ITHACA, NY – “The first reason we should build a nature trail is so that people don’t get lost in the woods.” Hard logic to argue, especially when coming from the mouth of a third grader.

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A plucky group of students, along with parents and teachers from the Belle Sherman elementary school filled most of the seats at Monday’s Board of Public Works Meeting.

Their goal: to present their case for why the city should allow the school to convert mostly unused parkland at Strawberry Field into a natural classroom for students and a proper nature trail for public use.

First grade teacher Randi Beckman explained that the project came together due to a combination of factors, starting with a school district mandate for more interdisciplinary teaching in science. A variety of suggestions from throughout Belle Sherman elementary were ultimately consolidated into the nature trail proposal.

Belle Sherman kids make their case

While the teachers and principals put together a solid presentation, the board was clearly more charmed by a group of six students who plead their case for the nature trail.

1 – So people don’t get lost in the woods. Part of the project will involve improving existing trails in the parkland to help people navigate the area.

2 – To take advantage of the opportunity to learn about the five distinct biomes in the area. Strawberry Field includes field, forested path, meadow, creek and forest biomes.

3 – To encourage children to go outside. One student said that kids spend on average five and a half hours inside. “For some people, it might be more fun to run around outside instead of sitting around playing with electronics,” he said.

4 – For community usage. “Right now the city is not using any of this beautiful land,” said one student, “We should be able to let everyone enjoy this natural habitat.” The presenters also suggested the area might be of use to community organizations like Primitive Pursuits.

Belle Sherman Elementary students make their case before the Board of Public Works. (Photo: IV Staff)

Who will pay for the project? And other concerns

Belle Sherman Principal Dan Breiman told the board that the school received a grant from the IPEI Connecting Classrooms grant “which will fund time for teachers and staff across grade levels to plan collaboratively about the nature trail.” The grant will also pay for supplies.

Breiman says the grant is planned to be annual request to continue to work on the nature trail project.

Multiple board members questioned about maintenance of the area, wondering if the city might end up on the hook for maintaining or cleaning the park.

Breiman said that the school plans to maintain the park, with the help of once- or twice-annual community cleanup events. It was also pointed out that the park is meant to be a purely natural area, and so should not require a great deal of cleanup.

Mayor Svante Myrick called Strawberry Field “a missed opportunity,” saying that it had long been on the list of “surplus property” that the city was considering selling.

“We haven’t been doing anything productive with it. The school has what sounds like a very healthy and productive use for it,” Myrick said. He asked if the school district might be interested in buying the property, but it was decided that the details could be ironed out as the project continues.

Common Council liaison Cynthia Brock supported the idea, applauding the “imagination and initiative” of the presenters. However, she brought up the fact that state laws require that any parkland that is removed be replaced with parkland of equal valley of the community. “It’s not as easy as just transferring parkland from one owner to the other,” she said.

The project will be a collaboration between Belle Sherman students, staff and parents and community members. Phase I, which involves clearing brush, removing hazards and mulching existing trails for better visibility, was given the go-ahead by the board.

Future plans such as adding pavilion seating and allowing access to the gorge, are pending further approval as the Board works with the school going forward.

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Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.