Jane Thornes (Environmental Educator)


You’re just as likely to find Jane Thornes teaching under open skies as in her walled classroom in St. Maries, Idaho. “You have to get outside to learn about outside,” says the environmental educator who has been teaching elementary school students for more than 20 years.

Thornes and her husband Jim live and work on their 270-acre family forest, Pettis Peak Tree Farms, Thornes leads forest tours and classes, which have become favorite activities for her third and fourth graders as well as with Scout troops and diverse groups from surrounding communities.

Here, audiences experience first-hand the many activities involved in sustaining a working forest. “They’ve been pretty popular over the years,” says Thornes. “We show visitors the process of pre-commercial thinning, the piling and burning of slash, even how to set chokers and we appreciate the opportunity to give people a better understanding of the work that goes into a well-managed forestland.

There are lots of roads you can take to become an environmental educator, but a good grounding in life sciences such as biology, chemistry and ecology certainly help.

“My first degrees were in sociology and biology and then I went back to school to get my elementary education degree,” she explains. “But the most important thing is to read, explore, get outside and not be afraid to follow your dreams.”

Thornes knows that real life experiences are the best lessons. After noticing dead and dying Subalpine Fir trees along a highway, she worked with the U.S. Forest Service to identify the balsam wooly adelgid as the likely cause. It was also the perfect opportunity to involve her students in a valuable research project.

“The kids learned that this tiny, aphid-like insect spreads to Grand Fir trees, a valuable timber species in our area,” explains Thornes. She challenged and inspired her students to collect scientific data from site study plots, information that the U.S. Forest Service can use as it addresses the problem.

Thornes has been a facilitator for Project Learning Tree (the gold standard in environmental education programs in schools across the country) since 1999, instructing forestland owners, other teachers from Idaho, and Girl Scout leaders from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

“I’ve been lucky to have lived in the woods for 34 years and I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors. It doesn’t get much better than being outside, in a beautiful setting and helping others to learn and teach about our natural resources.”

Year after year, Thornes receives recognition and awards for her work. In 2006, Project Learning Tree named her one of five finest environmental educators in the nation. In 2007 she was Recognized as Idaho’s elementary environmental educator of the year by The Idaho Environmental Education Association. 

Thornes, however, prefers to talk about her students’ work. “It’s very exciting and satisfying to receive recognition for the teaching work,” she explains, “but my most exciting moments are when I see the light go on as a young person discovers a passion for nature and know I helped turn the switch.”

Recently, one of her former 4th grade students, now heading off to college, told Thornes that her classes, field trips and activities led her to choose biology as her major. “I can’t tell you how excited I was,” she enthuses. That’s worth more than all the awards in the world!”

Want to know more?

º What is Environmental Education? (PLT):
º North American Association for Environmental Education:
º Idaho Environmental Education Association:
º Every Student Learns Outside (PLT):
º Project Learning Tree:
º Idaho Project Learning Tree:
º Project Wet:
º Project Wild:
º Idaho Forest Owners Association: