A neighborhood, three schools, a county and the DNR turned a forgotten patch of trees into an outdoor classroom and a community space.
That little patch of woods and all the things in it mean something different, depending on who you talk to and when. To passersby, the four-acre site is just one of those patches of trees you find all over the metro area — barely even woods at all.
Decades ago, the site was the source of the coal that warmed neighboring homes. It was a Burlington Northern railroad yard where railcars unloaded coal to be peddled through the neighborhood.
Later, with the spot left vacant, neighborhood kids sledded down industry-made hills that now looked natural.
Ramsey County bought the land in the 1990s, concerned over threats that developers would replace the trees with houses and leave the East Side neighborhood without a buffer between it and the county’s noisy yard waste site off Phalen Boulevard.
During the last decade, long abandoned, the woods housed drug deals, stolen cars with no wheels, cracked-open safes and the homeless.
Two years ago it changed again. Today, woodchip paths crisscross what is now known as the Big Urban Woods. Neighbors cut through with their dogs. Groups of school kids periodically tromp through, stopping to test soil or study the bark of a tree.
Behind this most recent transformation is a story about community agency. These new woods were built by activist neighbors partnered with state and local government entities willing to share the work of creating community.
“It’s very unfortunate when the city does it all. It’s not how you build a neighborhood,” neighbor Tom Russ said.
The Big Urban Woods became a DNR school forest in 2011. That means that Concordia Creative Learning Academy, City Academy and, once they finish their paperwork, St. Paul Public Schools have access to DNR trainings, educational materials and human resources to help them create outdoor classrooms in the woods. In exchange, schools commit to maintaining the space and taking kids out periodically.
The schools also extend their liability insurance to the woods, covering kids and other visitors. That piece was key in convincing Ramsey County to let a group of neighbors remake the forgotten space.
Master gardener Jennifer Porwit first heard about the project when Tom Russ approached her at Polly’s Coffee Cove one day, asking if she and her husband would like to come on board as consultants. Self-diagnosed with chronic volunteer syndrome, Porwit agreed.
And so it went with other folks in the neighborhood. Russ said he had little trouble convincing a coalition of Boy Scouts, librarians, gardeners and science teachers that the woods should be saved.
Russ was a retired neighbor who just wanted a space where kids could be outside. He was inspired by his years working with troubled youth at the St. Paul correctional facility Boys Totem Town, and by books like “The Last Child in the Woods,” by Richard Louv, which argues that contact with nature is essential to child development.
Everyone on up to the county commissioner seemed to think this idea was good. But what about liability? The county was uninterested in being sued or being responsible for the regulations and maintenance that would come with another park.
The missing piece turned out to be the little-known DNR school forest program, which has existed by state statute since 1949. Although most of the more than 100 school forests are located outstate, there are approximately 30 in the seven-county metro area. School forest administrator Laura Duffey said the program began as a nod to the state’s history of forestry industry. Today, she sees increasing interest from urban schools.
City Academy and Concordia Creative Learning Academy each signed joint-powers agreements with Ramsey County. St. Paul Public Schools is still finishing the paperwork, but once they do, any school in the district will have access to the woods, including the nearby American Indian Magnet and Phalen-Lake Elementary.
The American Indian Magnet’s 4-H after-school group comes out to the woods about once a week when the weather is nice. The woods are a 25-minute walk from the school, and that’s one thing group facilitator Paul Red Elk likes about them. Long walks combat obesity, epidemic in the native community.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Porwit met the group in the woods, carrying a black cohosh plant, which is native to the region. The day’s activity was a lesson in science, gardening and a little vocabulary.
“This is what we call a woodland plant. Everyone know what woodland is?” Red Elk, a Lakota herbalist and ethnobotanist, said. He explained that black cohosh can be used to ease snake bites, stomach aches, childbirth and menopause.
One of the great things about outdoor classrooms, said Duffey, is that teachers don’t have to stick to just science. Last year the 4-H group put on a play about the woods. Classrooms from the American Indian Magnet and City Academy wrote forest-inspired poetry.
For the 4-H group, coming to the woods is an opportunity to reconnect with students’ native heritage. All the group’s members are American Indian.
Red Elk pierced a shovel into the soil and hit what seemed to be asphalt – debris from the woods’ dodgy past. He tried three spots before he found soil loamy enough to accept the shovel. He passed it around, and each girl scooped out a mound of dirt.
“What’s going to go in first?” Red Elk asked.
The plant? The roots?
“Tobacco,” offered one girl.
“To help the plant grow!”
“Why else?” No takers.
“To honor the plant and Mother Earth!” Red Elk explained.
Each girl put in a pinch of tobacco and used her hands to scoop dirt over the black cohosh’s roots. In the end, their hands were black as the coal still present in the soil.
Hmong and Karen neighbors sometimes come to the woods to trim leaves for cooking off the same garlic mustard plants that Porwit wants to replace with native species, like cohosh. The woods are carpeted with invasive mustard.
Porwit said, “When we first started, I thought, aw, we’ll get this whipped into shape, then we’ll do another one. Then I realized how much garlic mustard there was in here, and that idea went out the window.”