What better way to learn about ecology than to study trees? That's what the founders of Project Learning Tree thought more than two decades ago, when they began one of the most successful environmental education programs in the nation. Today, more than 25 million students have been exposed to Learning Tree curricula, according to director Kathy McGlauflin.

Teachers using a Project activity called "Get in Touch with Trees!" take a field trip to a nearby place where trees grow. Their students collect cones, needles, bark, leaves, nuts, seeds and fruit. They place the items in a "mystery box," and while blindfolded, reach into it and try to identify which parts of the tree they are touching.

Sounds pretty innocuous. But though most professionals view PLT as "balanced," Oregon science teacher John Borowski says the program is oriented toward timber-management. He distrusts the program because of its longtime partnership with the American Forest Foundation and other sponsors, including Potlatch and Plum Creek timber companies and Westvaco, a paper products manufacturer.

"Yes, there are some good activities in (the PLT materials), but it's what they leave out that really makes me crazy," Borowski says. "There's nothing in here about the impacts of clear-cutting or forest devastation. It's guilty by omission."

Director McGlauflin, who used PLT activities as a staffer with the Audubon Society in the late 1970s, says Borowski wants PLT to serve as an advocate for wilderness or native forests, and "that's not what we're about and it never will be."

Project Learning Tree's credo is that it "doesn't try to teach children what to think about the environment. It gives teachers the tools they need to help children learn how to think about the environment," according to the K-8 activity guide.

"We have a very strong system of checks and balances for how we engineer our curriculum materials," McGlauflin says. "I'm really proud of the work we do."

The program's $2 million annual budget comes from a variety of sources, including corporations, foundations and individuals. In the last several years, the EPA has provided the majority of the funding, McGlauflin says.

"It's very clear to all of our donors from the beginning that their contribution doesn't buy them any rights to input in the development of our activities."

A cautionary tale

PLT activity guides are frequently used at teacher workshops sponsored by forest products groups and the timber industry. Typically, timber companies pay schools to hire substitutes for the duration of the workshop, and teachers are wined and dined at nice hotels and restaurants in between field excursions.

Clinton Kennedy, an Idaho science teacher at Cascade High School, went on a field trip sponsored by the Idaho Forest Products Commission in 1997 (see other sidebar). As part of the field trip, Kennedy and his fellow teachers visited a large clear-cut in Florence Basin in the Nez Perce National Forest.

"They had logged the area to within 50 feet of the creek, and then there had been a blowout," says Kennedy, who was a logger before becoming a teacher. "The Forest Service guys showed us how they used downed logs to catch sediment from washing into the creek. I noticed that all of the logs were full of sand, meaning the fine sediments washed down the creek."

"I asked the guy, why didn't you stop logging at the top of the ravine, instead of coming down so close to the creek, and he said there had been a blowdown event that caused the trees to fall over near the creek. But I've seen blowdowns, and trees get uprooted with their roots in the air, and all of these trees had been sawed off at the stump. As soon as I pointed that out, the guy said, OK, it's time to move down the road."

The foresters on the trip who worked for Potlatch and Boise Cascade Corp. were far more honest, Kennedy says. "They'd say, 'If you have a tree over 20 inches in diameter on our private lands, you'd better have a damn good reason for it to be there.' They manage their lands for timber and profit; there's no mandate for old growth on private land."

Kennedy's experience on the timber tour is exactly what John Borowski suspects may happen on other timber industry-sponsored field trips for school teachers. If the timber industry followed the "balanced" educational mold espoused by wise-use champion Michael Sanera, environmentalists should be invited to provide their point of view, Borowski says.

Yet, in most cases, they are not invited, and teachers like Borowski, whose environmental leanings are well known, get rejected when they apply.

"I'd love to go on one of those tours," says Borowski, who has applied several times to attend tours sponsored by the timber giant Weyerhaeuser. "But I've never been accepted."

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Stephen Stuebner