School board votes to support land swap for district’s forestAfter negotiations for more than a year brokered by the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust, school district officials and Lyle and Roberta Johnson of the town of River Falls agreed to swap land along the Kinni west of the city.
By: Phil Pfuehler, River Falls Journal
After negotiations for more than a year brokered by the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust, school district officials and Lyle and Roberta Johnson of the town of River Falls agreed to swap land along the Kinni west of the city.
The exchange, approved Monday night at a school board meeting, would expand and join two parcels of school district land informally called “the school forest” on the south side of the river.
The value of both properties are appraised almost equally, but the school district would get 35.2 acres from the Johnsons while giving up 17 acres on the north side of the river.
The deal also allows the Johnsons to retain deer-hunting rights on the land they gave up “…in a matter compatible with the safe operation of the school forest.”
KRLT is also trying to raise private money to compensate the Johnsons for the small difference in values between the two parcels. The exact amount of compensation hasn’t been finalized.
And KRLT is assisting the school district in working with the Wisconsin DNR to set up conservation easements on both traded parcels to protect the area from future development. KRLT’s Eric Forward is preparing a grant application for the easement to send to the DNR.
The easement would compensate the district for the marketable restrictions on the land and also establish a 30-foot-wide public access along the school forest shore for hiking and fishing.
“The land trust shares with the district and the Johnsons the great mutual goals for conservation and education of these parcels,” Forward said Tuesday. “(The school forest) presents a great opportunity, and we are happy to help and be a part of this.”
Eligible school district residents will vote on the proposed land swap in September during the district’s Annual Meeting. The Annual Meeting is also when residents vote yes or no a property tax levy for the new school year.
The school forest, as the crow flies, is about a 1/2 mile west of Rocky Branch Elementary School. It’s also about 1,000 feet downstream from River Hills Park.
Access the issue
School officials and board members are excited about the educational potential of the school forest.
“We see its use for environmental education,” School Superintendent Tom Westerhaus said. “We’d like to have trails there, identify the flora and have an environmental center with access by school buses.”
Westerhaus told the school board there are no plans to build a new school on the forest land or to sell it.
The school forest has been in the district’s possession for some 70 years. The problem has always been that it’s landlocked -- surrounded by private property owners -- and can’t be reached by the public, including school classes.
That makes the school forest a tantalizing but virtually unusable outdoor educational laboratory.
The land swap with the Johnsons boosts the school forest size from roughly 56 acres divided by the Kinni to 74 contiguous acres south of the Kinni.
But the key obstacle that remains is as old as the forest itself: Still no public access, especially by road.
“And we don’t have it with this deal either, but it gets us closer. It’s step one,” Westerhaus said, adding that a deal with just one more property owner could establish a road link to the school forest with the Birch Cliff subdivision.
The school board passed a resolution in favor of the proposed land swap. Board members praised KRLT for its expertise and assistance during the talks with the Johnsons.
Board member Barb Kolpin also put in a plug for KRLT’s Saturday morning annual river cleanup. She urged a big turnout to support KRLT and its efforts to protect the Kinni.
Those who wish to participate should sign up online by going to
click on events and scroll down to find the river cleanup registration.