MARQUETTE - Students from the Powell Township School District tried their hand at gardening Wednesday at the Hiawatha National Forest's greenhouse in Marquette.
The students were helping out with a project that has been four years in the making - restoring areas on Grand Island and Stonington Point with native plants.
The event was sponsored by the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve through a Nickelodeon Green Grant, which provides money for the environmental education of young people.
From left, Powell Township School District seventh-grader Austyn Rice and sixth-grader Isaac Vart seed milkweed with the help of the Hiawatha National Forest greenhouse’s senior volunteer, Sue Rabitaille. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
Deb Le Blanc, West Unit plant ecologist for Hiawatha, said it's important to involve kids in projects such as this.
"It's good for stewardship," Le Blanc said. "Our native species of wildlife are dependent on our native plants."
Learning about the importance of native plants to natural habitats could help instill in young people a sense of respect for the land they live on, should they ever become landowners, Le Blanc said, adding that this type of work can help foster an appreciation for Mother Nature as well as Father Time.
"We live in a different kind of society," Le Blanc said. "There's a lot of video games. Everything is quick and fast. Sometimes it's hard for students to understand how long it takes for these things to grow."
Before beginning their seeding efforts, the students received a crash course from Le Blanc on the relationship between the monarch butterfly and milkweed, the plant they are seeding and replanting.
The monarch travels thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico and back again in its annual migration.
Stonington Peninsula, which is included in the Hiawatha National Forest, is a crucial resting point for the butterflies on their long trip south. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed and, once hatched, the larvae feed off the milkweed before they mature into adult butterflies.
The milkweed is a poisonous plant to most animals and because the monarch's larvae feed on the plant at a young age, they become somewhat poisonous as well.
"Animals know, when they see the monarch not to eat it," Le Blanc told the students.
The area was once abundant with milkweed, but invasive species have made their way into the natural habitat.
Le Blanc and the students are hoping to change that and restore Stonington to its native habitat.
The students worked in small groups, carefully seeding the milkweed. If they planted it too deep, the seed won't sprout.
Powell Schools seventh and eighth grade teacher Linda Fluery said the project would go a long way in showing the importance of native plants to her students.
"It's important for the kids to understand the environment they're a part of," she said. "Without local plants, you can't have local animals. Everything is connected."
Christy Budnick of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve spent the day with the kids, as well, helping them seed, answering questions and taking short videos of the kids while they worked. She said helping the Hiawatha Forest with the restoration project would show students the amount of work needed to complete such a massive project and may even provide them with skills they can take home to their own backyards.
"They can see how to do it here and they can ... be able to do it at home," Budnick said. "Plus, it gets their hands in the dirt. They need that."
Once the milkweed is ready to be planted, it will be transported to Stonington Peninsula or Grand Island, where Forest officials are also working to restore what was once a farm run by Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. back to its native habitat.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.