The year is 1944. While WWII rages abroad, manufacturers at home strain to keep up the supply of resources. Nine paper and utility companies in northern Wisconsin look at the felled forests around them and decide to form an organization to ensure that there will still be resources for the future.
The new organization, called Trees For Tomorrow, has two goals: to reforest the Great Lakes region, and to educate future foresters. The group buys a forestry school whose cabins and dining hall were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The entire surrounding area is bare and treeless.
Fast-forward 70 years, to today. Trees For Tomorrow campus appears tucked into the forest between downtown Eagle River and the chain of lakes. In the center of campus, seasonal naturalist Jessie Lambert teaches a group of 7th through 12th graders how to measure trees with Biltmore sticks for sustainable logging.
"You wanna line up the bottom of it visually with the bottom of the tree so you can count how many logs tall it is," Lambert told a group of students. "Now do I want to count the last tufts on a conifer? Why?"
Each year, more than 4000 students and teachers come from Wisconsin and surrounding states for multi-day field trips. They learn about wetlands and forest management, water systems and animal life. They explore the area on snowshoes and skis and by canoe. Recently, summer groups have even started coming from China.
High school science teacher Jim Lund took adult education classes at Trees For Tomorrow. Now he brings his own students 3 ½ hours from the Waupun School District.
“Never had a negative response from students," he said. "They love it. I think the reason why they enjoy it—this type of environment is so different from what we have down in Waupun, which is mainly an agricultural situation. We get a lot of returnees that want to come up and do it again."
"As far as we know, we are the only accredited natural resources school in the state…and in the country."
That’s Cheryl Todea. She first visited Trees For Tomorrow as a high school student from Milwaukee. It was a life-changing experience.
"I remember snowshoeing in Sylvania wilderness up in Ottawa National Forest…I remember that I never had experienced snow as deep as it was," Todea describes. "It was a big snow year and I remember falling on my snowshoes, trying to get up…I put my hands down in the snow to push myself up, and my hand just kept going deeper and deeper—and I could never reach the ground."
After that, Todea was inspired to study environment education in college, and she went on to teach at Trees For Tomorrow. She’s now the operations manager. Todea explains that even though trees are much more plentiful in the Northwoods than they were in the 40s, getting out in the woods can still be radically educational. In one popular class, students at Trees For Tomorrow learn about bogs FIRST in a classroom setting.
"But then the exciting piece is actually saying, well now we’re going to experience it," said Todea. "You’re going to feel it. You’re going to smell it. You’re gonna be able to hear the bog. And so we get our bog boots on, our knee-high waterproof boots. And we don’t just stand at the edge and look at it, we actually take the students out and they are walking through the bog."
Visiting 8th grade math teacher Jason Buchholz says that hands-on learning has been great for his students.
“I’m just really impressed," he said. "Yesterday, at the end of the day we kind of do a summary and do a little trivia, and the amount of retention they have from just the hands-on activities that are given here was amazing to see.”
The great recession—and reduced school budgets—have presented a challenge for some schools trying to visit Trees for Tomorrow. Corporate sponsorship has helped to balance that out in some cases, and the organization continues to reach out to the Eagle River community with summer programs.
When asked about the biggest change she’s seen in her 14 years at Trees For Tomorrow, Cheryl Todea answered, "the changes in kids’ comfort level in being outside. and so instead of just saying let’s go outside and go to the bog and go hiking in the woods we may have to talk a little bit about how to dress to be outside. Now we have kids showing up to go hiking through the woods with flip flops on because maybe they don’t do that on a regular basis. Those are the kids that are impacted the most. By the time they spend 3-4 days with our staff and in the beautiful Northwoods they have a much better understanding of why it’s there…how it’s connected to them…and so there are some lifeskills learned.
The landscape around Trees For Tomorrow may have transformed since the 40s, but its original goals remain intact. In the land around them and in the learners who come visit, Trees For Tomorrow continue to plant seeds for the future.