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Controlled Burn Culminates Two Years of Invasive Plant Study

Sixth-grader Hannah Fife said she and her classmates feel more like part of their community after spending part of their day researching plant life on the grounds of their school.

For the past two years, students at the Forest Hills Public Schools Central Woodlands 5/6 Building have researched the native and invasive plant species on the nearly two acres where their school is located. Their teachers have partnered with Groundswell Michigan, an environmental action group that helps them provide “place-based” environmental service-learning projects to encourage young people to be responsible stewards of the Great Lakes and its watershed.

Students Ryan Alexander and Max Harris cutting oriental bittersweet vines
Students Ryan Alexander and Max Harris cutting oriental bittersweet vines

“This is all right outside our window,” said Hannah, 12.  “When the learning is hands-on like this, you can actually see how crucial the effects of invasive species are. You feel like you can take a stand and actually do something about it.”

The past two years of researching and studying the various plants on school grounds led to students planning a controlled burn in April to help eradicate invasive plants. Students said some invasive species simply “muscle” others out, others are allopathic, which means they can contaminate groundwater and soil, and others actually contain carcinogens, and naturally occurring fires are a way of rejuvenating the environment

“It really has been a student-led effort with our teachers working with Groundswell,” said David Simpson, the school’s principal. “Our students just said ‘There has to be something we can do to help protect our grounds.’ ”

Students Ryan Alexander, Hailey Castor and Ava Mataj remove logs and branches after cutting autumn olive
Students Ryan Alexander, Hailey Castor and Ava Mataj remove logs and branches after cutting autumn olive

Back to the Prairie

For one part of the project, each student examined a one-meter by one-meter plot of ground, then identified plant species and cataloged them. In large groups they’ve also untangled oriental bittersweet vines, cut down autumn olive bushes and pulled garlic mustard, the three main invasive species they have found on their school’s property.

The ultimate goal is to help return the property to its native prairie state. School officials were required to obtain a permit for the burn and they also notified the Michigan Department of Natural Resources along with local law enforcement.

School leaders also sent letters to neighbors surrounding the school at 400 Alta Dale Ave. SE so they wouldn’t be alarmed by any smoke.

The burn apparently went off without much attention from neighbors.

Groundswell provided a grant to cover the estimated $800 cost of hiring a professional firm, Kanouse Outdoor Restoration, to complete the burn. For safety reasons, students were not allowed near the burn.

Burn boss Steve Cross and the students said the scorched ground left by the fire should green up in a matter of weeks if the area receives a reasonable amount of rain. Future groups of students will work on further restoring the property.



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