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Extension > Source - Winter 2009 > 4H youth get green

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4H youth get green

Building on a tradition of environmental enthusiasm

Minnesota 4-H conservation work dates back to 1926, when a state forester helped 4-H participants grow red pine seedlings at Itasca State Park. The goal, according to T. A. Erickson, the state's first 4-H club leader, was to help youth learn to appreciate trees, flowers, grass, bird and animal life, lakes and hills, good soil, and their importance in our lives. The reward is towering red pines, which are still appreciated by park visitors today.

Two kids over plants

4-H Green Team members Joni and Heather carry forward a tradition of caring about the environment as they clear a trail that will connect Duluth to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.

More than 80 years later and some 150 miles away, a 4-H Green Team works on maintaining the Superior Hiking Trail. As they navigate the forests and ridges outside Duluth, they admire similar stands of massive red pine along stretches of the trail.

Minnesota 4-H began its conservation efforts in earnest in 1934 with the Conservation Leadership Camp at Itasca State Park. Every September, two teens from each county—or about 200 kids—would spend five days learning about wildlife and land conservation from Extension faculty via lectures, discussions, demonstrations and nature hikes.

The foundation of 4-H is to work locally, guiding youth in learning and equipping them with the skills and knowledge to bring back and use in their communities. The early conservation campers kept meticulous records of their efforts once they returned to their hometowns. In one year alone, campers planted 166,343 trees, started 549 windbreaks, constructed 571 game shelters, built 1,051 bird feeders and seeded 3,346 forest tree nurseries.

"Thousands of youth have worked on 4-H conservation projects in Minnesota over the years," says Wayne Carlson, camp director from 1964 to 1980 and Minnesota 4-H Foundation board member emeritus. "Even though the 4-H statewide conservation camp ended in 1985, 4-Hers continue to do environmental work today in county camps and programs."

Fast-forward to present day and the 4-H Green Teams in Duluth. The after-school environmental service learning programs held at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary and Morgan Park Middle School ensure continuity for 4-H participants as they graduate from one school to the next. Green Team members find and address the needs in their community. The list includes tree planting, buckthorn removal and cleaning up ponds and hiking trails.

"Our mission is to encourage Minnesota youth to love nature and teach them to be good stewards of the environment," says Valerie Coit, St. Louis County 4-H program coordinator.

Fourteen-year-old Joni was a member of Morgan Park Middle School's 4-H Green Team last year when the group worked on maintaining a portion of the Superior Hiking Trail outside Duluth. When completed, the trail will connect Duluth to historic Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, one of Minnesota's most treasured and beautiful visiting destinations.

The seventh- and eighth-graders cleared paths, removed debris, and put up "No Camping" signs in places that were not meant for camping. "We would find places that people camped where they shouldn't have, and we had to mess it up," says Joni. "We'd break up illegal fire pits, and pull brush around so people wouldn't think about camping there."

Program coordinators also bring in high school and University of Minnesota Duluth students to work with the Green Team, encouraging environmental service beyond school and into the community. "When we have older youth and young adults partner with us or speak to our groups, we show that environmental service is something you take with you for your whole life," Coit says.

That message is taking root: Joni plans to start a 4-H Green Team at her new high school this year.

For more information on Minnesota 4-H Youth Development, visit

Changing the world one recycled plastic cup at a time

A group recycling

4-H Green Team member Maria (middle) turned her passion for the environment into a volunteer recycling job at school, and along the way made new friends with similar interests.

At age 11, Maria is a self-described nature geek who wants to change the world one recycled plastic cup at a time. She found the perfect outlet for her environmental passions in the 4-H Green Team at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School in Duluth.

The group's activities have included school-wide water conservation and recycling campaigns. On Earth Day, a campaign launched by Stowe Elementary's 4-H Green Team featured signs throughout the school with water conservation and recycling tips, such as turning off water when brushing teeth, picking up trash, and reusing plastic bags.

The hope is that students will take the good habits home and into their communities. The signs also included poems that Maria wrote about conservation, which were so well-received the school left them up most of the year.

All of Maria's friends have now joined the Green Team, and she says she has learned a lot. "If you work together," says Maria, "things can be accomplished faster."

For more information on 4-H clubs and program opportunities in your area, visit

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