The COVID-19 pandemic has halted many things, but planning for a Boone County nature school continues to progress, say those involved in the planning.
Something that did go on hiatus during the pandemic is fundraising, though about 75 percent of money for the project has been raised.
"We didn’t think it was appropriate to go out and ask for money during the pandemic," said Mike Szydlowski, Columbia Public Schools science coordinator.
The nature school is a cooperative project between the school district and the Missouri Department of Conservation. It is to be located on 207 acres in the Three Creeks Conservation Area south of Columbia off Highway 63, about halfway between Columbia and Ashland.
Fifth-graders from Columbia and other Boone County school districts will visit the school for five- or 10-day place-based education programs. It will feature indoor and outdoor classrooms, but no students will be based permanently at the school.
Former Columbia Daily Tribune owner Hank Waters and his wife, Vicki Russell, donated their property adjacent to the area to the Missouri Conservation Commission last year.
A contract and appraisals provided by the conservation department responding to a Sunshine request by the Tribune indicates the property is appraised at $3.5 million. The conservation commission paid Waters and Russell $350,000 "as consideration for acquisition of fee title to the property," according to the contract.
A classroom building on the property is expected to cost $4.4 million. Columbia Public Schools has donated $2 million to the building project and the Missouri Conservation Department $1 million. Planners have applied for a $250,000 federal grant.
"We’re at this point in the designing and engineering phase of the building," Szydlowski said. "We have just amazing drawings of the building."
The building will have four classrooms, each reflecting an ecological aspect of the property — aquatic, prairie, forest and cave, Szydlowski said. There will be a library with field guides and books and other resources on Columbia and Missouri history. A large laboratory is part of the plan. There also will be a demonstration kitchen, where student can sample edible plants grown in what Szydlowski called a "food forest."
The conservation department is removing invasive plants and building trails, he said.
"Very, very soon, they will break ground on a pavilion," Szydlowski said.
The Columbia Audubon Society has donated $30,000 for an outdoor council house, with stadium seating for 140 students around a circle with a fire pit in in the middle.
It was modeled after one seen in the Great Smoky Mountains on school-sponsored trips taken by Columbia students and teachers. It is scheduled to be complete in October.
"Everybody has a front-row seat," Szydlowski said.
Roger Still was contracted with the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation, the charity arm of the conservation department, to conduct fundraising.
He’s worked in conservation and the National Audubon Society for many years, but said he’s never been part of a project like this, where students from several school districts will benefit from studying nature in nature. As many as 6,000 students could visit the property during the school year.
"The commitment is to make this a project for Boone County students and citizens," Still said.
Active fundraising will resume when economic conditions and COVID-19 allow, Still said. The situation will be assessed this summer.
The project has had the enthusiastic support of Columbia Board of Education member Jonathan Sessions, former school board member Jan Mees and conservation department director Sara Parker Pauley, Still said.
"There’s been a long-term aspiration to do this," Still said.
Besides the Columbia Audubon donation, Still said there also have been donations of $100,000 from the Orcheln Foundation, $70,000 from the Columbia Public Schools Foundation and an anonymous donation of $20,000.
Depending on the situation with COVID-19, Szydlowski said field trips to the property could begin in the fall, when or if school resumes.
Construction of the classroom building may be delayed by four or five months because of the voluntary pause in fundraising, Szydlowski said. They were hoping to be open in the fall of 2022.