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June 17, 2019

500 volunteers plant for clean water and healthy habitat at Scenic Heights Elementary School

On Wednesday, June 5th, students from 19 classes at Scenic Heights Elementary School worked together to install a variety of prairie plants in the outdoor learning center behind their school.  Throughout the day, 475 students and teachers worked with staff from the Riley Purgatory Bluff Creek Watershed District (RPBCWD), Three Rivers Park District, and the school, to install more than 1,500 plants. Students planted 15 species of flowers and grasses in an area that is being converted back to native prairie. As these plants grow, they’ll send long roots down into the soil, making paths for rainwater to soak in. They’ll also help to filter out pollutants before they reach nearby Purgatory Creek, and provide food and habitat for pollinators and other animals who live in the creek, wetland, and forest.

Minnetonka High School students participating in the school’s Senior Serve program also helped to lead the event. Some of them, former Scenic Heights Elementary school students now just a day away from their high school graduation, had a chance to reflect on their experience at Scenic Heights. Michelle Jordan, Communications and Project Coordinator at RPBCWD commented “It was really neat to see former Scenic Heights students come back as Senior Serve, and find that they still held a connection to the outdoor learning center.”

Dawn Christesen, a teacher at Scenic Heights Elementary, has been involved with the school forest since 2003, and has been a strong advocate for the restoration project. She notes, “in that time, thousands of students have been involved with learning about our natural world and caring for our environment. From battling the invasives to participating in naturalist classes and geocaching adventures, stewards of the environment have been shaped and inspired. Their love for the natural world has been such a joy to witness. We could not of done any of this without the wonderful support of our community and many partnerships.”

On Saturday, June 8th, 20 volunteers—including neighbors, former scenic heights school families, and watershed district volunteers—worked to continue the planting project. They installed plants along an ephemeral creek that flows out of a pond in the project area.

Over the past few years, this forest area has been changing dramatically. In 2017, RPBCWD joined with Scenic Heights Elementary School, the City of Minnetonka, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Three Rivers Parks District and other partners to embark on a project to restore the forested outdoor center on the school grounds. Invasive species like garlic mustard and buckthorn had outcompeted native plants in the forest, and erosion was a problem. Over the past fifteen years volunteers worked to try to control invasive species, plant natives, and tackle erosion. This new restoration partnership builds on this good work to care for the forest and the watershed that it is a part of. 

Site work began in the winter of 2018 with the removal of woody invasive plants. This dramatically opened the site, clearing space for what will be native prairie, oak savanna, and forest edge habitat. In the fall, volunteers planted over 100 native trees and shrubs. In 2019, invasive plant management continues with a focus on herbaceous plants like garlic mustard and motherwort. Project contractors also seeded the area and will continue weed management throughout the growing season. The project was funded by RPBCWD, Hennepin County, and the Minnetonka School District, with additional in-kind support from the City of Minnetonka, Three Rivers Park District, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

More information about the project and photos from these events can be found at: rpbcwd.org/school-forest.