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Conservation department rewards stewards of the environment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 31, 2011 - Sixth grade students from The College School work with Tim Wood to cut down an invasive plant.

Sixth-grade students gather around Tim Wood, sustainability coordinator for the College School in Webster Groves, as he shows them a map of the property the students are about to improve. They then gather in a barn where he shows them how to use loppers and saws. Finally he takes the group into a woods and point outs the plants the sixth graders will be welcome to chop.

Japanese bush honeysuckle, Wood explains, has a symmetrical pattern of leaves on either side of the stem and stripes on the woody stem. Native spicebush, which occupies the same ecological niche as honeysuckle, has similarly shaped leaves, but not in the same pattern. There are also small dots on the stems, not stripes. Now the students know what to cut. He points to a large woody vine roping around a tree. "This is Asian bittersweet," and he lops the vine in half with a small saw, pulling it off of the tree it is engulfing.

"We have a two-year plan to eliminate invasives from this creekbed," Wood said.

The purpose of this class trip to the LaBarque Creek watershed is not only to walk in the woods but also to make the habitat more welcoming to wildlife.

The project is one of several supported by the Missouri Department of Conservation community stewardship grants. The program, which allots $7,500 a project a year, has three goals, says Erin Shank, the urban biologist coordinating the grants for the department: improve habitat, develop partnerships among organizations, and encourage volunteerism.

The department currently spends about $50,000 a year on the program, but over the past five years has spent $430,000 on such projects. Money comes from the one-eighth-cent Missouri conservation sales tax.

The College School is using students to help improve the property, educating them in the process. To remove invasive plants, the students must first identify them, a learning process in and of itself.

Pairs of students spread out and begin sawing, chopping and occasionally shrieking as they encounter spiders and other critters.

"I come around and I see a spider on my arm, and I'm like, aahhh!" said Jessica, a sixth grader. "This is teaching you not to be afraid of anything."

Mary Clare, another sixth-grader, likes the idea of helping the earth. "I think of earth as you and honeysuckle as an invasive species. We're like the medicine," she said. They cut a bush and yell, "Timber!"

"I was kind of expecting it to be fun but not this much fun," said sixth-grader Brooks. "Spice bush has these little bumps on it, and honeysuckle has stripes."

Removing invasive species promotes avian diversity by opening up perches that invasive species cover up. The College School also plans to plant trees around the creekbeds, reducing runoff and stabilizing the creeks.

Second, third and fourth grade classes from the College School also come regularly. This particular afternoon, the second- and third-grade classes soon arrive. Almost immediately, the third graders strip to their swimsuits and splash around in the creekbed near where the sixth graders had just chopped bush honeysuckle.

Matt Diller, a third-grade teacher, said of this project, "It's as if we've discovered a whole new nuance to sustainability. It's a playspace. It's one thing to tie into the natural learning cycle, which is the natural curiousity toward the land."

Looking at hoofprints on the bank of the creek, third-grader Ivy yells, "I figured out where a deer went!"

Because the students are developing a connection to the land, Diller said, they are more likely to become environmentally conscious.

Third-grader Alissa just thinks it fun.

"We've learned about the prairie, the upland forest, the lowland forest and the glade," she said. "We've just had a blast."

"When I bring them here, they love the land and are confident and comfortable," said Diller. "This is really important that kids fall in love with their own back yard."

Moreover, contact with the land gives the kids hope, a way to help the environment, Diller said. "If we teach about invasive species, bring a lopper. If we teach about erosion, let them make a trail."

South Grand: Improving Quality of Life Through Rain Gardens

Rachel Witt, executive director of the South Grand Community Improvement District, and Angie Weber, community conservation planner for the Department of Conservation, believe that 14,000 square feet of rain gardens (53 gardens, to be exact) plus numerous trees along South Grand, from Arsenal to the St. Pius Carpenter Library, will make South Grand more pleasant and help wildlife by reducing polluted runoff.

The rain gardens are part of the Great Streets Initiative on South Grand, which also includes the installation of pervious sidewalks and pavement. The conservation department is paying for native plants for the rain gardens.

A rain garden is a garden specially engineered to filter runoff from impervious surfaces, such as asphalt, and to clean it before it enters the storm water system. Rain gardens use special soils and native plants, which are better adapted to climate conditions and require less maintenance than grass.

As many St. Louisans who've had backed-up basements know, storm water accumulation and runoff are major problems. But runoff also creates problems downstream.

"A typical city block can generate five times more storm water runoff than a woodland area or a forested area of the same size," said Weber. "Polluted runoff is the No. 1 source of water pollution in the U.S."

Sources of polluted runoff include pet waste, construction sites, erosion and salt, she said. Although some runoff gets treated in combined sewer systems, when a big rain happens, much of the water ends up untreated in rivers, with all the pollutants affecting wildlife.

"Rain gardens improve water quality by filtering pollutants in storm water," Weber said.

Driving south on Grand past Arsenal, one can't help but notice "bumpouts," enlarged corners along the sidewalks. While the spring rains have slowed the installation, the gardens will be planted this summer and will feature signage to educate visitors. "We're hoping that this will be the model of what is to come in a streetscape project. We're hoping people will follow it in years to come," said Witt.

St. Charles County: Helping Wildlife by Increasing Diversity

Ben Grossman, natural resource supervisor of the St. Charles County Parks and Recreation Department, has been developing prairie in Towne Park in Foristel.

"Last year we planted about 20 acres of prairie. We planted native shrubs. Witch hazel, silky dogwood, red bud," he said. "In addition to shrubs, the prairie was seeded with 40 or so native species of flowering plants and grasses, including purple coneflower, blazing star, little blue stem and Virginia wild rye."

Many native seeds required special conditions to sprout. "Some species require a cold stratification. Some require a cold, wet stratification," he said. "While there was snow on the ground this winter, we hand-spread the seeds."

Although it takes several years for the prairie to mature, the improved habitat attracts a more diverse population of insects, which provide better nutrition for wild birds, including wild turkey, bobwhite quail, king birds and meadowlarks.

"These areas tend to be good areas for insects, which tend to attract other species. Young (birds) and chicks require a lot of protein. If there's a higher diversity of wildflowers, there's a higher diversity of insects in a field of (flowers) than in a field of grass."

The difference between then and now is great: "Before, it was just an old crop field."

Hilary Davidson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.