Where the Money Goes: Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom
Como Regional Park in St. Paul is Minnesota’s most visited park—attracting nearly 2 million people annually. Como Park Zoo, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, and Como Town amusement park are among the Park’s most popular attractions.
Steps away from the Park’s more well known attractions is an 18-acre natural area that Lottery proceeds helped to revitalize through an Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund grant: the Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom.
The $218,000 grant from the Trust Fund allowed for removal of non-native invasive species, restoration, trail development, the creation of seven unique outdoor study areas, signs to help direct visitors, and the addition of propagation gardens.
“The problem with the area was that it was overgrown and there was no reason to come here,” said Bryan Murphy, a landscape architect for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, who has been heavily involved in the development of Como Park over the last 10 years. “As a consequence, kids would hang out and drink and that’s just the kind of activity that keeps people away. The community wanted to save it.”
The Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom was a result of their efforts.
The Classroom is a grassroots neighborhood movement led by the Como Woodland Advisory Committee. The Committee, made up of local community members, wanted to transform the area into a useable space for educators, students, neighbors and visitors alike.
Adam Robbins, an environmental coordinator for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, said the first priority was getting rid of the non-native invasive species such as buckthorn, emerald ash borer, and burdock that had taken over the area.
The Minnesota DNR says buckthorn was originally brought over from Europe and was very popular in the mid-1800s as a hedging material. It’s considered an invasive species for a number of reasons, including forming an “impenetrable layer of vegetation.”
The buckthorn that infested the Classroom area created a layer nearly eight feet tall, making it hard to see anything “woody,” said Robbins.
They used a prescribed burn technique to eliminate the weedy cover. “It was a capstone moment in restoration for us,” Robbins said. “It’s such an effective tool to eliminate the non-native invasive species that shouldn’t be in the ecosystems. It has allowed for a self-sustaining plant community out here and all the native species that are dependent on fire have just exploded.”
Controlling emerald ash borer, a green beetle native to Asia and Eastern Russia that is extremely destructive to ash trees, was another obstacle that eventually helped pave the way for the direction of the outdoor classrooms.
“It gave us the green light to go ahead and go nuts and create open spaces for the prairies without feeling guilty about cutting down large trees to create a different type of plant community,” said Robbins. “It's interesting how Mother Nature and invasive species guide a lot of the work that we do out here.”
The removal of invasive species and shrubs made way for trails that would eventually connect the classrooms. “We realized pretty quickly that we were creating pathways and openings that we didn’t necessarily see with our mind’s eye,” said Robbins.
After the majority of the invasive species were removed, the outlines for the outdoor classrooms started taking shape.
The Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom consists of seven unique study areas: Oak Woodland, Oak Savannah, Terrace Forest, Tall Grass Prairie, Short Grass Prairie, Transitional Woodland and Coniferous Forest. Each of the seven learning areas includes a meeting space with enough room for 20–25 students.
In the past year alone, the outdoor classrooms have been utilized by students of all ages, from elementary to college students. “It’s a great opportunity for kids to get outside,” said Murphy. “Research shows that they learn better with a hands-on experience like this than a classroom setting.”
With almost 75 schools within a six-mile radius, Murphy and Robbins hope the Outdoor Classroom will continue to attract more school groups.
Even though education is the number one goal of the project, the restoration has created recreational opportunities for locals and visitors. It is a popular destination for runners, bikers, cross-country skiers and people who just want to get away.
They're four years into the project and Robbins said they are just getting started. “Restoration is not an overnight process. It takes time.”
While the Trust Fund was the second-largest source of funding for the Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom, it acted as a stepping-stone to help generate additional funding, including grants and donations from the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment Fund, DNR, Minnesota Historical Society, REI, and Excel Foundation, among others.
Robbins hopes the park will continue to attract visitors. “I’d like to see this become a location that people intentionally come to look at the native plant communities. I want them to look at the wild flowers, take photographs, watch wildlife, educate their kids and let them run wild in the prairie,” he said. “It’s unique to have something so visible like this right in the heart of the city. The best part is it’s free. It’s easily accessible by bus, car or bike. It’s beautiful and it’s here.”
The Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom is just one of the many projects that Lottery proceeds have helped fund that preserve, restore and protect our natural environment.
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What do you like most about the Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom? Let us know in the comments section below!