School Forests Offer Outdoor Learning for Michigan Students

Class is in session and the path to environmental stewardship may be right in your own schoolyard. School forests provide a unique opportunity to develop leaders in conservation by connecting students and community members to natural resources through recreation, education and land management. School forests were established in Michigan nearly a century ago, but their role in the communities of Northern Michigan is still evolving.

Huron Pines was lucky enough to get involved with school forest stewardship thanks to the enthusiastic staff, students and administrators at Vanderbilt Area School. Vanderbilt Superintendent and Principal, Rick Heitmeyer, had a goal to get K-12 students to spend at least one school-hour outside per week and the school forest was a way to make that happen. Before on-the-ground work began, the school sat down with Huron Pines AmeriCorps members, Huron Pines staff and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to create a Forest Stewardship Plan to establish an outline for connecting the school and its students to the natural resources in their own backyard.

What has resulted from that plan is a nearly half-mile trail that starts behind the school’s playground and winds through dense forest and over a hill with a view of Vanderbilt. That hilltop vista is being turned into an outdoor classroom space, the planning of which has become a year-long project for high school students who gathered input from students and teachers before planning, designing and constructing classroom necessities like seating and storage. The trail is open to the public and was built with the support of community, staff and student volunteers. With help from M&M Excavating, Bunker and Sons Sawmill, and funding from Otsego County United Way, Project Learning Tree and the Otsego County Community Foundation’s Youth Advisory Council Fund and McNamara Fund.

The concept of school forests in Michigan dates back to 1925 when the Negaunee Schools in the Upper Peninsula established an official school forest for educational use. The program grew statewide in 1931 when the Municipal Forest Act was passed by the Michigan Legislature, allowing the Department of Conservation (e.g. the Michigan DNR) to take tax reverted properties (those with delinquent property tax payments) and transfer ownership to schools and government organizations. The forests are not just for schools; they are open to public access, providing both educational opportunities and community-wide benefit.

With such a rich history in school forests across the state, we see Vanderbilt as just the beginning of reestablishing the tradition. At Huron Pines, our long-term goal is to help ensure that every school in our region with a school forest is actively managing that land and using it to develop stewardship opportunities for the students and the community, whether through educational programs, recreation access or use of the timber for revenue or local projects. The details of the plan will be unique to meet the needs and aspirations of the forest, the school and the community.  

We are in early stages of exploring new opportunities with Gaylord and Onaway Schools that include building a stewardship plan to explore educational uses for the forest affiliated with Gaylord Community Schools and potentially launching a small pilot with an Onaway High School class focused on invasive plants with a hands-on component to remove invasive honeysuckle within the school forest.  

When nature doubles as a playground and a classroom, students are offered vast opportunities for growth. Not every school has a school forest, but for those that do, they present an exciting opportunity for education, stewardship and community connection. Huron Pines is looking forward to working with school districts, volunteers and the DNR to help communities in our region make the most of their forestland in the months and years to come.

If you’d like to learn more about school forests contact Huron Pines Environmental Education Coordinator, Emily Vogelgesang,

students in a tree


Vanderbilt School Forest in the News
Backyard beauty: Vanderbilt to showcase school forest
VIDEO: Vanderbilt School Forest Showcase
Vanderbilt students break in snowshoes on new school forest trail
VIDEO: Vanderbilt students try out snowshoeing