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Front Forest at Arran Tara Elementary School

Small forests in urban areas are often just as much about symbolism as they are about improving biodiversity or maintaining an ecological corridor.

When that small forest is on an elementary school property, surrounded by a degraded landscape, and when it is happening at a school that has a student environmental group running a campaign called "Trees for Tara" all the more so.

You can still visit this space.

It is a hop, skip and jump on the west side of the current parking lot at Arran Tara Elementary School. That is, until the end of the current 2023-2024 school year when it is scheduled to be cut down to make space for expanded parking. According to sources, that parking is very necessary because of both the recent increase in students, staff, support staff as well as the increase in parent vehicles using the lot at peak times.

The decision has been made that expanding the parking lot westward and paving over this small forest tract instead of any alternatives that may have been considered is the best use of board resources.

What follows is a letter to a BWDSB trustee from Lee McArthur, shared with The Sustainability Project:

Dear [Bluewater District School Board]
A decision was recently taken recently by the BWDSB to remove the only forested area on the Arran Tara Elementary School (ATES) property to make room for parking. This small forested area is not merely a ‘few trees’; it is a small wild space in an otherwise mowed and paved schoolyard. This small, mini-forest, is a learning space. The decision to remove this mini-forest was is disturbing and objectionable for many reasons, a few of which are outlined below.

Firstly, it is a learning space. The nature deficit experienced by todays’ children is widely recognized. Across the country the naturalization of school yards is celebrated as a means of increasing student wellness and providing diverse environments for outdoor learning. The evidence of these benefits is substantial and well recognized.

Secondly, accessibility to natural, ecologically diverse learning spaces generally requires planning off-site excursions – field trip forms, parent volunteers, bussing and a cost to families. Because of these impediments, such ‘environmental’ field trips happen maybe once a year or, possibly not at all. At ATES a diverse space was readily accessible, on site, requiring no advanced planning and allowing for the potential of daily connection with the natural world.

Thirdly, the second BWDSB Youth Climate Action Conference took place in the fall of 2023. At this conference youth from across the board meet to develop action plans for climate change in their own communities. A group of ATES grade 7 students attended this event. This group is the core of an active climate action group at ATES who have developed a vision for their community - more trees. The students researched, developed an action plan, connected with multiple community groups and presented their plan to the local council and other community organizations in Tara seeking support and funds. The removal of a densely forested existing space on their own schoolyard sends a crushing and disempowering message to these youth.

Fourthly, information about this decision was shared the day before the work on the parking lot plan was scheduled to begin. There are definitely other feasible alternatives to the presented plan. Why was there no consultation and learning community involvement? What message is being sent by the BWDSB about student wellness, about student learning, about youth action, about environmental awareness and about community consultation? The alignment of priorities in an organization is critical. Student learning should be at the basis of every board decision.

Yours Truly,
Lee McArthur,
Concerned citizen, educator and former ATES vice principal

According to McArthur, the Bluewater District School Board is encouraging the students at the school to plant trees elsewhere to restore some of the ecological services lost with the parking lot expansion, and there is at the moment a soft commitment by the board to support the efforts of the students.

For comparison, here are some of the costs one can expect with the install of a replanting of similar scale to this small forest tract, based on Regenerate Grey Bruce's Tiny Forest and Bioswale project installed with the permission of BWDSB and PSDS in Wiarton:

  • Materials - Bioswale $1,895.36
  • Materials - Topsoil $2,436.28
  • Plants - potted $2,677.42
  • Plants - bare root $452.00
  • Plants - misc $54.00
  • Plants Donated - (in kind) $300.00
  • Soil Prep work $5,903.40
  • Volunteer support & partner thank you gifts $850.00
  • Delivery of materials $150.00

Fortunately, the Tiny Forest initiative at Wiarton school was also made into a template and learning experience by adding:

  • Mini-Documentary $2,000.00
  • Signage and Admin $5,000.00

Wiarton Tiny Forest & Bioswale Total Cost - approximately $21,718.46

You can visit the Wiarton Tiny Forest and Bioswale right now (located between the PSDS school and the PSDS track in Wiarton) and you can monitor the ecological benefits it is bringing to the finely manicured lawn and simplified landscape that it replaced in May 2023. You can also contact us to volunteer to water it, or simply use it as an inspiring space to have important discussions about how we treat our landscape and what it shows our youth. You are free to come and monitor the Tiny Forest & Bioswale in Wiarton as it grows into a wild space eerily close in size to the "Front Forest" at Arran Tara Elementary School.

The space in Tara however will soon match the rest of the degraded soil and simplified landscape in that neighbourhood, so as of the time of writing you have about two weeks to explore and enjoy its cool shade. You can learn about it's contributions to the region's small water cycle on our sign here. If you aren't able to see the Front Forest in person, you can see some photos and a video tour here. If you are able to visit, please think of the teachers and students who had a hand its caretaking and consider how precious the existing natural and forested areas around your local schools can be. Then compare those spaces to a reasonable replanting effort that takes a generation to grow into a forest that will aid in the biodiversity crisis.

McArthur's letter is only one of series that have been sent to school trustees by concerned citizens. Much earlier, a letter to school trustees by parent Lynn Gunson questioning the rationale to take down a forest instead of accommodating extra parking elsewhere, has been provided here:

Hello,

My name is Lynn Gunson, I am Chair of the School Community Council at Arran-Tara Elementary School. I am reaching out to bring awareness regarding recent news of the parking lot redesign at ATES and the concern from families regarding the removal of what is known in the ATES community as "THE FRONT FOREST". This was communicated formally to the families at ATES late last week-Friday March 8th, 2024,

The parking lot improvements have long been needed and we are thankful that the safety of all accessing the school grounds no longer be a concern. The disheartening news that came with this email was the removal of a large number of trees (approx. 17) estimated to be around 30 years old. This "Front Forest" space has been utilized by many ATES educators for years.

This "Front Forest" is a space for outdoor learning, emotional regulation, a space for young minds to explore and play in a natural outdoor setting. This "Front Forest" is a natural bioswale which makes it a great place for children to learn about nature and science. The "Front Forest" provides support and awareness to those students at ATES that were involved in the Youth Climate Action Change Conference 2023, and their continued plan to establish more forested areas within the community. To refer to this space as "trees being removed" is a huge understatement.

An important factor to consider is the "Stewardship of Resources" priority on the BWDSB Website homepage "Strategic Plan". When I look up the definition of Stewardship: "Stewardship is the careful and responsible use of something entrusted to one's care (Merriam-Webster). "Stewardship is generally recognized as the acceptance or assignment of responsibility to shepherd and safeguard the valuables of others" (Wikipedia). "Stewardship"- the responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving" (dictionary.com). "Stewardship of Resources" -"it is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources."

Our concerns lay in preserving the "Front Forest", and confirmation as to why the following two options cannot be considered.
1.Utilizing the centre green space directly in front of the school.
2. Increasing the size of the parking lot to be developed on the SouthEast corner.

We are confident that with community engagement and consultation a more universal design that encompasses the needs and safety of all ATES children, families and their educators can be developed.

I look forward to hearing from you in the very near future,

Warm regards,
Lynn Gunson

Considering how thoughtful we as adults need to be in the eyes of youth during a climate and biodiversity crisis that directly affects them, it would have been great if Lynn's campaign to raise awareness would have raised red flags with decision-makers. Consider the important work of the Trees for Tara student group at the school, and whether this was factored into the final decision about the redesign.

The objective of the task at hand (accommodating more cars) should have been at the heart of the decision-making process throughout, allowing for more alternatives to appear, and then gauging their feasibility by actively seeking expertise. If that was the process for the Arran Tara school parking lot redesign, wider consultation would have likely uncovered a better outcome for all.

It's not out of the realm of possibility that a permeable paving option like Ecoraster, which is manufactured in nearby Listowel, Ontario, could have been useful in the redesign. It could have brought the total costs down in a scenario where the parking lot was redesigned closer to underground utilities to the east of the lot, leaving the western tree line to provide beneficial snowdrift and wind protection from a prevailing wind. We will never know if that alternative could have met the objectives of the redesign because the parents, community and the school were not given sufficient opportunity to provide input.

Meeting up with friends there tonight to get out of the heat, it appears some of these trees in the Front Forest are over 70 years old. Listening to birdsong, we know we should be caring for every shady biodiversity hotspot that currently exists in our urban areas, and creating new ones where they once were. Apples to apples, the former is usually the least expensive long-term.

What's perfectly clear here is that we desperately need a new narrative around landscaping. Join the effort here: www.regenerategreybruce.ca

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TSP board meetup at Arran Tara Elementary School, honouring the Front Forest.

A previous version of this post stated "What transpired afterwards was essentially one-way communication about the board's rationale on the decision."

We regret the statement, as there was indeed a parent meeting on the subject.

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