Volunteer Spotlight: Como Woodland Advisors

How did a forgotten, trash strewn, buckthorn infested, random bike trail riddled woodland become an outdoor learning area?  A group of local neighbors and Saint Paul Parks and Recreation worked together 15 years ago to make this amazing transformation happen.  Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Advisory Committee, the Como Woodland is now a place for you to explore and study, listen to birds, see a fox, take a photo of a wildflower in the spring, and learn about the rich history of this place.

The Como Woodland Advisory Committee includes Teri Heyer, Susan Jane Cheney, Joan McKearnan, Deb Robinson, Britt Forsberg and Gary Bank. They bring passion and technical skills to guide this special resource. The committee has taken on projects such as reviewing restoration plans for St. Paul Park and Recreation, organizing celebratory events, assisting with restoration work, advising and working with teachers, and even providing interpretive programs for student and community members.

July 15, 2021 will be the official 15th anniversary of this amazing volunteer effort. We talk with Deb Robinson, who has “been there since the beginning” and Teri Heyer, who has logged 12 years of outstanding service to this project and is now serving as the chair.

How did you get started working with the advisory committee?

Deb: Susan Jane Cheney and I were both active members of the District 10 Environment Committee in the early 2000s (Susan Jane is still a member of that committee).  The E. Committee spent much of the 1990s on Como Lake water quality issues.  But, after they formed the Capitol Watershed District, their attention turned towards removing buckthorn and trash from Como Park’s natural wooded areas.  The idea of restoring that 17-acre woodland and using it as an Outdoor Classroom took root in our minds early on.  I met with then Parks Director Bob Bierscheid about our idea of a Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom and he told me what steps we needed to take first: get Parks Board permission, seek out and gather stakeholders’ support, AND form an Advisory Committee.  Interested District 10 members and supporting stakeholders became the first members of the Advisory Committee – so, at the first meeting of the Como Woodland Advisory Committee (CWAC) in 2006 I guess it was expected of me to be on the committee. 

Teri: Like Deb, I live in the neighborhood. I also have a background in natural resources management and environmental education. I saw a notice about what skills they needed for the committee and thought “that’s me!.”

What have been your most personally rewarding experiences during your time on the committee?

Deb: Taking a major role in the two main CWOC funding proposals was an education for me in both City and State processes (and politics).  I had taken a project proposal class in college, but I had never written a large grant before or developed a project.  However, my lack of experience kept me from becoming discouraged and also gave me, as a volunteer, a huge feeling of accomplishment when it all started coming together.  When the funding started to flow, the Fireplace restoration was nearing completion, and gravel beds for the trail system were laid down, I could finally believe it was real.

Teri: Yes, the LCCMR grant brought our vision to fruition. The Eco Stewards program has been vital to continually get volunteers into the woodland to collect and plant seeds, pick up trash and get rid of invasive species. Both Deb and I serve as Eco Stewards as well as others on the advisory committee. At the end of the day your back may hurt, but you get to see the results of your work.

What volunteer needs are most pressing for this year?

Deb: During my research for this project, I realized that Como Park has a long history of lost landscape projects: formal gardens, tree nurseries, bridges to nowhere (the drained Cozy Lake), the Kilmer Cascades and Arboretum.  When a park landscape project stops being maintained it disappears – I don’t want that to happen to the Como Woodland.  So the answer is: supporting the Eco Steward volunteers with whatever their needs are. 

Teri: We could use more Eco Stewards and younger volunteers with good backs needed to pull garlic mustard! We could also use volunteers focused on the transitional forest area in the Woodland. This is an area where we need to keep out the invasive species so we can test and observe how the forest develops as we work towards maintaining or increasing the amount of trees and forests in the city as our climate changes. 

What are some of the things you most want to accomplish next during your time on the committee?

Deb: We’d love to develop the logical connection between school groups that visit the Zoo and have a picnic right across from the Woodland. Getting the word out to teachers about the opportunities in the Woodland Classroom is vital. 

Teri: We had some funding to develop an interpretive guide to the history and natural resources in the area. In the woodland you now see informational signs and QR codes that link you to more information. The next element is an online story map of the area to add to the other free online resources for teachers and community groups: Natural Resource Tour, Historical Tour, Bird Study Materials and Environmental Education Resources

After all, the more people know about the rich variety of resources here, from the Zoo to the Woodland, the more they will know and care about nature to preserve it for future generations.

It sounds like you’re firing on all cylinders but you could use some more boosters.

That’s right! We are looking for new and younger members to join this wonderful committee.

What are your other favorite parks and why?

Teri: I love Crosby Farm Park because of the beauty and connection to the Mississippi River but unfortunately most of the tree canopy is ash trees and these are dying due to the emerald ash borer.  St Paul Parks and Recreation seized this as an opportunity to bring in many partners to study what this floodplain forest could look like in the future as our climate changes.  The Crosby Farm Park is the only urban and floodplain forest that is part of a national adaptive silviculture for climate change project (silviculture is the practice of planting and caring for trees to ensure healthy and sustainable forests).  Various types of trees have been planted including more southern species like pecan, tulip popular, and sycamore and these will be studied for several years to track their survival and growth. Mississippi Park Connection is also seeking volunteers to help with this forest area. It’s wonderful to be part of the exploration of what will our forest look like into the future.

Deb: Biking along the Mississippi River floodplain from Harriet Island through Lilydale Park is very relaxing for me.  What a great place: nice new bike paths, native plantings, lots of wildlife and history.    

If this article has inspired you, you can be part of this continuing transformation at Como Woodland:

There are both ongoing and periodic volunteer activities to help control the invasive species and assist with planting desired species. 

Join the Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom Advisory Committee.  Members of this committee provide advice to St. Paul Park and Recreation on the maintenance and ongoing restoration of the woodland, they help plan and volunteer at restoration and special events, and they help teachers get started in an outdoor classroom experience for their students.

Do you have interpretive or science skills?  Can you ID birds, trees, flowers, or  butterflies?  Because there is no dedicated paid staff to lead students and teachers that visit the Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom, your skills and time could be valuable.  Contact the Como Woodland Advisory Committee Chair and that person will help you get connected.

You can also make a much-needed gift to the Como Woodland Classroom through the Conservancy by clicking here (mention the Woodland Classroom in your comments).