Empowering YOUth: Building a School Forest Program - Into the Woods for Outdoor Learning!

April 22, 2020

Integrating environmental education into school curriculum has been proven to increase student critical thinking skills linking to higher achievement on both classroom and standardized test scores. Into the Woods for Outdoor Learning! is the Winneconne Community School District's forestry program led by Crystal McGrath, School Forester/Agriculture Instructor, who leads nature exploration activities and events utilizing the Norbert Rich School Forest, a 43.5-acre property that is inclusive of six main forest stand types.

Mr. Rich enlisted this property under the Managed Forest Land Law through the State of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WNDR) in 1994. Creating a stewardship forestry plan, he managed the land to provide wood products, recreation and wildlife habitat. He raised Christmas trees and brought turkeys to the area, creating not only a tree farm, but a wildlife sanctuary. Surrounded by farmland, the wood property hosts a variety of tree and plant species and includes a pond. It serves as the primary shelter for a large deer and turkey population along with various other wildlife species.
Mr. Rich passed away in 2012, willing the property to the Winneconne Community School District. The District continues to build upon the stewardship forestry plan Mr. Rich created to promote natural resource conservation. Today, the property is certified as a Wisconsin School Forest.

The property includes an entrance driveway lined with Maple and Cedar trees, walking trails, a cabin/garage, and two storage sheds that are used to house tools and equipment and serve as an indoor classroom for 30 students that is heated by a wood stove. Parking is limited and visitors are asked to park on the road and walk up the driveway. A well is connected to the outdoor spigot on the cabin providing water access. Two portable restrooms are located adjacent to the shed. The cabin is heated by propane. It contains a kitchen and basement that is utilized for storage, which is currently undergoing renovation so that it can be utilized more efficiently for large groups.

Integrating environmental education into school curriculum has been proven to increase student critical thinking skills linking to higher achievement on both classroom and standardized test scores. The property provides an outdoor learning experience for the Winneconne pre-k thru grade 12 students of the entire school district, with each class utilizing the property as an outdoor teaching space on assigned field experience days. Utilizing the forest and pond in its natural setting as an inquiry-based teaching tool, students learn to ask questions, research problems, perform experiments and solve investigations in the environment. By allowing students to experience nature through an active, hands-on approach to learning, they will become more knowledgeable and responsible citizens when making decisions about the environment in the future.

Additionally, the Norbert Rich welcomes local community groups including the Girls Scouts, Boy Scouts, FFA Chapters, local university students, etc., parents and general community members.

While the property provides endless learning opportunities, which the District is thankful for, there are challenges associated with maintenance of the forest itself, trails and buildings.

As part of the WDNR Managed Forest Land Law, mature trees are managed and selectively harvested which is dependent on the growth and health of the forest. Replanting efforts will be made to encourage appropriate native species growth to maintain a sustainable supply of wood and forest products. Blue Spruce continuously monitored for a needle cast disease caused by a fungus called Rhizosphaera, (Rhizosphaera kalkhoffii). The branches and/or trees infected are removed. Additionally, invasive plant species found on the property, including Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) are removed to prevent understory regeneration in the forest.

Ongoing efforts to provide wildlife habitat by providing native grasses & legumes for food, constructing brush piles for wildlife shelters and monitoring populations of overabundant species is also continuous.

The development and maintenance of recreational trails throughout this woodlot to be used for logging/firewood & other wood products, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and various nature studies are needed. The District would like additional walking trails and trail boardwalks in low-lying and wet areas built, along with purchasing and installing trail identification markers and someday see a mapping system developed.

Creating better indoor and outdoor classroom facilities to enhance environmental education learning opportunities is desired. Projects include the renovation of the cabin (new windows, flooring, etc., indoor bathrooms, and the installation of a photovoltaics), construction of a wharf classroom, fire pit and outdoor classroom seating areas such as benches and logs near the pond, benches and other seating throughout the property, bird feeders and a bird watching blind.

Miron Construction Co., Inc. has been a long-time partner of Winneconne Community School District. Through their Miron Volunteer Program (MVP), employees will be given the opportunity to volunteer 8 hours of paid time during the work week to assist with the projects above. Additionally, Theresa Lehman, director of sustainable services, will work with Crystal McGrath to write grants in hopes of garnering funds to purchase necessary building materials. Miron will provide the tools and equipment needed for the construction of the projects funded.

There are also classroom supplies that are needed for activities and events in which Crystal McGrath has registered for via DonorsChoose.org as well as maintenance equipment, tools, outdoor sporting goods, and technology in which Winneconne Community School District is seeking donations and fund-raising to purchase.


Additional Volunteers attended


Students will be impacted this year

Intended impact of project

Reduced environmental impact
Improved occupant health & performance
Increased environmental & sustainability literacy