Tragedy Gives Kids’ Camp Plan New Push — Forest Site Would Serve As Center For At-Risk City Youths

Sometimes tragedy accomplishes what no amount of politicking could.

The drive-by slaying of a Ballard High School student in March could revive a Seattle School Board member’s decade-old dream of transforming a little-used tract of forest land northeast of Issaquah into a youth camp for environmental learning.

For much of the year, the Cleveland Memorial Forest, off Issaquah-Fall City Road, sits empty and padlocked.

Originally purchased for $300 by students from Seattle’s Cleveland High School in 1944 as a living memorial to students killed in World War II, the forest now is worth $10 million to $15 million and includes second-growth forest and a spawning-salmon creek.

There are trails through the woods and a few run-down buildings, but the 131-acre property is hardly used except for occasional school field trips.

For years, Seattle School Board member Ellen Roe has been trying to change that.

She and two Seattle legislators, state Reps. Marlin Appelwick and Ken Jacobsen, have talked off and on for a decade about trying to find the money to turn the forest into an outdoor learning center for local schoolchildren and at-risk youths.

But the idea stalled because there was no money and because of the sheer number of public entities that would have to become involved in the project: the cities and school districts of Seattle and Issaquah, the county and the state.

Then, last March, one bullet fired out the window of a passing car killed 16-year-old Melissa Fernandes. The gang-related drive-by shooting, the first to take place on school grounds in the city, shocked residents and prompted a lot of soul-searching about how to stop youth violence. One of the many phone calls to the school district in the days that followed Fernandes’ death came from Kym Allen, an aide to City Councilwoman Sue Donaldson.

She called School Board member Linda Harris and asked what she could do to help with any anti-violence projects underway in the district. Recalling Roe’s idea for the Cleveland forest, Harris began making phone calls and pulling together people from the city, the county, and the state.

The group has been meeting informally since May and recently chose Ron Snyder, principal of Alternative School No. 1, as project director.

“This could become a great learning opportunity for kids all over the area,” Harris said. After Fernandes was killed, “the whole sense of the community was `We can’t just let this happen.’ Hopefully, this will be one good thing that can come out of that tragedy.”

The plan calls for an environmental learning camp for schoolchildren from the Seattle and Issaquah school districts to get hands-on experience learning about forestry, ecology, conservation, and fish biology. In addition, at-risk youths from the schools, or perhaps juvenile offenders, could be put to work building trails and doing upkeep on the property.

“We’ve got kids who’ve never been in a forest before,” Harris said. “You can see that would be a pretty overwhelming experience.”

No school-district money is available to develop the idea. Instead, the group will compete for grants to get the project started.

Snyder, who will oversee the project, said it may cost about $100,000 to get the program started, then about $125,000 for staff training and $100,000 in operating costs and salaries for a director and a secretary.

To keep it going after the grants expire, Harris and Roe are exploring the idea of a challenge course, which uses ropes suspended above the ground and other obstacles to teach teamwork, leadership and self-esteem. The course would be used by students and rented to corporate groups and others to finance the schools’ use of the property.

The goal is to have the project operating by next spring or summer.

Watching the property fall into disuse has been disappointing to the Cleveland students who originally put up the money to purchase the property, said Byron Coney, a Seattle attorney, and class of 1947 member.

“We do want to see it continued” as a lasting legacy to their classmates who were killed, he said.

Complicating the deal, though, are questions about zoning, the state’s Growth Management Act and a proposed new development nearby called Grand Ridge, which could lead to 2,500 new dwellings southwest of the Cleveland forest.

A preliminary agreement between project developers and King County calls for the owners to set aside more than 2 square miles of land as open space. Some of that area has been designated as wetlands and is fed by the same stream, Canyon Creek, that runs through the school district’s property.

Harris and Roe envision combining that wetlands area with two parcels of undeveloped county land on each side of the Cleveland forest. The county land alone would more than double the size of the proposed learning camp to nearly 300 acres, making it possible to open it up to the public as well as students.

The county currently has no plans to develop its land, said county parks planner Sharon Claussen. It’s too early to know how all the pieces will fit together, but the idea is compatible with the greenbelts and open spaces the county is trying to carve out in East King County, she said.

Jolayne Houtz

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