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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

West Salem students use radio telemetry to track the movements of Blanding's turtles in the school forest. © Jeremy Solin
West Salem students use radio telemetry to track the movements of Blanding's turtles in the school forest. Wisconsin's school forest programs emphasize hands-on learning.

© Jeremy Solin

December 2003

Forests of opportunity

For 75 years school forests have planted the seeds to restore the outdoors and instill outdoor ethics in Wisconsin students.

Jeremy Solin


Home of the school forest tradition
A community and conservation legacy in Stevens Point
Trees spark alternative ways to teach and learn
Leaders in training | Hands-on science
Woodland adventure | Spotlighting school forest champions

"Turn it on its back. That way it won't scratch you," one of the college-aged 'Woodsies' told the student holding the Blanding's turtle. The turtle had just been captured by Fort McCoy biologist Tim Wilder after students located it using radio telemetry. We were tracking and capturing radio-tagged turtles as part of the West Salem school forest overnight program for seventh graders. These 50 students are just a few of the school-aged children and adults enjoying exciting opportunities at school forests across the state.

Home of the school forest tradition

Wisconsin has a long and proud school forest tradition. The school forest idea was borrowed from Australia by Dean Russell of the UW College of Agriculture assisted by Wakelin "Ranger Mac" McNeel, state 4-H leader, and Fred Trenk, a UW-Extension Forester. Russell had spearheaded legislation to set aside community forests. The Community Forest Law of 1927 allowed schools, organizations and municipalities to own property specifically managed for forestry. The first school forests in the United States were registered in Wisconsin the following year at Laona, Wabeno and Crandon.

The school forest vision was to reclaim cut and burned-over forestland while instilling a conservation ethic in school children. Many of the school forests were tax-delinquent lands deeded to schools from counties or donated by community members. These properties became sites for aggressive reforestation efforts.

The program has grown considerably in the past 75 years. Today, nearly 200 school districts and private schools in Wisconsin own more than 300 registered school forests. As a partnership between the DNR's Division of Forestry and the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education in the College of Natural Resources at UW–Stevens Point, a statewide program provides teaching materials, and contacts with outdoor educators and forest professionals to help school forests achieve their full potential. School forests provide space to: demonstrate how to manage land to sustain natural resources, provide hands-on learning, strengthen community relations, help schools integrate environmental education and meet state standards, and provide income for educational activities.

A community and conservation legacy in Stevens Point

Experiences in the Boston School Forest are favorite memories for many students in the Stevens Point school district. All kindergarten through sixth grade students visit the school forest at least once a year. Since each grade visits during different seasons, students are sure to have different experiences on each trip. First graders visit the school forest in April or May and use their five senses to observe signs of spring. The following year, students take a winter hike to observe animal tracks, learn to recognize signs of outdoor activity and discuss animal adaptations. The programs create lasting impressions and students often ask to visit the special places that they remember from previous trips.

They also share their enthusiasm and their newfound knowledge with parents. Retired coordinator Sally Ellingboe recalls numerous reports from parents trying new things at home, such as planting trees, constructing brush piles, or snowshoeing because their children had learned about it at the school forest. These important community connections build support and a corps of long-term volunteers as a legacy from school forest experiences. For instance, last spring, sixth grade students volunteered an afternoon to complete a rock trail along the renamed Ellingboe Pond. The rock was donated and delivered the previous night by a farmer. While discussing the trail projects with students, a teacher discovered that one of their dads had helped dig the pond and that another's grandpa had "helped found this forest" and still serves on the school forest committee. Such connections show the community's continued commitment to a forestry program as part of the school learning experience.

In the future, Boston School Forest visitors will have a chance to learn more about biodiversity. Current coordinator, Karen Dostal, assisted by the local DNR forester is implementing a plan to diversify the school forest habitat. "We have oaks, aspen and a few maples regenerating in the understory of our pine plantation," Dostal said. "We'll selectively cut and thin maturing pines, which will provide the sunlight to release the young trees that will start growing. The harvested timber will be sold to raise money for the school forest program, the forest will be healthier, and students will get to see another aspect of forest succession in future years."

Trees spark alternative ways to teach and learn

The Northland Alternative School recently won a national Service Learning Award for its use of the Superior School Forest. Kids attending the school are considered "at-risk." For various reasons, they just didn't succeed in traditional school settings. Now that's changing, and local news coverage of the turnaround stated, "if you really want to get to know these students, you need to visit them at the school forest."

A visitor would likely find students with their science, math, language arts and social studies teachers working on projects. Northland's approach integrates environmental education and the school forest as a basis for nearly everything students do in the classroom. According to Edwin Johnson, science teacher and coordinator of the school forest, providing this hands-on, practical education works wonders for these students. Their attendance and achievement have increased dramatically. Before attending Northland, "These students were non-attendees," says Johnson. "Here they even help out on Saturdays." The school forest program sparks such an interest that some students take classes in botany and other sciences at UW-Superior while still in high school.

Students don't keep their learning to themselves. As part of the requirements for taking the school forest natural history class, students teach classes for elementary students and community members. Elementary school classes hear about animal tracking, and make a track T-shirt. They may take part in WaterWatch, which introduces elementary students to water quality monitoring; participate in hands-on reclamation of a gravel pit; and learn orienteering on a compass training course. Each year hundreds of families and senior citizens also attend school forest programs led by the Northland students. Participants get to "try 'em before you buy 'em" in the snowshoe programs, experience a Native American sissibakwat (sugarbush), construct home compost bins, learn bird identification skills, and make their own holiday wreaths.

Leaders in training

Environmental education counselors at the Tri-County School Forest, located between Plainfield and Babcock, also complete an intensive training course before they share their knowledge with other district students. The counselors are juniors and seniors who take a summer elective science course taught by Larry Mancl, Tri-County's environmental education coordinator. The course gives students a flavor of ecology, forestry, soils, water, wildlife, and education techniques and strategies.

Students apply the knowledge they acquire in a couple of different ways. During the school year, counselors teach approximately 10 classes for pre-kindergarten through twelfth-grade students at the school forest. The counselors plan the lessons based on the curriculum that the district has developed and ensure that their teaching meets state education standards.

During the summer, counselors perform scientific monitoring that is used in statewide efforts. One of these projects tracks bluebirds. Counselors keep records on hundreds of bluebird nest boxes built by Tri-County students from wood harvested and sawed in the forest. The boxes are either placed by students or given to community members to place on private lands with the agreement that the boxes be maintained and monitored. According to Tom Whalley, a retired Tri-County teacher who initiated the project, district students have built over 3,000 boxes, which have been distributed through five central Wisconsin counties. He estimates that 6,000 bluebirds hatch from these boxes each year. Students provide the information they collect to the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin, which assesses the changing bluebird population each year.

The counselors also collect data that provides the basis for making management decisions on the school forest. Eighty inventory plots have been established across the property. Each summer students assess selected plots to determine growth and condition of the forest. They conduct soil tests to analyze fertility and determine which trees grow best on each site. Lakes and marshes are examined to ensure that management decisions are not having any adverse impacts on water quality. In addition, counselors monitor the success of a 2 -acre prairie restoration project, a memorial to Liza Golla, a former Tri-County student.

Hands-on science

The West Salem School Forest provides numerous opportunities for students to become actively involved in collecting meaningful and useful scientific data. The highlight for many seventh graders at West Salem is the overnight program at the school forest. The campout is not all hard work, but students participate in a number of intense sessions that teach them observation and inventory skills, radio telemetry, and the chance to bruise some thumbs constructing birdhouses and Leopold benches. They apply what they've learned by tracking and capturing the threatened Blanding's turtles on Fort McCoy property. Data compiled each year provides insights on the habits of these secretive creatures and helps the fort improve habitat conditions.

The overnight program is largely taught by "Woodsies" – West Salem graduates home from college for the summer. According to Jessie Thompson, a Woodsie last year, "We serve as a bridge between the students and the teachers." She adds, "Students may relate easier to the Woodsies and we make their experience at the forest more enjoyable." The involvement of the college students is a major factor in the program's success.

Jessie remembers the seventh grade campout as the highlight of her school forest learning, which was likely a major factor in determining her career path. She is currently majoring in agriculture and applied economics with a focus on environmental and international economics. She is hoping to pursue a career that addresses Third World natural resource management or hunger and poverty issues.

Another program that extended Jessie's experiences at the school forest was an independent studies program at the Department of Natural Resources – Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center near Babcock. Several students from West Salem and surrounding districts have conducted scientific research under the direction of Dick Thiel, coordinator at Sandhill. Jessie participated in research that examined how porcupines affect forest trees. The researchers found that feeding porkies cause very minor damage to trees compared to problems caused by disease and weather. Other students have participated in studies examining deer-wolf ecology. The information collected in these studies, according to Thiel, has contributed considerably to the scientific knowledge of these animals and their habits.

Woodland adventure

The Potter's School Forest is 50 acres of oak-hickory and pine forest, wetlands and grassland nestled along Whitnall Park in the heart of the Milwaukee metropolitan area. Thousands of visiting students and community members make it one of the state's most well used school forests.

The focus of the Potter's program is also distinctive. While many school forests include ropes and challenge courses, few courses are developed to the extent of Potter's. Students and school district facilitators use the course every day of the school year, while summer programs serve summer school students and community members. The ropes and challenge course is designed to be "universal" – to accommodate all skill and ability levels. This is essential in a school district with a high special needs population. This approach allows everyone to participate together and is a key component of the program's success. Another piece of the program's effectiveness is its setting. Many of the participants have not spent time in a forest or out of sight of concrete prior to their Potter's experience. Stepping out of their "comfort zone" helps the group focus more on the activities and adds an element of perceived risk.

Completing a day on the course caps a series of classroom lessons that prepare the students for the program. It encourages them to function better as a team, communicate more effectively, trust each other a little more, and be better problem solvers – in essence they are more prepared to learn. Participants may also get more aware of their environment and more comfortable in the outdoors.

Dave Braby, Potter's coordinator, hopes to build on the successful program by developing a more in-depth environmental education program and by constructing a nature center to meet growing demand. A year-round facility and expanded programs will ensure that more students and community members can experience the beauty and challenge of the Potter's School Forest.

With more than 300 school forests in 65 of Wisconsin's 72 counties, there is surely one you can visit nearby. School forests are places of environmental education, community programs, sustainable natural resource management, income generation, and recreation. Most importantly, these outdoor classrooms stimulate lifelong learning and encourage community relations. Check out your nearest school forest to see how you can get involved.

Jeremy Solin is the Wisconsin School Forest Education Specialist, at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. For more information on Wisconsin's school forests, visit The Wisconsin School Forest Program, e-mail Jeremy Solin, or phone him at (715) 346-4907.

Spotlighting school forest champions
In celebration of the 75th anniversary of Wisconsin school forests, LEAF (Learning, Experiences, & Activities in Forestry), the Wisconsin K-12 Forestry Education Program, will recognize those individuals who have had a significant impact on the development of the school forest program. Awards will be given in teacher, administrator, resource manager and community member categories. If you know of someone deserving of an award, visit The Wisconsin School Forest Program e-mail Jeremy Solin, Wisconsin School Forest Education Specialist, or call (715) 346-4907 for a nomination form.