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Detroit high schoolers explore wilder side of Belle Isle

If you’ve heard about Belle Isle in the news lately, it was probably a story about people fighting over who should control Detroit’s famous island park. Those political fights tend to overshadow the island’s unique ecosystem. It’s a tiny fragment of what southeast Michigan looked like before industrialization.

Recently, some Detroit schoolkids got to take a look at this natural heart of Belle Isle. I had the chance to tag along.

It wasn’t a great day to be out on Belle Isle. In fact, it was pretty miserable.  It was rainy and cold, and a lot of these ninth-graders from Detroit’s Western International High School didn’t exactly dress for the weather. But too bad.

The kids are split into groups. For example, the “plant group” is going out to survey certain types of trees.

The guide directs the groups, “’Unshaded Trees’ are going with Tommy and Kevin. Tommy and Kevin are over here ….”

Tommy and Kevin are Tommy Jenkinson and Kevin Li. They’re graduate students at the University of Michigan. Jenkinson studies the evolution of fungi—mushrooms, that is. That interest comes straight from growing up in Oregon.

“And when I was about these kids’ age, most of my time was spent out in the forest. And I would notice mushrooms, and start to recognize certain species that I got to know,” he says.

Li has a similar story. Outdoor adventures as a kid got him interested in the environment. The idea is to give these kids a little piece of that experience here on Belle Isle.

The kids are supposed to be helping with a biodiversity survey. But every piece of paper around is soon a soggy mess, so the leaders have to improvise a bit.

Jenkinson asks the group, “What do you already know about plants in Michigan?”

Not a lot, as it turns out. Only about half of these Detroit kids have ever been to Belle Isle, and none of them has ventured into the park’s wilder interior.

Much of that interior is made up of what ecologists call wet-mesic flatwoods.  Basically, it's a marshy forest. That’s what this pocket of the state along the Detroit River looked like before there was a Detroit.

But Li points out some new invaders, like the honeysuckle, crowding out some of the native plants.

Li: “It’s a plant and its flowers are really small, but a lot of them are invasive. You’ll see a lot of these.”

Another invasive you might have heard of preys on Belle Isle’s ash trees.

Li: “Check out this tree. See all these lines here? What do you think made these lines? ‘A bug?’ Yeah, a bug made them. It’s called the emerald ash borer.”

Ash borers feed under the trees’ bark, and the trees die. Li tells the kids that creates a bigger problem, because ash trees are thirsty.

“But when all the ash trees die because of the ash borer, all that water goes back into the ground and it gets too wet for other plants,” he says.

It’s really wet out here today. The kids have nearly reached their limit, so we turn back. Before we get off the trail, one of the students spots a goose nest up in a tree.

It turns out that Belle Isle sits smack in the middle of a huge migratory bird path. The bird-spotter is Nicole Gonzales. She likes the outdoors, and gets out to Belle Isle a few times a year, but not out here on these nature trails.  Her mom won’t allow it.

“Because in the summer the snakes come out, and there are a bunch of animals, and … you really don’t know what’s out here,” she says.

While this trip wasn’t a smashing success as a biodiversity survey, the big point was to get kids like Gonzales into these woods so they know what’s out here, and that it’s not so scary.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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