School Forests: Their Origin in Wisconsin

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The Birth of the School Forest Idea

"Attitudes are not born, they are acquired by experiences. Nor are habits born, they are acquired by training." With these words of inspiration and high expectation, Wakelin "Ranger Mac" McNeel, an early school forest visionary, sent students and teachers out across the state to reclaim cut-over, burned-over land with shovel and seedling. McNeel, a state 4-H leader in the 1920's, had a vision for Wisconsin's resources - for both land and youth. And so, through sweat and dedication, Wisconsin school children became conservation stewards, or caretakers, as they replanted a Wisconsin their children and grandchildren could be proud of.

The idea of school forests was not a new one. It was borrowed from Australia and introduced to Wisconsin in 1925 by the late Dean Russell of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agriculture. While visiting Australia, Russell watched school children planting trees on public tracts of land as an educational project. He thought it would be an idea that could be put to practical use in his home state.

By 1927, Russell's plan was on its way to becoming reality through legislation he spearheaded that permitted school districts to own land for forestry programs. Motivated by this legislation and supercharged by McNeel and his colleague, Fred Trenk, a UW Extension forester, and the people of Forest County; Wisconsin adopted the idea of school forests to promote an urgent reforestation program. Within the year, three tracts of land were donated or purchased for the first school forests in Wisconsin: in Laona, Crandon, and Wabeno. They were dedicated in the spring of 1928.

Legislation was passed in 1935 mandating that conservation education be taught in all high schools, vocational schools, and universities or colleges. School Forests provided great outdoor classrooms for this type of education, and now seemed to have a firm place in a new and exciting educational movement.

Bill Sylvester, an emeritus professor of forestry at UW Stevens Point says, "I became involved with school forests in 1938 when I was employed by the Wisconsin Conservation Department as a cooperative forest ranger. I worked in the central and north central parts of Wisconsin, teaching school children about conservation. I showed movies on a 16-millimeter movie machine that ran on six volt batteries, since most of the one-room schools didn't have electricity. For many of those school kids, it was the first time they saw a movie."

School forests gained another boost in 1949 when Wisconsin statutes involving school forests were revised. Schools became eligible to receive free planting stock from state forest nurseries and to use the services of foresters for forest management plans. School districts acquired lands in a variety of ways. Some lands were purchased, while others were donated or willed. Because the quality of donated lands varied greatly, school boards learned to look at such donations with caution first, and gratitude later.

But most tracts of land were gained when school districts took title to tax-delinquent lands deeded by counties. When titles were given to school districts, they were generally on the basis of a small purchase price, often only $1. Keeping school forests going required creative financing on the part of school administrators and teachers. "By bending the arms of local service clubs and other possible donors, capital improvements were made on many school forests," said Sylvester. In addition, school districts picked up part of the tab to pay for employees and to transport students to and from forest lands. Sylvester added, "The Medford School Forest found a creative solution to their need for roads...they called in the National Guard to build them."

Success of the School Forest system depended on the sense of ownership gained by the students. A "School Forest Covenant" (see below) was repeated and signed by students before working on their school forests. Each year this pledge was repeated by the entire student body to re-emphasize their obligation. Founders intended for School Forests to provide students with hands-on experience in tree planting and forest management. Their foresight made outdoor laboratories available to all students, and gave them a real understanding of the inter-relationships of natural resources. Although conservation education has evolved and taken on several new names, the concept remains the same today.

According to Sylvester, the school forest idea caught on right away and quickly spread throughout the state. But with the approach and arrival of World War II, things slowed down. "Many of the little country school districts were swallowed up and disappeared from the map." In most cases, those school forests just went back to the counties. In addition, much of the early success was attributed to the enthusiasm of key people charged with administering their local programs. Some school forests' programs simply stopped with the passing of early spirited leaders.

But many school forests are still alive and well nearly 80 years after their seeds were planted. Sylvester is optimistic. "I don't think the program has peaked yet, at least not from the standpoint of possible activity. School Forests have probably far exceeded any of the expectations of the founder, but they still have tremendous educational possibilities."

This article was adapted from an article first printed in Northbound, and reprinted in the spring 1994 issue of EE News and the May 1995 edition of the School Forest Newsletter. Written by Gail Gilson-Pierce, Assistant Director, Trees for Tomorrow, Natural Resource Education Center.

 School Forest Covenant 

"WE KNOW that TREES, along with Water and Soil, are among Nature's most valuable gifts, upon them human life depends.

WE KNOW history reveals that NATURE punishes those people who abuse these gifts, and awards joys of abundance to those who understand and appreciate them.

WE KNOW that the welfare of the approaching years depends in a large measure upon how well the youth of today are prepared to be the guardians of these gifts.

KNOWING these things, we, the students of__________, of __________County, Wisconsin, gladly accept the responsibility of planting and protecting the school forest entrusted to us."

Laona School Forest - Oldest in Wisconsin

Laona School Forest was the first in the United States.

On a spring day in 1928, a small group of school children near the northern Wisconsin lumber town of Laona marched out to a desolate and burnt-over area south of town to plant a tree. So started the school forest movement in Wisconsin and the United States. The Laona forest was one of the first three started in Wisconsin that spring, the others being Crandon and Wabeno. Since then more than 340 school forests began across the state.

Why was the School Forest program started? To plant trees in a badly denuded area is the first and obvious answer. But it goes deeper than that. The late H. L. Russell, Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, conceived the idea of school forests when he came upon them while traveling in Australia. His suggestion was supported by the land use planning committee of Forest county. In 1927 a tract of land was purchased for the Laona school forest, the first in Wisconsin. The land had been owned by the state until 1896, and it changed hands three times before it was purchased for $1,100 from Anton Kokot by the Town Board, which then presented the 80 acres to the Laona School Board.

In 1928, the area around Laona was black and ugly. For more than 50 years logging and forest fires had been taking a heavy toll on northern Wisconsin's forests. The land around Laona had been stripped of its pines and exploited as farm land. To most everyone the land seemed worthless - except to the school children and a few far-sighted adults.

Today, Swanson's Creek runs lengthwise through the reforested land to the Rat River. Norway pines that the Laona kids planted in 1928 had grown to 40 feet in 1958, and are stately giants now more than 70 years later. They were joined by spruce, cedar and balsam. A Forest Management Plan was drawn up by the Department of Natural Resources with help from the U.S. Forest Service. The Conservation class at the high school built an informative nature trail through the forest. Rustic cedar bridges cross the creek in two places, and signs have been posted describing natural features.

The Laona school forest also serves as an outdoor classroom for other students. Classes from the elementary and high schools study soils, tress, insect life, plant life, and other phases of ecology. Each year the school forest is rededicated with speeches, tree planting, and performances by students.

The Madison School Forest

The Madison School Forest encompasses more than 400 acres in the hilly terrain of Wisconsin's unglaciated Driftless Area. Over 40 species of nesting birds live in this oak forest, and many more migratory species stop over. The relatively undisturbed forest is so ecologically significant that a large portion has been dedicated as a State Natural Area. The Forest is a unique environment that provides Madison public school students and other youth groups with the opportunity to learn about and enjoy nature first hand. While the School Forest is primarily used for school and youth groups, the public is welcome to enjoy the seven miles of trails during daylight hours for hiking, crosscountry skiing, birding, and environmental study. Foot traffic only is allowed in the forest.

Washburn School Forest

The School District of Washburn has a school forest which consists of 40 acres. It has a trail system and identification posts that name trees, plants, flowers, and wildlife enclosures. The School District staff, students, community, and Forest Service have worked cooperatively to develop this environmental learning space. The district has also constructed a 30 foot by 40 foot log structure that ensures learning takes place throughout the school year at this site. All classes pre-K through 12th grade utilize the school forest.

Kickapoo Area School Forest

The "school yard" consists of 230 acres in the hills of southwestern Wisconsin. The name of the district is Kickapoo Area Schools. In the late 1990s a land management committee was established to oversee management practices of the property. The terrain varies from ridge top and bluffs to wetlands bordered by the Kickapoo River.

There are approximately 15-20 acres of plantation red pine and about 60-70 acres of forested hillside composed of sugar maple, basswood, ash, and oak. There are small plots of soft maple along the river.

Osceola School Forest

The Osceola School District is home to a 120 acre school farm. Twenty acres are tillable and a crop is usually planted. Another 20 acres are in a white pine stand that is being managed. There is a 20' x 30' pole building on the property. The remaining acreage is wooded.

Siren School Forests

The School District of Siren owns 2 school forests. One 51 acre forest is located in Meenon Township, Section 32. The second forest is 80 acres. Forty acres lie in Section 23 and 40 acres in Section 26. The 40 acre parcels are adjacent to one another. All of the forest land is in Burnett County.

Sparta School Forest

The Sparta Area School District owns an 80 acre school forest approximately 15 miles northwest of Sparta on Hwy 71 in the Town of Little Falls. The land was acquired sometime around 1960, being excess property of Camp McCoy. There are 14 different stands mainly red pine, white pine, Jack pine and black oak. Since 1974 the school forest has been utilizing forestry management plans by working with the local forestry department and the DNR. A soil and water conservation plan was developed in 1962.

In 1994, the district added an open shelter with picnic tables, benches, and rest room facilities and the trails were cleaned and marked. The forest is used by elementary through high school students by integration in environmental education, outdoor education, and agriculture curriculum. The school forest sustained major damage in the wind storm of June 1998. Extensive logging has been completed with replanting of hundreds of trees planned for spring 1999.

Chetek School Forest

Chetek's Environmental Resource area is comprised of more than 80 acres. It is composed as follows: 9 acres of fallow field which is being restored into a mesic prairie, 15 acres of 40-year-old red pine planting which is being selectively harvested under the direction of the county forester every 5 to 10 years, and 40 acres of mixed hardwoods of red and white oak, white pine, birch and poplar. Through the entire area trails have been established for cross country running and sking, hiking, and environmental studies. The area hosts some unique botanical specimens such as Indian Pipe, Jack-in-the-pulpit, several species of horsetail, mosses, and ground pines, and finally the unique Rattlesnake Plantain.

The animals who inhabit this forest include deer, raccoon, bear, several species of snakes, frogs, and lizards, as well as many types of insects and other invertebrates. In association with the environmental area on school property, the Chetek High School also has access to a 40-acre shallow lake and its surrounding wetlands, which is part of the City of Chetek's protected wildlife reserve and is the spring and fall stopping area for numerous waterfowl species.  The biological science teachers as well as teachers in other disciplines do many activities in the environmental area, including field trips for the elementary K-5 students every fall and spring.

The Boston School Forest - (Stevens Point)

The Boston School Forest is part of the Stevens Point Area Public Schools. Each school day, we have elementary students at the school forest participating in outdoor environmental education programs. We work with over 5,000 students each year.

Turtle Lake School Forests

Turtle Lake has about 380 acres of school forests. This includes hardwood forests, pine plantations, lake shore, creeks, and marsh areas. They have put in about 2 miles of bulldozed trails that are finally getting back to looking natural. A low-impact obstacle course has recently been installed, and it's been an excellent place to put up wood duck houses and bluebird houses.

Nels P. Evjue Memorial Forest

Visit the web site for the Merrill Area School Forest