Isn’t this SWELL? Scandia Woods Environmental Learning Lab is now a 501(c)3 non-profit organization

For over 30 years, the Scandia Woods Environmental Learning Lab (SWELL) has been providing environmental and historical learning. SWELL, a 20 acre site located northeast of Morris, is home to several distinct biomes and dozens of different plant and animal life.

Throughout its history, SWELL has partnered with the Stevens County Historical Society and the Stevens Soil and Water Conservation District, and through those organizations was able to accept non-profit donations. Now, SWELL has secured 501(c)3 status making them an entity of their own, with the ability to accept donations on their own behalf, and have their own board of directors. Being an entity of their own also allows them to seek donations and funding without competing with the organizations they’ve partnered with at the same time.

SWELL is now in its third decade of existence, and so many things have happened over those decades. The 20-acre site has been leased to the Morris Area School district for $1 every 10 years by owners Linda and Karl Retzlaff for the purpose of environmental learning. The site is home to a classroom, log home, several trails, a pond, marsh and woodland representing many biomes for a relatively small space. In the fall, SWELL hosts a conservation day in partnership with the Stevens and Pope County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) that garners visits from about 350 area fifth graders for the day. 

The educational experiences that SWELL offers to students are unique and immersive. Randee Hokanson, sometimes better known as “Ranger Randee,” is the educator at SWELL and is passionate about providing experiential learning opportunities that kids will take with them when they leave. “Sometimes I dress the teachers up,” she says of groups who visit on field trips, “if the students listen really well, I’ll dress up the teacher like a beaver.” She adds that not only does she have a beaver costume for this very purpose, but monarch and ant costumes as well. “Those kids will remember that lesson forever,” she says. The “Ranger Randee” moniker came from a tongue-in-cheek reference she made one year by mirroring the “Ranger Rick” magazine about thirty years ago. In the contact information section of a lesson plan, she identified herself as “Ranger Randee” and the name stuck. 

Hokanson was originally working as a grant-funded position for the first three years. The grant funded the development of trails and a classroom, classroom resources, book printing and an educator. It soon became clear that having an educator on site was a valuable resource, and provided an educational experience for the students that couldn’t be matched. She says that teachers aren’t always comfortable leaving their classrooms and coming to a place that they aren’t familiar with and trying to organize their students and provide them with a valuable educational experience. Having an on-site educator took that off of the teacher’s plate, and offered the opportunity for even more learning to take place.

Once the original grant ran out, nobody wanted to let go of the opportunity to have an educator. The SWCD and the county had dollars available for an educator, and since it wasn’t feasible for the county to have an environmental educator on staff full-time, that money went towards funding the educator at SWELL, and that funding has remained stable for the past three decades. 

This past year, over 1,300 students visited SWELL in a total period of about three weeks. There is a period of about 7-10 days in the spring, and about 12-14 days again in the fall that SWELL welcomes an influx of students, and that isn’t even their busiest year. 

Kids have even helped with research at the SWELL site. One summer, Hokanson hosted a summer camp day trip and brought members of her 4-H group to SWELL to help with the “friends of frogs” research that was an extension of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The kids caught frogs and cataloged data on abnormal leg numbers and discoloration. “And we found some,” Hokanson said, “that had the wrong number of legs.” 

SWELL isn’t only open for students to learn, but for adults as well. In the past, there have been historical dinners served in the log home, and church without walls. The trails are open, as well, and have been used for exploring and even for people taking family pictures. 

The land that is now Gordon’s Hollow used to be farmed by Linda’s husband, Karl, but after it drowned out several times, he decided to make it a wetland. He worked with different organizations, and built a dam to keep the water back and it became a marsh which now hosts an entirely different ecosystem and welcomed new wildlife, adding to the many distinct biomes present at SWELL.

The site is also home to the first settlement of Stevens County, providing a rich and deep connection to the history of the area. Some family history and letters suggest that dugout dwellings were present around the site. A trail that goes across the road connects to what could possibly be the site of human habitat, and they use that as a way to teach students about dugout dwellings. “These weren’t long term dwellings,” says Hokanson, but rather used as temporary shelter if a family arrived at a point in the year that was unsuitable for building a more permanent home. The site now has many trees, but in the mid 19th century, it was all prairie, so when teaching, Hokanson has students use their imagination to envision what the area would look like, and show tools, like sod-cutters, to explain how the dwellings were made. 

The board of directors that has been formed consists of members who are present in different aspects of the community, such as the Morris Area School District, the University of Minnesota Morris, from the SWCD, and members of the Retzlaff family who own the land. Having board members that can represent the different facets of the community has proven extremely helpful. For example, the member from UMN Morris is able to engage with college students who volunteer to help clean up the SWELL area and perform maintenance projects. Local 4-H members have also volunteered to help in this effort as well.

Now that SWELL is officially a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, the next steps are to raise money for much needed projects all around the land. 

In spite of recent drought conditions, the water level at SWELL has increased over the past few years, and has caused many problems. The bridges around the site have been lost, and the pond that used to shore about 30 feet from the deck of the classroom now comes up to right underneath the deck which has covered the majority of the trail system around the pond and is causing the classroom to settle. The classroom itself is in great shape, but it needs to be jacked up somehow, says Linda Retzlaff, and that is a costly endeavor. “We want the classroom to remain a safe place for students to come and keep visiting.” There is also an idea for how to re-establish the bridges, but the hurdle that is presenting itself is the cost of the effort.

Not only is the water a factor in maintenance issues, but other natural disasters, such as tornadoes, have impacted the site as well, and even general repair and maintenance add up. 

The cabin was built in stages as grants and funding came in, and now that everything is built, some things are needing replacing. 

Donations and memorials can be made, and because of their non-profit status, donors will receive a receipt of donation to be used for tax write-offs. The best way to make a donation is to send it to the Stevens SWCD office, and make sure that it is noted that the donation is for SWELL.