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Act Locally: Former school playground eyed as prospective public park

Every Monday morning without fail, the serenity of my breakfast is shattered by the penetrating buzz of a lawn mower across the street — ironically, just outside the offices of the Klamath Bird Observatory, housed in the former premises of Lincoln Elementary School. Ironic, because one of the recommendations highlighted in KLO’s pamphlet, “Birdify Your Yard,” is: “Avoid mowing, disking, spraying, brush clearing and building activities from mid-April-July ....” No silence for birds in our neighborhood.

For the better part of a decade, Ashland School District has faithfully been maintaining the former elementary school’s four-acre playground. This includes mowing a block’s worth of (albeit un-watered) playing field — a convenient site for the occasional pick-up soccer game, but otherwise under-utilized.

Roughly six months ago, I began receiving emails regarding a proposed transfer of jurisdiction the grounds to the Ashland Parks and Recreation. Melissa Mitchell-Hooge, representative of Save Our Schools and Playgrounds (SOSP), has been tirelessly lobbying to negotiate a deal between multiple stake-holding governmental agencies. Her organization was formed as a citizens’ response to the closure of Briscoe and Lincoln elementary schools (in 2003 and 2005, respectively) with the intent of preserving their playgrounds for public recreational purposes.

Melissa underscores, “The main purpose of us doing this is out of concern for the children of Ashland.” SOSP successfully supported APRC’s purchase of the playground portion of the Briscoe property. However, sealing the deal between the school board and the park district on the Lincoln schoolyard has yet to bear fruit.

I recently ran into Melissa at the proposed park as she set up lawn signs encouraging neighbors to attend a December Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission (APRC) meeting to speak in public comment in support of the park idea. She took a moment to explain to me her vision of how Lincoln Park could be sectioned off to serve a variety of interests.

While the existing basketball court and children’s playground would remain, the eastern segment of the park could be turned into a practice course for the Rogue Valley Mountain Bikers Association. The middle section of the field would be preserved for soccer and Frisbee games. The rest of the area would be redesigned with input from park neighbors as to how to best provide for their recreational needs, and with an eye to water-wise landscaping practices.

Melissa’s described vision held much appeal, especially the element of ecologically sound design. Grass is a lovely playing surface for many types of sports and, to be fair, its blades do absorb and transmute some atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen. However, significant amounts of water, gasoline, fertilizers and herbicides are required for lawn maintenance. In these times of changing climate and unpredictable rainfall averages, environmentalists tend to encourage swapping-out grass for drought-tolerant, pollinator-friendly plants. (Coincidentally, while Melissa and I conversed, up the block at a house that had recently changed hands, gardeners were busy replacing its lawn with a covering of bark dust.)

The Dec. 10th APRC meeting was well-attended, though neighbor’s ideas for the park were somewhat eclipsed by the interests of the Mountain Bikers’ Association. That said, all who spoke were in general agreement about their desire to retain the field for public recreation.

This energetic impetus for park renovation, however, was reined in at a coincidently concurrent meeting where the school board stated that no further action will be taken on contracting with APRC until a Bond Project Manager comes on staff sometime this spring. Nothing to be done until then.

So how can readers Act Locally in the meantime?

In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, perhaps readers could contemplate public and private landscaping practices. I suggest curling up with a laptop on some chilly day, and watching an episode of the PBS program, “LOST LA” that aired recently (bit.ly/2RLFLZK).

Focusing on La Canada Flintridge’s Descanso Gardens, this visually luscious piece presents a montage of speakers discussing how lawn and imported, non-native plants became a part of American landscape design. Two quotes: “A garden is always an expression of a time of a place and a style of that time. We see that all through the history of landscape”; and “I think English lawn is a perfect example of how our gardens are migration products. Many of our ideals of the perfect garden have been transplanted from England to the East Coast to Southern California, where we all know now the water is scarce. But our gardens have been designed as if we live in rainy England.”

While Ashlanders have held a decades-long affinity for all things Shakespearean, we do not live in rainy England. Perhaps local landscapes might better reflect that reality.

Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s.

The former Lincoln School playing field at the corner of Beach and Henry streets. Tidings photo by Bert Etling