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School Forest Program provides educational opportunities for Park Rapids area students

The Bush Lake school forest has a map detailing the trail system. Members of the public are welcome to use the forests. (Anna Erickson / Enterprise)

Thousands of dollars go toward field trips and other educational programs for Park Rapids area students through Minnesota's School Forest Program.

"I think a lot of people don't even know the School Forest Program exists, let alone what we do," said Tom Stursa, wildlife technician for the Department of Natural Resources and chairman of the School Forest Committee.

The program, which began in 1949, allows for tax-forfeited, donated or school owned land to be a designated a school forest. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources operates the School Forest Program under state statute.

"Some of them are lands that have been donated, some of them are tax forfeited and some of them were acquired by the schools through funding," said Brad Witkin, DNR forester and committee member.

Others are in cooperation with cities or counties.

"The idea being an outdoor classroom for education for kids," he said. "We're looking more at the science part of it but it's available for any class, from arts to physical education."

The Park Rapids School District has three forests: Brush Lake, Lake George and Two Inlets. There are more than a hundred school forests in the state.

"When they were first created, the primary function of the school forest was to bring income into the school," Stursa said. "Not to sell it but to generate money from timber sales."

Not all the school forests in Minnesota are filled with timber. Park Rapids is fortunate to receive income from timber sales in the school forests, Witkin said.

"Other areas that don't have that timber resource, they're looking at grants, a sponsorship by business or other sources to fund field trips," he said. "Here we're pretty self sufficient from the timber income to assist with those education needs."

Brush Lake has been developed more than the other forests. Located southwest of Park Rapids on the Becker/Hubbard County line, the forest has an established trail system that makes it friendly for taking the younger class on field trips.

"The proximity to the school makes it a lot more available for the kids to use on a regular basis," Stursa said.

If a teacher wants to use funding from the School Forest Program, an application needs to be filled out. It then goes to the committee.

Examples of school projects funded by the committee range from basic trips to Brush Lake for kindergarteners to learn basic concepts and different types of trees to trips for high schoolers to develop economic management plans.

A recent project funded through this program was when first graders planted native prairie grass near Century School earlier this week.

Close to $2,500 was utilized for school projects and field trips during the past school year.

High school science teacher Kevin Young, who is part of the committee, said the projects that are funded through this program might not happen if not for this funding source. Other funding sources would need to be found and money is hard to come by these days.

The school forests are open to the public for others to enjoy as well, Stursa said.

"It's a really great opportunity for our kids and the community," he said.

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
(218) 631-2561