Living on the Lake: Trees for Tomorrow
The name “Trees for Tomorrow,” one might think, doesn’t quite encompass the scope of what this school, which is tucked at the edge of Eagle River, teaches. It clearly conveys the organization’s intent to ensure that the Northwoods is shaded by an abundance of trees for generations to come. But students from urban areas in Wisconsin and neighboring states who attend classes or workshops at the school learn about much, much more than trees. And what they learn is vital to the future of all natural resources.
“Our main areas of focus are forestry, waters, wildlife and soils,” says Wendy Kellogg, the facility’s resident graphic designer and media coordinator assistant. On a recent June afternoon, she and Maggie Bishop, TFT’s executive director, are in a conference room where a table is covered with photos of students engaged in various activities taken at the school over the years.
On this particular day, students from Golda Meir School in Milwaukee are at the facility. Every year, all year long, thousands of students from urban areas in Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois, who might otherwise not have access to a learning experience in a rural setting, travel to TFT to learn about the value and management of natural resources.
School kids who participate in the school’s hands-on, field-based program spend an average of three nights and four days there. There they study such subjects as tree identification, forest management, winter ecology studies, aquatic invertebrate studies and many other aspects of the natural world. They also learn about archery, take water samples, see live birds of prey, go on kayaking excursions and bog hikes, and much more.
“We take them out on night hikes,” says Maggie, who points out that when they’re walking through the woods at night, students find they must learn to use senses other than their vision. As students find that their vision is very limited on these nighttime excursions, they must rely more on their hearing and sense of smell. “Especially inner city students,” she says, “it’s an eye-opener for them.”
Besides learning about the natural world, students also experience other benefits during their time at TFT. Students from several high schools at once come together in a neutral location and along with learning, they also make new friends. “It’s not uncommon for them to stay in touch for several years,” says Maggie.
The material that kids learn in their regular schools is synthesized with the subjects taught at TFT. The school also offers career workshops and among the students who go through the program, it’s not uncommon for some to choose careers in natural resources.
Students are also more attuned to learning when they return home after their time in Eagle River, Maggie says. She and Wendy relate the story about one student who forgot his cell phone at Trees for Tomorrow. Staff called the student’s home phone number and when the boy’s father answered their call, he enthusiastically described the changes he had seen in his son since the boy’s return home. Where his son had once been apathetic toward learning, he now displayed a new interest in it. After his time at TFT, “He was able to understand why he was learning what he was learning,” Maggie explains.
“It gave it relevance,” Wendy adds.
While TFT promotes the importance of natural resources to the next generation-a generation notoriously attached to television and social media-it is also becoming a more visible part of the local community.
In existence since 1944, TFT is located on US Forest Service land and is a training site for Forest Service limited term employees. The organization was originally created by a group of paper and electric utility companies as part of an effort to reforest the northern part of the state. TFT worked with landowners to encourage land management, providing tree seedlings to those who wanted to plant them. Some 20 years after it was first founded, with reforestation pretty much accomplished, the organization shifted its focus to educating school kids.
With the shift to education came a bit of a distancing from the rest of the community. Some area residents didn’t know the facility’s purpose or in some cases, weren’t even aware of its existence. TFT has kept something of a low profile until fairly recently. But the school is making its presence more well known in the area.
Last summer, TFT hosted their inaugural Forest Fest, drawing hundreds of people. “It was like an introduction to the community,” Wendy recalls, and it was so successful, even though another large event was being held in Eagle River the same weekend, that it’s scheduled to be held again this year on Aug. 4. Along with food, vendors and music, visitors will treated to woodturning demonstrations, kids’ activities, displays of logging trucks and equipment, exhibits by craftspeople and artists, birds of prey programs and much, much more. Like last year, several organizations have partnered to put on the event, which celebrates the importance of the forest in many aspects of daily life.
“The main reason for Forest Fest is to bring the community to Trees for Tomorrow,” Maggie says. Like last year, the proceeds will go toward supporting natural resources education for kids.
“We’re a nonprofit, and being a nonprofit, we actually earn 80 percent of what we need,” says Maggie. While TFT is viable, the organization still needs funds. “We’re facing a deficit. Because of this deficit, our board has started an endowment campaign.”
The TFT board of directors, which includes representatives from well-known corporations, took the step to ensure perpetual financial support for the organization to continue its work-but the school isn’t out of the woods, so to speak, just yet.
“Ideas from both sides of the political spectrum converge here,” says Wendy. “The endowment does have a way to go before it can sustain us.”
In the meantime, Trees for Tomorrow has become a more prominent presence in the community. “If we can increase utilization of the campus, that helps offset the deficit,” Maggie says.
Multiple use is seen as crucial to the facility’s continued existence. Besides serving as a place where school kids can learn about the natural world and its importance, there’s a wealth of education available to adults as well. Several groups of adults come through the campus each year, participating in teacher workshops, Road Scholar® programs, adult workshops in which participants learn about such topics as nature photography, snowshoeing, willow chair building, snowshoe weaving and much more. Much of the food, according to Maggie, is made from scratch and goes over well with students and others who stay there. The school even has its own gift shop. In the summer, TFT also offers an outdoor adventure series for kids, along with family programs. The facility is also available for special events such as weddings, reunions, company training seminars and more.
The school’s more visible role in the community doesn’t detract from its mission of providing education about the management and use of natural resources, something to which the staff at TFT remains deeply committed.
Besides educating young minds, the staff is also committed to making a positive impact on them. The learning experience at Trees for Tomorrow isn’t strictly academic-it’s also enjoyable for students. “They tap for syrup and do so many things,” Wendy says. “It blows my mind when the students say in their thank you letters that they’ve never had an experience like this in the forest.”
For more information, call (715) 479-6456 or treesfortomorrow.com.