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Piedmont Elementary School third graders and their teacher Rae Tyllia (center) use nets to hunt for crayfish in the creek at Hartley Park in early June 2014. (News Tribune file photo)

Our view: Outdoor education remains top priority at Hartley Park

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opinion Duluth, 55802
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

With more and more people being drawn to Hartley Park, its trails and its wilderness vibe, the city of Duluth did the smart thing by stepping back and taking a thorough look at one of its natural gems. But the plan the city and others first came up with in the name of “improving” the park was anything but smart. It called for dramatic changes and was recreation- and activities-focused rather than nature- and education-based, as the park is now. It called for asphalt and structure. Fine, perhaps, for a Twin Cities suburb, but not so fine for Duluth.

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Fortunately, the plan evolved and was changed — several times over, incorporating ideas and suggestions each time from the many who spoke up. The plan now has support, including from the initially not-so-sure Izaak Walton League, the Hartley Nature Center and the Duluth Parks and Recreation Commission, whose members were unanimous with their backing this month.

On Monday, the plan can be endorsed with as much enthusiasm by the Duluth City Council.

“It’s a very wild and natural space at Hartley,” City Councilor Emily Larson told the News Tribune Opinion page Thursday. “(With this plan,) it still will be. … Overwhelmingly what I heard was, ‘Wow, I had a lot of concern at the beginning.’ (But) when I have kind of circled back to those people, I hear, ‘This is very acceptable. This makes sense to me.’ ”

The plan calls for removing buckthorn, an invasive weed; thinning the pine forest to increase species and age diversity; and studying how to make better Hartley Pond and Tischer Creek, including restoring trout habitat along a mile-long stretch of the creek.

Trail improvements will better connect the park to surrounding neighborhoods; will help trails last longer; will make trails more accessible to the elderly and users with handicaps or mobility challenges; and will include a few, but not too many, signs so users can better find their way. A comprehensive trail plan will be developed, and any trail changes, the plan says, will be made via a partnership between the city and the nonprofit Hartley Nature Center.

Other improvements under the plan will improve parking and park amenities. Already, a nature-based preschool is scheduled to open this fall.

“One of the things I love about this plan, because I really value outdoors space, is that it recognizes the need for programmed space and for un-programmed space,” Larson said. “Our direction was on what is most appropriate and good for the park.”

At least one user of the park disagrees. The groundbreaking nonprofit program Gender Matters is convinced that the proposed changes will destroy the nature that’s in the park and the ability to immerse children in that nature to teach them and to help them learn and do better in school. About 600 kindergarteners, first-graders and second-graders from St. James, St. John’s, St. Michael’s Lakeside and Hermantown schools participate in the program. They’re among an estimated 14,000 schoolchildren a year who visit Hartley or benefit from its educational outreach.

“They want to accommodate an increasing number of (park users with this plan). If they do that they will destroy the habitat and creatures that are there. … Critters and habitat will be devastated,” Gender Matters Director Daniel Mundt told the Opinion page this week. “They aren’t interested in what this will do for children’s education. They can say they are, but they aren’t. … They’ll destroy (outdoor education for children at Hartley) by driving away the creatures. There’s no question what’s going to happen if this plan goes through. If you think you’re going to continue to have a nature facility up there you are wrong.”

With respect to Mundt and his excellent program, his fears seem extreme. Despite years of trail development and the building of bridges, parking areas and even a large building to house the nature center, wildlife remains abundant in Hartley. It seems reasonable to expect wildlife to continue to be abundant or to return if temporarily displaced by activity.

Hartley Nature Center Executive Director Tom O’Rourke agrees.

“The park is 660 acres, and animals are very adaptive to us being around. No, I don’t think you’re going to drive all the animals out of here,” O’Rourke said in a News Tribune column in May. “What we do is environmental education in the park. That’s contingent on the park having a lot of nature and animals having habitat. We’ll still have that.”

“We are strongly committed to protecting and improving the wildlife habitat in Hartley,” the city’s director of public administration, Jim Filby Williams added reassuringly, also in May in the News Tribune. “We know of no research that would validate the concern that the planned improvements would in any way diminish the quality of wildlife habitat in the park.”

Rather, with its nature-first focus, the Hartley Park Master Plan promises a better facility for hikers, mountain bikers, and the already increasing numbers of others using it — while continuing to offer great outdoors-based education to thousands of Duluth-area school kids who then return to their classroom and perform better.

Read more On Sunday

The Sunday Opinion pages this weekend will feature commentaries from city officials and others in favor of proposed changes to Hartley Park and from the director of a nonprofit program convinced the proposed changes will be devastating. The nonprofit program is Gender Matters, which recognizes that boys and girls learn differently and that they all learn more and better with time spent in the outdoors.

Online

The Hartley Park Master Plan and its two-page executive summary are posted at the city of Duluth’s website at www.duluthmn.gov/parks/mini-master-plans-2013/

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