KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Walk through the Line Creek Forest, and it's the quiet you notice first. No cars buzzing by. No lawn mowers. Just the wind blowing through ancient trees and the faint trickle of a nearby creek. A chance encounter with a doe.
The 800-acre forest — roughly the size of New York's Central Park — sits in sharp contrast to bustling downtown Kansas City, just a few miles to the south.
But not for long.
These woods, which prehistoric native tribes once called home, are the future home to new Park Hill schools, first a new elementary school and later a high school. The first phase of development has already started with the burning of several acres of trees, The Kansas City Star reported.
North of the 272 acres the district bought last year for $3 million, hundreds more acres — in the fastest-growing county in Missouri — are owned by real estate developers.
District officials said they've been trying to find land to fit the growing number of students since 2011, when voters first approved a bond issue.
Now, some Platte County residents fear the development, including a new four-lane parkway, will begin a domino effect of more development as property values rise, and the peaceful forest will disappear forever — along with the secrets it has held for generations.
"This is a wild, undeveloped natural property. It doesn't feel like KC," said Julie Stutterheim, who lives next to the Line Creek Trail and started the group Save the Last KC Forest, which has collected thousands of signatures in support.
The group wants the school district to reconsider the location for the proposed high school by making it closer to the elementary school, which would reduce the impact on the forest, and to not build a road through the middle of the land. They're also asking the district to create a conservation plan for the rest of the forest, instead of labeling the land as future development up for possible sale.
"It's a really, really nice tract of forest, and it's not something we have a lot of anymore. That's its value," said Wendy Sangster, a community forester with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
It's not just the flora at stake. More than 130 bird species have been spotted in or near the forest, from the common robin to the vulnerable Rusty Blackbird and chatty Scarlet Tanager, according to the Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City.
"It's beautiful and a wonderful asset for migratory birds," Sangster said. "They need areas like that to stop on their migration route, and without them, they don't have anywhere to stop."
One species spotted in the forest, the Acadian Flycatcher, was the subject of a recent University of Missouri study that found the songbird is at risk of near-extinction within the century if the climate continues to warm, although habitat restoration may not be enough to save them.
From arrowheads in the woods to traces of burial mounds on bluffs, roughly 550 archaeological sites have been identified in Platte County, according to the state historic preservation office.
The area was home to the westernmost settlements of the Hopewell people from about 100 B.C. to 400 A.D., according to Mary Adair, senior curator of archaeology at the University of Kansas. Hopewell villages were typically built on lower terrain, on terraces of creeks and rivers, and they would place burial mounds up higher on the bluffs.
The Hopewell had an expansive trade route across a lot of what is now the U.S., which is evidenced in marine shells from the Gulf Coast and Pacific Coast excavated far from those waters, Adair said. They used waterways to travel faster and farther.
"It's not a mystery that these sites are located along navigable waters," Adair said. "The Missouri River is a prime location, and the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers gives access to all points north, east and west."
Local archaeologists say there are a number of recorded Hopewell sites along Line Creek specifically, and there is little chance that the entire 800 acres of the Line Creek Forest has been surveyed for archaeological importance.
There is at least one documented prehistoric site on the school district's property, the district confirmed. It's a "lithic scatter," or the grouping of artifacts that result from the making of stone tools, and it's not on the area the district plans to build on.
But it's too late to know about the part of the forest that has already been cleared and burned for the future Hopewell Elementary, named after the native people who once lived here.
Assistant Superintendent Paul Kelly said the district did not conduct an archaeological survey of that part of the land. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, archaeological surveys are typically required if there is federal involvement in a project through land, funding or permits. The Hopewell project is not federally funded — it will be paid for through local bonds passed by taxpayers.
"Once a site is plowed out, it's gone," Adair said. "That's true even with excavation. Once done, even properly, it's gone, but the retained information and material are available."
Although the district did not survey the Hopewell Elementary site, it is now evaluating the rest of the property, Kelly said.
"There were not any referenced historical documents that suggested a new survey was appropriate," Kelly said. "Then there's the expense of doing a start-from-scratch monthlong survey of property that has no known references to Hopewell."
While the high concentration of known prehistoric sites is more to the south of where the proposed schools are, "the odds of finding something anywhere around there are probably 100 times higher than anywhere else," said Gary Brenner, who led one of the many excavations at a site south of the Line Creek Forest in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Just because there isn't a recorded site doesn't mean a site doesn't exist, said Ann Raab, an archaeologist who teaches anthropology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and two area community colleges.
"Overwhelmingly, the majority of sites out there have never been recorded," Raab said. "When doing projects like this, one of the things they need to do is consider the potential impact, not just the known impact. . There needs to be due diligence if sites out here haven't been recorded yet."
She said a lot of developers try to avoid Section 106 as much as possible because they assume that if they find something that means they can't do their project.
"That's not what the laws are for. They're not to prevent development but to allow the opportunity to preserve sites in some way, which sometimes means to excavate to get as much information from the site as possible. We're focused more on the information, not the stuff."
Kelly said the district is not opposed to the idea of conservation areas surrounding the schools, but the priority now is to finish what's been started. He said the district may be interested in eventually selling the property adjacent to where the schools will be built, or holding on to it for future use.
"It's early in the process. We've had the property for a little over a year. To think that we would take $2 million worth of property and donate it?"
The main fight for the district, he said, is against "unknowns," the threat of development.
"We don't have a crystal ball. We can only do and plan what we know of and need," he said.
"What we're doing does not constitute the eradication of the forest. The idea that in 20 years portions of that will be demolished for homes is in other people's hands — we don't own it. The risk or unknown is not changed or mitigated by these plans."
In early July, the Park Hill School District held an informational meeting for citizens to see proposals for the new schools. But people weren't happy.
More than a hundred people showed up at Plaza Middle School, and angry murmurs filled the gymnasium. Instead of a sit-down meeting with a microphone, it was a series of posters displayed on easels with architects standing around to answer questions.
"If I had known they were doing this, I would have voted 'no' on the bond issue," one resident said.
"I voted on the concept of new schools, not this travesty," said another.
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Kansas City Star.