Los Angeles Times

New life for Chilao School

Last spring, Corina Roberts found herself with 2,500 pinyon pine tree seedlings and nowhere to plant them.

Now she has the baby trees in the ground near a former La Cañada Unified School District campus high in the Angeles National Forest. Later this year, she hopes to turn the former Chilao School into an ecological center run by her nonprofit group, Redbirds Vision.

“It's hard to find something like this,” she said. “But when I found it I just fell in love.”

Chilao School was originally built so the La Cañada school district could educate the children of U.S. Forest Service and Caltrans workers who lived in the Angeles National Forest, according to Mike Leininger, the district's director of facilities and operations.

The number of students dwindled over the years, Leininger said, and Chilao School closed 13 years ago. Then, in February, the district transferred the lease on the 4.1-acre parcel owned by the Forest Service to Redbird.

For La Cañada Unified, the decision to sign over the lease was easy.

“It's nice that they're able to do it, and for us to be out from underneath the lease so we don't have to worry about the potential liability in the future,” he said.

Roberts said the site, at an elevation of 5,300 feet, is ideal for raising the seedlings in their preferred habitat of semi-arid forest.

The pinyon seedlings were donated by the L.A. County Parks and Recreation Department. The Angeles National Forest lost almost all the unique pine species in a 1953 fire, according to Roberts.

Last year, she enlisted the help of La Cañada Boy Scouts Troop 519 in planting seedlings near Chilao.

Roberts said she started Redbirds Vision, which promotes awareness and celebration of Native American culture and environmental sustainability, in 1990.

Of partial Cherokee and Osage descent, Roberts said she was inspired after grasping her own ignorance about the indigenous people of North America and realizing how little most Americans knew.

“I was witnessing a lot of misunderstanding and even hostility toward Indian people, so Redbird from the beginning was meant to ameliorate that,” she said.

Roberts, who lives in the former teacher's home at Chilao, said her next step is to obtain a permit from the Forest Service to open the schoolhouse as a cultural and ecological center.

The school will also be the permanent home of the Forest Recovery Project's photographic documentation of the damage and aftermath from the 2009 Station fire, she said.

Roberts needs to find volunteers, grant funding and donations, she said, but hopes to have the building functional by August.

“It's going to take a lot of dedication and perseverance, but we look forward to the day when happy voices once again fill the long-silent building,” Roberts said.

Roberts will speak about the forest's post-fire recovery at a meeting of the California Native Plant Society at 7:30 p.m. April Thursday at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Pasadena. For more information on Redbird, visit www.redbirdsvision.org.

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