Cloquet Middle School students in Matt Winbigler's science class identified 28 species of birds in just two hours of birdwatching in the school forest last spring.

With 15 acres of diverse forest now right outside the doors of the middle school, Winbigler said teachers were quick to start using the outdoor space after moving into the new building. Classes use the forest for snowshoeing, art projects, overnight camping excursions, various science projects or just simply holding classes outdoors.

"We have a really unique area of water and woods," Winbigler told the school board Monday, April 8, during a presentation in which he asked the board to approve the enrollment of the school forest into the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources school forest program.

Enrollment in the program doesn't come at a cost to the schools, he said. Instead, it only provides opportunities for the schools to receive money from grants offered through the program.

"We're already doing the things that a typical school forest does, but we don't have access to all the great benefits because we're not designated yet," Winbigler said.

Benefits include workshops and curriculum for teachers, assistance planning and building trails as well as grant money for potential projects, like possibly building an amphitheater-style outdoor classroom, Winbigler said. The schools could also receive free land management resources and an assigned forester who could help create a sustainability plan for the forest.

At least 10 Cloquet teachers have agreed to serve on the school forest committee, which is responsible for making decisions regarding the outdoor space.

Winbigler, who teaches seventh-grade life science and eighth-grade Earth science, is no stranger to using the outdoors as his classroom. Recently, his students were collecting snow samples to test the salinity in the meltwater, after a winter of heavy salting. Students had to think about where that snow goes after it melts and what kind of environmental impacts that has on small and large scales.

"When kids learn about their local environment and community, it makes it easier for them to understand more complex world issues," Winbigler said.

He also tries to involve students in the planning and vision for the forest as much as he can. One student expressed interest in plants native to Minnesota that are also important to the Native American community.

"So when we're developing some of the areas, we can consider the types of plants to go in," Winbigler said.

Currently, the Minnesota DNR has more than 135 school forests enrolled in the program across the state, including forests managed by Moose Lake High School and Cromwell-Wright High School.

Board member Jim Crowley asked whether or not the forest's enrollment in the DNR program could prevent future development from happening in the designated area.

"There's nothing binding about this," Superintendent Michael Cary said in response.

The board voted unanimously to approve the enrollment. Ted Lammi and Duane Buytaert were absent.