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Make The World Better: Project Learning Tree

Cultivating the next generation of forest and conservation leaders

/ 5 mins / SparxTeam

These days, being called a tree hugger is aspirational, not disparaging. To protect our planet for generations to come, we need so-called tree huggers to save our forests to capture CO2 and foster biodiversity. But when it comes to conservation, we need to make sure we’re not missing the forest for the trees.

Project Learning Tree has (PLT) been a leading environmental education program for nearly 50 years. We spoke with Jessica Kaknevicius, Vice President of Education, about PLT’s educational and career-driven resources, as well as their diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives. 

A GIS analyst performing fieldwork in Frederick Arm, BC.

Tell us about your organization’s mission.

Project Learning Tree is committed to advancing forest literacy and environmental education. In 2018, we launched our career pathways programming, and initially focused on providing valuable work experiences for young professionals. 

We’re an initiative of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) which is dedicated to promoting sustainability through forest-focused collaborations. SFI is an independent, non-profit organization that collaborates with its diverse network to provide solutions to local and global sustainability challenges. We accomplish our work through four pillars — standards, conservation, community, and education — to achieve our vision of a world that values and benefits from sustainably-managed forests.

What inspired you/your founders to start your organization?

PLT was launched in the US in the mid-1970s with the goal of developing an effective environmental education program. In 2017, SFI took on PLT and expanded it to Canada, with the goal of increasing its impact on educators and youth and exploring the opportunities to grow green career paths.  

Today, PLT is one of the most widely used preK-12 environmental education programs in the United States and abroad, and it has expanded its programs and resources to include career pathways and forest literacy. PLT provides educators, parents, and community leaders with peer-reviewed, award-winning curriculum support materials to engage students in learning about the environment. It promotes forest literacy so that people acquire the tools and knowledge they need to keep our forests sustainable over the long term while continuing to benefit from them. PLT also helps build a diverse and resilient forest and conservation workforce through our skills development resources, mentorship programs, and high-value work experiences.

What were some of the challenges you/your founders encountered?

Like many organizations, we had to pivot several of our programs because of COVID-19. Prior to this, most of our programs and content were delivered in person. In fact, our first PLT Green Mentor cohort launched right at the beginning of the pandemic, and we had to adapt to deliver it completely virtually. 

We recognize the benefit of having an in-person, local connection to make it relevant for communities on the ground. However, we quickly realized the benefits of going virtual and using webinars and online resources. With virtual programs, we can reach more people, no matter their location.

Students from Hardy School in Washington, DC learn how to monitor a forest’s condition.

What do you consider your organization’s biggest success?

Our scale and reach of the work we have achieved.

Since 1976, PLT has reached 145 million students and trained 765,000 educators to help students learn how to think, not what to think about complex environmental issues. Then, as previously mentioned, we launched our career pathways programming in 2018, which initially focused on providing valuable work experiences for young professionals. Now, we’ve supported over 400 employers and helped place over 6,000 young adults into green jobs including over 900 Indigenous youth from more than 100 different Indigenous communities in Canada.

What makes your organization unique?

PLT is able to have a significant impact because of the scale and reach of our diverse network. Be it through SFI-certified organizations, educators, Indigenous communities, youth, conservation organizations, and more, we are able to reach a variety of audiences and find collaboration opportunities to co-create positive change and advance nature-based solutions.

How do you feel your organization makes the world better?

We believe that sustainably-managed forests are critical to our collective future. From climate change to water quality to biodiversity, well-managed forests provide viable solutions to many of the world’s most important sustainability challenges. We advance sustainability and nature-based solutions through forest-focused collaborations, specifically promoting forest literacy. 

As well, we provide educators, parents, and community leaders with educational resources to help develop students’ awareness, knowledge, and appreciation of the environment; build their skills and ability to make informed decisions; and encourage them to take personal responsibility for sustaining the environment and our quality of life that depends on it. 

Through these resources, we engage diverse youth in  learning about exciting and rewarding green career pathways that support nature-based solutions for a more sustainable planet. As they get older and begin considering possible jobs, they can explore our skills development resources, grow their network with our mentorship programs, and potentially land their first work experience.

Mentees and mentors posing for a group photo during the 2022 SFI/PLT Annual Conference.

Tell us about your organization’s goals.

PLT’s goal is to advance environmental literacy, stewardship, and career pathways using trees and forests as windows to the world.

Are there any upcoming initiatives or projects you’d like to share?

SFI and PLT are working in partnership with Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) to ensure greater opportunities for rewarding careers in the forest and conservation sector for young Black Americans. This will include skills training resources and a mentorship program, as well as Black Faces in Green Spaces: The Journeys of Black Professionals in Green Careers, which tells the stories of Black Americans who have taken this career path and have advice and resources to share. You can learn more here and sign up to be the first to hear about the guide’s release!

What do you most want people to know about your organization?

PLT aims to develop a lifetime of learning to create a forest-literate society. It’s critical that we learn and value the benefits that sustainably-managed forests have on the environment, our communities, and the economy. Educators, parents, and community leaders can use PLT resources to build forest literacy while engaging students and growing the next generation of environmental stewards. Plus, as youth grow up, they may be inspired to pursue a green career pathway and will have the resources and support to get there.

PLT’s lifetime of learning helps grow future forest and conservation leaders and ensures our forests are kept sustainable over the long term.

Activity sheets and supplies needed to conduct PLT’s monitoring forest condition worksheets.

How can people help or contribute to your organization’s mission?

Get involved with one of our programs! Learn more about PLT in your own region: attend a PLT training session for educators, hire a green jobs youth, become a mentor or encourage a young professional to sign up to become a mentee, and/or access great resources to get your family and friends outdoors. We also accept donations to Canadian and US programs.

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This story was featured in the Make The World Better magazine:

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