Trees For Tomorrow in Eagle River is celebrating their 75th anniversary this year.
As part of our We Live Up Here series, Mackenzie Martin talked to their executive director about the importance of teaching children about conservation in our forests.
Trees For Tomorrow in Eagle River celebrated their 75th anniversary of operation as a nonprofit natural resource specialty school in February.
A group of students from Indian Mound Middle School in McFarland was visiting at the time. Smokey Bear and U.S. Forest Service Eagle River/Florence District Ranger Chad Kirschbaum were also there since it’s Smokey’s 75th birthday this year as well.
While Smokey has spent the last 75 years preventing forest fires with the public’s help, Trees For Tomorrow has been educating students about natural resources. Hundreds of thousands of students ages K-12 have come through the school’s campus since it started.
Reese Turner was one of the students visiting from McFarland. He said at Trees For Tomorrow, they learned how to build a fire and how to sustain it, as well as how important trees are to the ecosystem.
“When you cut down one,” he says. “There’s always going to be something that happens to the ecosystem along with that.”
Robin Ginner has been Trees For Tomorrow’s executive director for the last three years. She also grew up in Eagle River near the Trees For Tomorrow campus. She says Trees For Tomorrow informed her impressions of nature and taught her about sustainability as a kid.
“I still remember sitting in the classrooms at Trees For Tomorrow,” she says. “Or learning how to cross country ski at Trees For Tomorrow back in the 70’s.”
She moved away for awhile and lived in Chicago and Montana, but she always hoped she’d find her way back.
“I always said, one of these days, I’m going to go home, and Trees For Tomorrow is going to need a director and it’s going to be me,” she says. “So I kind of stalked the organization for many years.”
Long story short, Ginner jumped at the chance to move back to her roots three years ago when she found the job posting.
Hanging in the historic dining hall at Trees For Tomorrow is a quote by Theodore Roosevelt, from a speech he gave in 1900:
I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use our natural resources, but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.
This is the kind of conservation of the natural world that Trees For Tomorrow teaches, though Ginner thinks it isn’t the dominant message kids these days are hearing.
“They’re getting this strong preservation message,” says Ginner. “However, we don’t teach preservation, we teach conservation and wise management and responsible use because we’re starting to see that leaving nature without… You know, fighting the fires and making sure that the fires don’t happen and making sure nobody cuts anything down, well that’s leading to unhealthy ecosystems. And we’re seeing the outcome of that like out west where you’ve got these devasting, huge wildfires because nobody’s been allowed to do anything in the forests.”
Climate change and many other causes have contributed to more wildfires recently in places like California, whose 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record. While it’s impossible to blame the fires on just one cause, Ginner says better forest conservation could’ve helped.
“What we do at Trees For Tomorrow is we teach about responsible management,” she says. “Yes it is okay to cut down trees because they do grow back. It’s a renewable resource, but we can’t cut them all down. We have to do it sustainably.”
Not cutting down all of the trees makes sense to us now, but it wasn’t common sense 75 years ago. Trees For Tomorrow started out as a reforestation effort by executives of the pulp and paper industry.
“Our founders had this vision 75 years ago,” says Ginner. “We had been coming off 100 years of really bad management of our timber up here that led to what we call the Great Cutover, which was decimated forests. There was nothing left... So if you see pictures from the early 1900’s. There’s a series of photos from Highway M out by Boulder Junction and you see what looks like a bomb went off. I mean, it is incredible. It’s a completely decimated landscape. They had seen it as this inexhaustible resource so they just went hog wild and cut down everything they saw, and pretty soon, they ran out of trees.”
The vision of Trees For Tomorrow is to prepare today’s youth to be tomorrow’s stewards of our natural world, so that things like that don’t happen again.
“Like any industry, obviously mistakes have been made in the past,” says Ginner. “But we’ve learned from those... The sustainability of the Wisconsin timber industry now tops in the country. Yeah, there are trees coming out of the woods, but we’re doing it right to make sure that we always have that forest.”
Trees For Tomorrow and Smokey Bear will be celebrating their 75th birthdays again this year on Saturday, July 27th at Forest Fest. The event will be held at Trees For Tomorrow in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service.
More information can be found online here: https://www.treesfortomorrow.com/
This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Chilvat by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue). The photos above are used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here and here.
This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.