Now that could change.
NatureBridge, a California-based nonprofit organization that runs three- to five-day environmental education programs in some of the West’s most iconic parks, wants to turn this place — Prince William Forest Park, one of the largest green spaces in the Washington area — into an outdoor classroom for local students.
The organization is running a pilot program this month with two groups of middle-school students from Prince William County. If it goes well, the park could return full time to its roots as a place for kids to learn about — and enjoy — the natural world.
“This is a test of local demand and support, and we’re hopeful that the community will really rally around it,” said Vanessa Morel, NatureBridge’s D.C. director.
Some school systems — such as those in Arlington, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — have been sending students into the woods for overnight environmental education experiences for years. But those are generally for just one night. And many area schools limit outdoor education to field trips of a few hours or a day.
If NatureBridge decides it’s feasible to establish a full-time program at Prince William Forest, it will be one of the few — if not the only — longer-term residential programs in Northern Virginia, and will try to draw classes from across the Washington metro area.
Students would be charged a fee to attend, and scholarships would be available for those from low-income families.
Last week, the inaugural group of students — seventh-graders from Triangle’s Graham Park Middle School — arrived for a three-night stay. Led by NatureBridge instructors, they spent each day doing the kind of hands-on science that means tramping through the woods, exclaiming over creekside discoveries and ending each day ready for sleep.
“I like it here,” Claire Willard, 13, said as she clambered over fallen trees, picking her way down a steep slope toward a water-quality sampling site on Quantico Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River. “The clock runs a lot faster when I’m doing stuff than when I’m sitting down doing math homework.”
Prince William Forest sprawls over 15,000 acres adjoining Marine Corps Base Quantico, whose artillery fire is audible from the park’s creek beds and low ridges. Earlier this month, the park’s delicate forest-floor wildflowers were in bloom, and its canopy of oak and poplar trees were still a bright, new-leaf green.
The students identified plants and hunted for mayflies, stoneflies and water striders. They discovered snakes and scat. They played a game of rock-paper-scissors to learn how a meadow grows into a mature forest and a version of tag to understand how predators affect the deer population.