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Mystery wetland doubles as an outdoor classroom

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Seventh graders Haley Osburn and Richard Norred work with other St. Helens Middle School students at a wetland near their school. The students learn about natural resources while clearing blackberries, building habitat shelters and planting native plants.No one is quite sure where the wetland came from, but it's certainly not going anywhere now.

The boggy hollow between the St. Helens School District Office and the Middle School is full of willows and other native plants. It has been flourishing for a number of decades though the surrounding land gives no indication of being part of a wetland system. In recent years, it has doubled as a valuable outdoor classroom.

On March 22, a troop of middle school students, outfitted in boots and yellow rain jackets, cleared blackberry bushes and built small habitat structures from wood debris along the outskirts of the wetland, under the watchful eyes of district teachers and with the help of St. Helens High School students.

"I think it's cool because we're actually doing something to help the earth," said seventh-grader Ryan Davidson, his work gloves crusted in mud. "Not everybody goes out and does this."

Chas McCoy, coordinator with the Scappoose Bay Watershed Council, theorizes the wetland may have been dug out before the 1970s, perhaps when the city or a private company was exploring surface mining possibilities in the area.

The teachers and their classes had been clearing away brush at the wetland for several years, but approached the Watershed Council in the last couple years. With the council's help and expertise, the classes have planted numerous native seedlings and zeroed in on the non-native blackberries that tend to run rampant around the wetland without regular maintenance.

"They get a lot done," McCoy said about the students, gesturing to a hillside that had been covered in blackberries but is now clear.

Amber Horn, natural resources and advanced natural resources teacher at St. Helens High School, finds the outdoor work cements ideas and information she's presented in the indoor classroom. The break in both surroundings and routine is exciting for the kids, she said.

The only downside? "Sticker bushes," said several students — "sticker bushes" being a catch all term for anything with thorns.