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Wisconsin School Forest History Conference

Heritage & Success of Wisconsin’s School Forest Program

As the Wisconsin School Forest Program approaches its Centennial (2028), join us for look back at how early visionaries established the first school forests and how these forests have multiplied and evolved to become model outdoor classrooms for sustainable management and much more. Presented by Steve Schmidt & Gretchen Marshall.

1945 H.L. Russell, E.G. Hastings, and E.B Fred in Babcock Memorial Garden

Wisconsin’s School Forests History

Wisconsin has a storied history of lumberjacks and logging in the mid to late 1800s that utilized our rich forests to provide resources to cities and towns throughout the nation. By the 1920s, much of northern Wisconsin had been exposed to over-harvesting and forest fires. Families settled in the area to use the cut, burned, and cleared land for farming however, it was not suitable for farming. These abandoned farmlands became tax delinquent. A few visionaries played key roles in the beginning and development of the school forest program.

In the mid-1920s, H.L. Russell, Dean of the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture visited Australia and observed schoolchildren 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.

Any bright spot in the economy of northern Wisconsin depended on either the slow, natural forest regrowth or an aggressive reforestation program. McNeel, a state 4-H leader in the 1920s, had a vision for Wisconsin’s resources – for both land and youth. And so, through sweat and dedication, Wisconsin schoolchildren became conservation stewards, or caretakers, as they replanted a Wisconsin their children and grandchildren could be proud of. Motivated by this legislation, and supercharged by McNeel and his colleague, Fred Trenk, a UW-Extension forester, and the Forest County residents, 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.

Want to learn more? Listen to recordings of McNeel’s weekly radio show ‘Afield with Ranger Mac’ from years 1933-1954, or an interview with Fred Trenk from 1961.

School forests gained another boost in 1949 when Wisconsin school forest statutes were revised. Schools became eligible to receive free planting stock from state forest nurseries and use the services of foresters for forest management plans. School districts acquired lands in a variety of ways. Some were purchased, while others were donated or willed to them. 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 transferred for a small purchase price, often only $1. 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 interrelationships of natural resources.

Although conservation education has evolved and taken on several new names, the concept remains the same today. According to Bill Sylvester, UW Extension forester who was instrumental in moving the school forest program to UWSP in the 1970s, 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 reverted back to county owned land. In addition, much of the early success was attributed to the enthusiasm of key people charged with administering their local programs. Some school forest programs simply ended with the passing of early, spirited leaders. But many school forests are still alive and well over 95 years after their seeds were planted.

This history references information cited in an article written by Gail Gilson-Pierce from the Winter 1994 edition of Northbound, Volume 13, Number 4.

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