NEW BUFFALO - Few school districts can boast about having a 55-acre biology lab.
But New Buffalo Area Schools are one such district.
But district officials say they're not getting the most from the asset, and that's prompting a drive to upgrade trails and other features in the mix of forests, dunes and waterways.
The community is invited to a Restore the Trails breakfast and team clean-up from 8 to 10 a.m. Saturday at the elementary school, 12291 Lubke Road. Superintendent Mark Westerburg and Principal Dave Kelly will flip the pancakes while self-described "trail champion" Pat Fisher will describe the tasks and assemble the team.
"We want the community to be able to find the quiet, explore the beauty and enlighten their minds all within New Buffalo's trail system," Kelly said.
Fisher's ultimate goal is a system interconnected hike and bike routes, complete with bicycle racks, trail support structures, observation decks and trail markers. He already has the makings of maps and brochures pointing out wildlife facts, historical sites and points of interest.
"I'm not looking to do this single-handedly or push aside any existing efforts. I simply envision myself, as a responsible citizen, working to pull municipalities, organizations and individual efforts together," Fisher said.
With cooperation from teachers and administrators, Fisher hopes student volunteers will be directly involved with trail building, maintenance, wildlife management and marketing programs. He said students can learn as much, if not more, in the school's own backyard as they do from yearly field trips to Berrien County's nature centers.
Fisher said his hopes for the area include regularly scheduled nature walks, snowshoe and hiking clinics, and nature speakers with programs to promote nature awareness and health consciousness.
In 1973, the school board acquired additional property around the elementary school to provide for future additions to the school building and for athletic fields and nature studies. The first environmental science class was added to the curriculum in 1977, but the trails remained largely undeveloped and underused.
In 1992, Edward Hatton restored parts of the trail behind the elementary school as his Eagle Scout Project, and he identified 43 species of trees, shrubs and vines. Several of Hatton's original stakes remain, many visible from the playing fields along the edge of the woods.
It is this trail, dubbed Bison Nature Trail, that is Fisher's initial focus. A self-guided tour map includes several scenic viewpoints and benches along the 0.4-mile trail.
At the start of the school year, several members of the football team devoted some of their community service hours to clean the trail, chop fallen branches and remove brush and undergrowth. Fisher has tagged trees along the path with bright orange tape.
In addition to the Bison Nature Trail, Fisher has compiled a large notebook and file of connecting nature study trails and the Pere Marquette Railside Greenway:
-- The Nature Study Loop is a series of rural, semi-primitive and primitive trails almost 2 miles long. This moderately difficult nature walk connects with trails that pass through the nature study areas and onto community greenways.
-- Nature Study Trails (Marsh and Creek Trail, Hardwood Dunes Trail, Wetland Trail) have varying degrees of difficulty and pass through hardwood forests, pine groves, marshes, vernal ponds and along bogs, swamps and creeks.
-- The Pere Marquette Hiking Connector is a 0.2-mile, walk-only section of the much larger Pere Marquette Railside Greenway Hike & Bike Trail which, when completed, will be more than 6 miles long. This trail will connect with the middle/senior high school on Clay Street, several woods, parks, museums and historic landmarks.
-- The Harbor Country Hike and Bike Trail project is a long-term comprehensive project to bring a network of interconnected, non-motorized-vehicle trails to southwestern Berrien County.