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Building an outdoor classroom


Back Creek Nature Park, once the site of a Depression-era wastewater treatment center, is being transformed into an "urban ecology living classroom," focusing on environmental education.

And much of the work is being done by children.

Youngsters from local schools, especially the Key School in Annapolis and Eastport Elementary School in Eastport, have been yanking out invasive plants and planting more-suitable ones as part of a plan to restore the shoreline along the creek, expand the Osprey Nature Center and install technologies such as green roofs and storm-water filtration systems.

The project is being spearheaded by Mel Wilkins, who has been getting grants, encouraging architects to contribute ideas pro bono and making sure local schoolchildren are involved.

"We're revitalizing the whole park," Wilkins said.

The result will be a place that is educational and beautiful, where people can enjoy a picnic lunch, observe and read about the preservation and treatment technologies, poke around the nature center and maybe see ospreys in the nests being installed in poles above the creek.

The goal, said Annapolis Recreation and Parks Director LeeAnn Plumer, is to "really turn that creek into an educational, environmental center."

The park, which Plumer said has about 15 developed acres and 8 that are undeveloped, has been little more than woodlands with a few nature trails. Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer was the one with the vision to turn the park into an educational showcase, Wilkins said.

In November, he said, "I got the arm put around me," and was hired as a consultant.

Since then, he has been winning grants.

Park neighbors Port Annapolis Marina and the Brick Cos. donated $8,500 to help create a 450-square-foot second-story green roof on part of the wastewater control center building. That building will showcase the environmental and energy conservation advantages of planting greenery on roofs.

"We'll have a ramp there so they [schoolchildren] can get off their buses and actually see a green roof instead of just hearing about it," Wilkins said.

He also won $30,000 from the Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $10,000 from the Chesapeake Bay Trust to create a garden that will serve as a runoff filter for water flowing into the creek.

Additional grants of $80,000 from the Maryland Department of the Environment and $20,000 from Annapolis' park budget will be used to create a storm-water control center with learning stations. Construction is expected to begin in 2007.

The center, of course, will treat storm water, but, Wilkins noted, "we also want to educate with that center."

The first steps toward restoring the park, though, are stabilizing both the buildings and nearly 500 feet of shoreline.

Local children have been a big help with the shoreline, Wilkins said.

Just before their graduation day, fifth-graders from Eastport Elementary School planted vegetation along the creek that they had been growing in their classrooms, Wilkins said. "They were in up to their waist, in some cases higher, planting sub-aquatic vegetation," he said.

And before that, in April, nearly 60 eighth-graders from the Key School spent a day ripping out invasive plants.

"Our eighth grade was involved in working on that restoration project, clearing the park of invasive species as part of their eighth-grade earth-science class," said Dave Magnus, principal of the Key School's middle school.

He recalled that the day was cloudy and rainy, but that the kids seemed to have a good time anyway. Some parents participated as well, he said.

"It wasn't pouring down rain, but it was raining slightly at different times," he said.

The day of weed-pulling fit in perfectly with a unit being taught in the eighth-grade earth science classrooms about invasive species, Magnus said.

Teacher Sharon Robinson-Boostra began planning for the day more than a month in advance, and contacted Wilkins, who visited all three classes to talk to the pupils about the Back Creek project. "That gave a little bit of context for the students ahead of time," Magnus said.

Magnus said the park is very close to Key School, but he couldn't recall any previous field trips there. But that's sure to change, he said.

"Now that we've made that connection, I'm sure it's something we'll follow up on," he said.

Wilkins said the park is already attracting more visitors.

"People are beginning to come around and see progress," he said.

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