Prairie and wetland planned for outdoor classroom

An outdoor land lab at London City Schools’ Route 38 campus will include prairie land (green- and orange-outlined areas) and a wetland (blue-outlined area).

London City Schools will be adding a new classroom at its elementary/high school campus, but it’s no ordinary classroom. It’s outdoors.

On Dec. 15, the school board gave its blessing to a proposed outdoor classroom project that involves prairie and wetland restoration along swaths of land bordering the school grounds on Route 38. The project organizers are: Dana Snyder, agriculture sciences teacher and FFA advisor at the high school; Eric Imerman of The Ohio State University Extension Office in Madison County; and Christy Ahnmark of the Madison Soil and Water Conservation District.

The idea is to turn an existing retention pond into a wetland and approximately 11 unused acres into prairie land complete with oak trees, native grasses and wildflowers. The result will be a place to learn about natural sciences, history and the environment, all within walking distance of London City Schools’ entire student population, pre-K through 12th grade.

“It’s a great idea and at very low cost,” said Superintendent Steve Allen. “I can envision walking trails and information placards along the way. Senior citizens down to toddlers could enjoy it.”

Board member Vici Geer said she suggested a similar idea several years ago, but the timing wasn’t right. She said she’s glad to see the idea resurface and take hold. Geer and other members of the board said the idea will put to good use strips of land that aren’t suitable for other purposes.

Imerman noted that the Soil and Water Conservation District has restored many acres of prairie land in the county, but hasn’t often reintroduced oaks. As such, the project at the school grounds on Route 38 will be unique and one that will require patience. Oak trees take 25 years to mature.

“The neat thing about that is that your practically new buildings will grow old with the oak trees,” Imerman said to the board.

Funding, Cost and Timeline
The first order of business is to acquire funding, which Imerman said likely will come from grants. Organizers have until Jan. 15 to submit an application to the Ohio Environmental Education Fund, which awards mini grants of $5,000 for projects of this type.

Estimates put the cost of cleaning up and planting the oak savanna at $5,000 to $10,000 and construction of a water level control device for the pond at $100 to $1,000.
If the OEEF grant does not come through, Imerman said organizers can pursue other similar grant options. Additionally, they will approach groups like Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups for donations.

Volunteer labor is planned for much of the project. For example, the FFA shop class could build the water level control device, and school and/or community clubs could plant the trees and wetland vegetation.

Planting likely won’t start until the spring of 2010, Imerman said, as 2009 will be spent getting funding and preparing the site. Unwanted trees, shrubs and plants need to be removed, along with a trash pile near the soccer field and rocky debris in a mound behind the softball field. Organizers also propose starting a com-post pile to collect grass clippings and other organic waste.

Once the plantings are done in 2010, the prairie will take two to three years to become solidly established.

Prairie Restoration Area No. 1
One of the two prairie areas will be created along the northern edge of the Route 38 campus, circling around the wetland to the north side of the soccer practice field. Part of this seven acres is mowed, part is not. None of it serves as lawn or playing field area. Once prairie land, the acreage will require no mowing.

Prairie Restoration Area No. 2
The other prairie area will start on the south and east sides of the soccer practice field and extend south to the borders of the school property. These four acres are not mowed, contain unwanted trees and noxious weeds, and are home to two or three pheasant families and other wildlife.

Wetland Restoration Area
The retention pond along the driveway on the northeast side of the campus will become a wetland. Cattails, cottonwood trees and willows, all wetland plants, are already starting to grow in the 1.5-acre area. With minimal work and the planting of other vegetation, the pond can become a relatively natural wetland.

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