by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Located in the Great Plains, Bethel College may not be the first place to come to mind when thinking of diverse natural habitat.
Yet someone with a good pitching arm could throw a hedge apple from the roof of Krehbiel Science Center and just about hit the trailhead for a unique piece of college property that not only offers students of biology and the environment a rich outdoor laboratory but also serves as an important resource for the wider community.
The college has been known for some time for the tracts of virgin prairie it owns, maintains and uses for study – one on the western edge of Harvey County and another to the south in Cowley County – as well as several prairie restoration projects on campus, the most recent one begun about a year ago.
In 1996, a chance encounter by two early morning walkers – Jake Goering, recently retired from a career teaching psychology at the University of Maryland, and the late Larry Voth, then Bethel’s director of the development – planted the seeds for what would become a volunteer group that developed Sand Creek Trail, nearly three miles through hedgerows, a reclaimed dump site and wooded riparian habitat along the creek.
The Sand Creek Trail Committee (SCTC) formed in 1998. Ten years later, this past March, Bethel College and SCTC signed a Memo of Understanding that will, over the next two years, transfer care and maintenance of the trail to the college, with an endowment that will pay a worker to look after Memorial Grove at the trailhead and the newly planted trees in Arbor Lane (the part of the trail that borders Kansas Highway 15) and supervise volunteers on the rest of the trail.
Voth and Goering’s initial conversation centered on the possible development of what was little more than a rough track along the Kidron-Martin Canal in the northeast corner of Bethel’s property. They first went to President Doug Penner, whose response was encouraging. He urged them to consult with two of Bethel’s biology professors, Dwight Platt and the newly hired Jon Piper.
“An early question,” Piper remembers, “was whether the area should be left relatively pristine, with a wood-chip path, or more developed, with a paved trail and trash barrels. In the end, it was a compromise. The area has been left in a fairly natural state. There are intentionally no trash barrels, because that tends to encourage trash.”
Another question was what to do with an area that had once been the dump for the campus and the city of North Newton. Closed in 1974, the area had been seeded with prairie grasses and flowers that had failed to thrive because of the invasion of Siberian elms and other non-native trees from a nearby shelter belt.
Besides developing and widening the trail and putting down wood chips, one of SCTC’s first major jobs was to clear out the invasive trees and plant native species – bur oak on one side, green ash on the other – on the former dump site.
The result, Piper says, has been “a wonderful diversity of environments and an excellent outdoor education resource, right here on our campus.” Within minutes, a walker can pass through several generations’ worth of prairie restoration, to a typical Kansas hedgerow, to a young forest, to more established wooded habitat bordering the creek. At least 30 species of trees, shrubs and woody vines can be found there.
“It’s been remarkable to see the wildlife moving in [over the past 10 years],” Piper adds. He has seen woodpeckers, snakes, wild turkeys and even “Kevin the Armadillo,” a relatively recent resident, he says.
“I use Sand Creek Trail for outdoor labs for several of my classes, such as environmental science, ecology and plant taxonomy,” Piper says. “We use it to study forest diversity by noting sizes and species of trees and what grows where. We’ve done water quality surveys on the creek. Summer Science Institute [high school] groups have sampled soils to look for organisms and make comparisons between forest and cropland.”
“For one lab, we used the area to study how secondary succession works,” says Katy Schmidt, senior biology major from Peabody, Kan. “We looked at which plant species colonize the area first and the habitat characteristics needed for other species to grow. Based on the demographics of the present ecosystem, we even tried to predict what the forested area would look like in 100 years.
“It’s great having such an area so close to campus,” she says. “It takes less time to get there, plus it is interesting to understand how what we learn in class is not only relevant to research settings, but can also be applied to situations that affect the general public. It’s really important to understand how an ecosystem works, where it is coming from and where it might be headed in order to facilitate better management.”
Senior biology major Michael Unruh, also from Peabody, agrees. “The prairie ecosystem is prevalent here but the riparian, wooded areas aren’t so common. It gives us another community to study. Having it so close means more time to actually work in the ‘lab.’”
“In Environmental Science class, we learned about the history of the trail area and then were told to look at the area now and see what succession was taking place, the change from city dump to wooded land,” adds Rebecca Claassen, a junior biology major from Moses Lake, Wash. “I have really appreciated having this resource nearby, not only for a relaxing beautiful place to walk but a place to experience what I am taught in the classroom. Having Sand Creek Trail to use in classroom experience makes me take pride in the resources Bethel has to offer to enhance our education.”
The trail has also become an important part of Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum’s educational programming.
Andi Schmidt Andres, the museum’s curator of education, began planning annual Earth Day events starting in 2000. Sand Creek Trail was in its beginning stages of development, with museum staff already involved in making signs to identify native species of trees found along the trail.
It wasn’t long before Andres began taking advantages of the trail’s proximity to Kauffman Museum to schedule Earth Day activities like frog and owl hikes, both led by Dwight Platt, there. Last year, the Earth Day scavenger hunt on Sand Creek Trail included a water station where Newton High School science teacher Jerry Epp “had tanks for critters from the creek – fish, tadpoles, little organisms – and magnifying glasses for viewing,” Andres says. “It was really a fun station.”
Epp has used Sand Creek Trail as an outdoor lab when serving as an instructor in Kauffman Museum’s summer day camps, Uncle Carl’s Camps. Platt leads the annual Harvey County Butterfly Count that begins at the museum and includes the trail, where it is easier to find tree-loving species like the hackberry emperor.
It is probably Sand Creek Trail’s accessibility that has done the most to make it into a wider community resource. From the beginning, it connected with the walking path in Chisholm Park in North Newton, just north of Kauffman Museum. Last summer, the cities of North Newton and Newton cooperated in a project called “Trail of Two Cities” to connect the Sand Creek bike and walking path (which used to end in Centennial Park in Newton, about a mile from campus) with Sand Creek Trail on the Bethel campus.
Bethel’s cross-country team uses the trail, as do recreational runners and those who want to exercise their dogs, look for birds, shoot landscape photos or just take a walk in the woods.
Sara Dick, a Bethel graduate and now associate pastor at Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, is one of the newest SCTC members. She had called the number listed in a Sand Creek Trail brochure she found at the trailhead, simply wanting to volunteer to spread wood chips, and ended up being recruited to join the committee.
“Sand Creek Trail is a perfect place for body and spirit,” she says. “It’s good for my body to run on a soft trail. It’s good for my spirit to be in the woods, by the creek.”