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Stewardship plan for Pioneer property

Emphasis on students, outdoors

NORTHFIELD — Former high school science teacher John Lepore spent 1,600 hours crafting a plan for the Pioneer Valley Regional School’s 90-acre property.

“It wasn’t work; it was fun,” Lepore told the School Committee when he presented a summary of the plan.

Lepore volunteered nearly a year’s worth of full-time work to put together the 132-page comprehensive plan, “Pioneering Stewardship: An Action Inspired Design.”

Lepore’s 132-page plan encompasses outdoor learning, student land stewardship, biodiversity and more. It was recently endorsed by the School Committee in a unanimous vote.

The district will seek grants, donations and other funding, to avoid asking the district’s four-member towns to pay for the plan through taxes.

The school’s grounds are the largest of any non-vocational public school in the state.

That’s a lot of room for proposals from a wetlands viewing platform and projects to support biodiversity to a team-building rope obstacle course and three outdoor classrooms, one that would overlook the school and the valley from the hilltop in the northwest.

Many of the plan’s aspects, like invasive plant removal and recovery, could be done by volunteers, or as a class project.

“Kids starting seventh grade could adopt a piece of land, and care for it for six years. They’d really be able to see the results, and they’ll become attached to that piece of property.”

Lepore hopes a student stewardship program would foster a connection with the environment, teaching students to care for the world around them, rather than just exist in it.

Student gardens could also be built and maintained without breaking the bank and they’d provide agricultural education and fresh food at once.

Other parts of the plan will take money, like putting in ground-mount solar-electric panels or incorporating “green” roofing into the building.

Some of those projects could be paid for with open space or land preservation grants. Lepore said many aspects of the plan would be eligible for money from the town’s Community Preservation Act funds, a third of which are set aside for open-space projects.

Lepore, who holds a master’s degree in sustainable landscaping from the Conway School of Landscape Design, consulted experts, school officials and Pioneer students in crafting the plan. It includes an in-depth analysis of the site, and explores possibilities for its use.

While it covers areas like biodiversity, ecological resilience, runoff control and food security, Lepore kept one thing in mind while he wrote every page.

“My number-one philosophy is to do what’s best for the kids,” he said.

Lepore sees a bevy of outdoor educational opportunities on the Pioneer property, but he said it’s going to take a while for students and teachers to get used to outdoor learning. The idea of taking a class outside can be daunting to some teachers, said Lepore.

“Kids don’t know how to be outside. To them, it’s recess; it’s a release,” said Lepore. “It takes time to get them to understand that we’re going into another community (of nature), and that they have to show respect and act responsibly. It’s a process, and it will require support and encouragement for the teachers.”

Once the students acclimate to their outdoor surroundings, they can start to take in the world around them, said Lepore.

A recent walk of the grounds showcased a few of the species those students could come across.

Rabbit tracks intersected with deer prints in the snow by the pond, and a young moose had passed close by. By the pond’s edge, a snow-slide carved by beavers’ bellies led down to the water, where a large beaver den pokes up from the middle of the pond. Overhead, a hornets’ nest lay dormant in a tree’s bare branches. Piles of acorn shells lay at the bottom of trees, implying that a squirrel had been dining above and many a tree was riddled with woodpecker holes.

Though animals thrive near the pond, so do invasive plants. In recent years, the pond area has been overtaken with Japanese stiltgrass, but volunteers have been eradicating the foreign plant. Lepore said that, after two years’ work, 90 percent of the stiltgrass has been removed.

There are a variety of invasive plants on the property. Though they can be removed, Lepore said it’s pointless to pull the weeds unless a restoration plan can be implemented. Otherwise, the plants will come back sooner than later.

Some of these species are just biding their time, waiting until conditions are right for them to take over. All along the woods’ edge, winged euonymus, or “burning bush,” grows and it could creep farther into the forest.

All it needs, said Lepore, is for some of the trees overhead to fall down, letting in light. That’s likely to happen, said Lepore, as many of those trees are toward the end of their lives. Once the canopy overhead opens up, they’ll spread like wildfire.

While there’s a lot to learn from wildlife hikes and invasive plant management, outdoor classrooms would enable a variety of subjects to be taught outside. Each of three proposed classrooms would provide a covered seating and instruction area.

They could also provide lessons in lumbering and construction. Lepore’s plan points out a red-pine forest “in desperate need of management,” which could provide site-sourced lumber for the classrooms.

To see the summary and full editions of Lepore’s plan, visit goo.gl/OhQFY7.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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