The wildfires that have choked the summer air with smoke the past few years have caught the attention of the Riverside School District, which is moving forward with a new forest management plan for the 97 acres of trees on the 186-acre school campus on U.S. Highway 2 at Deer Park Milan Road.
The forest has been getting hit by Western pine beetles, which are killing some trees, said lead groundskeeper Rob Foster. “You can get rid of them if you do it properly,” he said.
Drought has also compromised the trees, leaving them more susceptible to beetles and disease. The forest, which has many small trees crowded together, is a fire hazard the way it is now. “We are so overcrowded with trees,” he said. “If it goes, it’s going to take everything around us out.”
The district had a scare last year when a fire started July 14. Foster said it was caught early and was limited to only 1.5 acres because the wind was blowing from south to north. If the wind had been blowing the other way, “it would have fried everything,” he said.
There have been some preliminary discussions about leaving the burned area as is to create a living classroom to show students how the forest recovers after a fire, Foster said.
The burned area is close enough to the elementary school that you can hear children playing outside during recess, but the school isn’t visible through the thick trees. The fire line crews dug while fighting the fire created a depression that is visible even under the snow.
There are also numerous fallen trees left over from a windstorm several years ago that felled trees like toothpicks, leaving the dead wood on the ground as wildfire fuel. “I’ve been watching the woods for the last 12 years,” Foster said. “Nothing has been done to it in 30 to 35 years.”
Superintendent Ken Russell said he hopes to create learning opportunities for students and the community during and after the project. “We want to have a safe and healthy forest,” he said. “It’s an unsafe setting. We need to clean it up.”
Russell said several teachers have expressed interest in working the forest into their curriculum once the cleanup begins. He also wants to reopen the district’s greenhouse, which has been shuttered for nearly a decade.
“Part of the vision is to reinvigorate our greenhouse,” he said. “We’re going to bring that baby back.”
There are access roads and trails on the property, which the cross-country teams use to run on. People also walk their dogs there. On a recent morning fresh deer tracks were visible in the snow and Foster said turkeys and other wildlife also live there. “We’ve had moose here,” Foster said.
Randy Burke, who works as a landowner assistance forester with the Department of Natural Resources, said the school will be participating in the Eastern Washington Fuel Reduction Cost Share Program. The program offers money to landowners who thin and prune their trees and remove debris. “It’s a 50/50 cost share,” Burke said.
The district’s management plan does call for some logging. Any money raised by doing that will be used to pay for the portion of the cleanup not covered by DNR. “The original proposal was cost neutral,” Russell said.
The goal is to have trees that are well spaced and healthy with limited debris on the ground that could make a wildfire burn hotter and faster.
The project could start as soon as this spring with an Ecology Youth Corps crew doing fuel reduction work for two weeks at no cost to the school district, Burke said.
Foster said the project will take between three and five years to complete. Foster is so committed to the project that he plans to help oversee it until the end, even after he retires. “I retire in two years, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be done,” he said. “I want to see it through.”
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