. Hence the million-dollar policy.
Jodi and Kevin note: Make trails wider than what you want for the final path because underbrush will always creep back in. Make sure the mulcher’s teeth are sharp. Plan to run through an area twice to mulch the debris more finely. The mulcher will also grind roots and stumps.
Once the trails are done, classes and the community will use the trails for hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skilling, and quiet reflection. Importantly, Jodi remembered to ask for help maintaining the trails, garnering support from the school’s maintenance staff who agreed to mow trails twice each year.
Created a trail map. Kevin created a trail map using the OnX app based on a publicly available vegetation map from Hubbard County. First, he tracked the trails onto OnX. Then he overlaid the county’s vegetation aerial map. He walked the trails again for accuracy and measured trail segments using a walking wheel borrowed from a local electric contractor.
The team added the trail maps to the school website, got it published in the local newspaper, and inserted laminated paper copies in each “forest pack” for students. Later, the team will also post maps onto signs on the ground throughout the forest, especially at each intersection.
Installed a HUGE pollinator garden. Pollinator gardens are all the rage now. Nevis School wanted to take it to the max by adding 5,000 square feet of pollinator plants! Besides being an effective teaching tool in all seasons, pollinator plants also protect ecosystem health, attract a diverse mix of animals, and enhance pollinator corridors. Jodi asked the Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District for ideas. As it turned out, their SWCD had grant money that was available to school districts in the county. Nevis used this grant to purchase pollinator plants. After the field was prepared, SWCD staff, community volunteers, and school district staff all helped the students plant. Jodi also enlisted help from the Nevis Fire Department who agreed to water the plants, especially important during drought.
Benches! Teachers appreciate having a place to focus bouncing students when outdoors. Materials were purchased from a local lumberyard with money generated from a tree harvest that took place 20 years ago in the school forest. Then Mr. Netteberg, the industrial arts teacher, had his high school students construct the benches. School maintenance staff moved the benches to the school forest.
Bird houses! As excitement around this school and community asset snowballed, summer school staff also directed their attention to the school forest. They taught students how to build bird houses and placed them throughout the school forest. This will give students the opportunity to see how their work benefits the wildlife in the school forest. This fall, students will also place five trail cameras throughout the forest to monitor conditions.
Jodi’s advice: “Brainstorm ideas with a team and ask for help. You’d be surprised who steps up! Our response was unbelievable!”
Nevis isn’t done, either:
- In August, all Nevis Staff will participate in a half-day staff in-service. Staff will go to the school forest, hike the trails, and learn about the pollinator garden. Then DNR School Forest Program staff will share hands-on, grade-appropriate, standards-based outdoor lessons that teachers can use in their curriculum. The school’s goal is that every student does something in the school forest during the 2023-2024 school year. (Teaching in Your School Forest trainings are a FREE service to all School Forests.)
- Each semester, Nevis School’s two science teachers will offer three elective classes based on the school forest. For example, one class will identify trees and other plants for the purpose of creating interpretive signs that identify animals, how leaves change color, and other topics. Students will design, print, laminate, and post it on wood attached to a t-post in the school forest. This is a temporary solution and a work in progress toward more permanent signs in the future.
- The school also wants a picnic shelter to allow classes a place to gather for instruction. They aren’t sure how to do it yet, but may likely follow the process used to get the benches done.
- The PE department will use the school forest for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing using the school’s sets of equipment that were purchased from an “Itasca Mantrap Round-up Grant” (money comes from residents who round-up their electric bills.) The school’s cross-country team also plans to practice at the school forest frequently.
School Forest Program note:
Remind your school that your school forest is an outdoor classroom that should be supported just like any other classroom. Jodi says,
“In Nevis, the district has agreed to provide bussing to the site whenever a teacher asks for it. This is a small district and all the bus drivers are local. It also helps that Nevis School has made the school forest a priority! Living in northern Minnesota and protecting our lakes and environment is a priority for us. Our school board, administration, and staff support the school forest and the opportunities available for our students.”
Nevis School is landlocked by development in the small town of Nevis. The only way to engage students in the natural world requires a 5-minute bus trip north of town to the 80-acre school forest. This site had been enrolled in the program since 1953, experienced ups and downs of use, languished from 15 years of non-use, and suffered a messy windstorm in recent years.