Of the many trips I took to the school forest in grade school, the one I recall nearly 50 years later occurred the morning after a light, overnight snowfall.

In deer hunting terms, my fourth-grade class at Crestwood Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, found good tracking snow when we left the yellow bus and followed Mrs. Gerold into the woods west of the city. She arranged the field trip early that morning, knowing that birds and animals would leave fresh tracks to discover.

Sure enough, their tracks proved that wildlife actually lives in school forests. In previous trips, every critter in the woods vanished as our busload of noisy kids buzzed through. But on this day, with help from Mrs. Gerold and a volunteer “tracker” who joined us, we identified the tracks of mice, rabbits, squirrels, and a pheasant, as I recall.

Those memories return each time I drive past school forests, which happens often in my home state of Wisconsin. After all, the Badger State has 408 school forests, including 391 owned by public-school districts, nine by private schools, and eight by universities and technical colleges. Those 391 public-school forests are owned by 222 school districts, meaning many districts own more than one, obviously.

In Wisconsin parlance, we could claim to be the “School Forest Capital of the World.” More specifically, Forest County in the far north could claim the title. This county’s leaders originated the idea in 1928 when they registered the nation’s first school forests near Laona, Wabeno, and Crandon.

Stephen Hadfield, a tech-ed teacher at Pittsville High School in Wood County, receives a 2013 Wisconsin School Forest Award from the DNR’s Gretchen Marshall for directing construction of this timber-frame shelter at the Pittsville School Forest.
Stephen Hadfield, a tech-ed teacher at Pittsville High School in Wood County, receives a 2013 Wisconsin School Forest Award from the DNR’s Gretchen Marshall for directing construction of this timber-frame shelter at the Pittsville School Forest.

Today, 70 of Wisconsin 72 counties have at least one school forest. Only Green and Menominee lack one. These forests cover a combined 27,740 acres, more than 43 square miles. The smallest property is a two-acre woodlot at the Tomorrow River Environmental Education Station in Portage County. The largest is the Merrill School District’s 748-acre N.P. Evjue Memorial Forest in Lincoln County.

Not far behind is a sprawling 740-acre school forest in Rusk County owned by the Ladysmith-Hawkins School District, which owns five school forests. But Ladysmith-Hawkins isn’t even in the top six for multiple ownerships. The Rhinelander School District owns nine; Adams-Friendship owns eight; Antigo, Crivitz, and Flambeau each own seven; and Clintonville owns six.

Those are the extremes, of course. About 30 percent of Wisconsin’s school forests cover less than 40 acres, about half cover 40 to 100 acres, and 15 percent cover more than 100 acres.

The 2013 annual report on Wisconsin’s School Forest Program estimated 1,080 kindergarten through 12th grade students per school district visited their school forest six times last year. Gretchen Marshall, the Department of Natural Resources’ school-forest education specialist, said schools use their forests as outdoor classrooms for myriad educational opportunities.

Besides teaching students to identify trees, plants, animal tracks, and entire ecosystems, educators use school forests to teach science, business, English, mathematics, and foreign languages. Still others visit them to snowshoe, cross-country ski, teach archery classes, and go on nature hikes. Many also allow hunting.

Marshall said foreign-language students often learn the language’s names for plants and animals; and agricultural students learn about forestry practices that deliver profitable, sustainable harvests and healthy woodlots for landowners.

“It’s exciting to see how creative and imaginative teachers can be in making school forests part of their curriculum,” Marshall said. “So many students think it’s more fun to stay indoors all the time. By getting them outside for class, they learn there’s lots of fun, exciting things outdoors, too.”

Still other teachers get their community involved in school-forest projects. Two weeks ago, for example, Stephen Hadfield, a tech-ed teacher at Pittsville High School in Wood County, helped open a timber-frame shelter that he, students, and volunteers built at the district’s 133-acre school forest.

The building’s frame is made with oak cut from the surrounding forest. Forester Steve Grant, who serves Wood County from the DNR’s Wisconsin Rapids office, helped Hadfield select the trees for the shelter’s posts, beams, and braces.

The project earned Hadfield a 2013 Wisconsin School Forest Award from the LEAF Program, a partnership between the DNR and the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Each joint in this shelter is held together by oak pegs.
Each joint in this shelter is held together by oak pegs.

No nails, screws, bolts, or metal plates are used anywhere in the shelter’s frame. Instead, Hadfield used Old World mortise and tenon joinery to hold together its giant oak posts, crossbeams, and rafters, with each joint secured by large wooden pegs.

Hadfield worked with loggers and sawyers to cut the timbers, and taught students and volunteers how to cut the mortises, tenons, and pegs at the school. Once that job was complete, they hauled everything to the school forest and assembled the shelter’s five “bents” atop a cement slab. Each bent consists of four posts, one crossbeam and two braces.

“We raised the entire building in about four hours, but it took about two years to reach that stage,” Hadfield said. “It was fun to get the community and so many kids involved in a hands-on project like this.”

Hadfield estimates about 80 students and 20 adult volunteers helped at various stages, which also helped the district save about $80,000. “If we had bought all the wood and paid someone to put this up, it would have cost more than $100,000,” he said. “We did as much as we could on our own. We spent between $20,000 and $30,000 for the sawing, excavating, cement slab, ceiling and metal roof.”

Terry Reynolds, superintendent of the Pittsville School District, said the district has owned the forest since its donation by a landowner in 1945. He formed a committee soon after arriving seven years ago to maximize the forest’s educational potential, and they agreed it needed a shelter to enhance onsite education.

Mark Weddig, Pittsville High School’s principal, is eager to see more classes visiting the forest. “School forests make a difference in how we view the world,” Weddig said. “Even in small towns like ours, many young people never get out into the woods. School forests pique their interest and open their eyes to biology and environmental issues. They start seeing how everything ties together in nature. We hope they’ll keep those lessons in mind some day when they’re the ones making decisions.”

Images by Patrick Durkin

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