Upon entering Better Place Forests in Saint Croix Valley, my senses were overtaken by feelings of serenity and peacefulness. The sky was bluer, the soaring trees a deep green, it was as if I’d fallen into the North Woods…yet I’m a mere 20 minutes northeast of the Twin Cities.
Greeting me at the Welcome Center were the on-site manager, Todd Gutterman, and forest steward, Sharon Jarmoluk. Their love for the forest and belief in the company’s mission are evident from the moment we meet.
How It Works
Trees may be viewed online or in-person at the St. Croix Valley Forest, located in Scandia, Minnesota. (There are currently nine forests nationwide to choose from at the time of this writing, with more options forthcoming.) Once a tree is reserved in St. Croix Valley Forest, upon a person’s death, his or her loved ones are able to visit the forest where the cremains are blended with soil, then spread topically on the earth surrounding their personal tree. Additional family members – even beloved pets – may also have their cremains spread in the same vicinity, creating an entirely new meaning to the term, “family tree.”
Todd and Sharon describe how the St. Croix Valley Forest’s original landowners were in alignment with the conservation aspect of Better Place Forests. “They wanted the trees to stay intact, their biggest concern was that the forest would get developed,” Todd mentioned. “It was a perfect merger between Better Place Forests and the wishes of the former owners.”
All the forest trees are inventoried and identified by a green tag, with each tag in Better Place Forests’ GPS tracking system. When people visit Better Place Forests’ website, they have an opportunity to utilize an online forest tour. The options include a variety of locations within the forest, each touting its own large selection of trees. “Most people will purchase a tree online, then come see their tree in person,” Todd explains. “If they love it, great! And if they don’t, we will help them find another tree.” There is a one-year, 100% refund available for those who opt against it for any reason.
Sharon adds, “When people visit, we give them a better understanding of our approach – they will briefly have learned about it online, but here they are better able to experience and envision it.”
In addition to the Twin Cities, people have frequented the St. Croix Valley Forest from south as far as Rochester, east throughout Wisconsin, and north to Duluth as well as up along the North Shore area. “The uniqueness of this area is our close proximity to a major metropolitan area,” Todd says, emphasizing the advantage we have here in Minnesota.” Sharon smiles and shares, “Here you feel like you’re far away enough to have privacy, yet it’s convenient to visit.”
As we meander along the trail, I’m struck by how quiet it feels, the forest is filled with songbirds singing as a lone deer bounds away. The St. Croix Valley location is divided into sections with names such as Emerald Sanctuary, Glacier Basin (it actually is a basin formed by a glacier), Fern Haven and Reflection Point, adjacent to Fish Lake. Some areas are easily accessible, while other areas provide an easy hike to fully take in the sights and sounds of the conservation memorial forest. Sharon points out the different areas as she says, “Every area has its own personality, its unique feel.”
“Clay Olson, who is our on-site forester, his job is managing the tree health and the trails,” Todd spreads his arms to showcase the woods and to illustrate his point. “We will use the trees’ chips for paths, but some we will let sit in its natural habitat because it’s extremely healthy for the wildlife.” According to Todd, the long-term objective is to keep the aesthetic of the forest while ensuring its safety and accessibility. “It’s a fine balance.”
In-person tours last between 60 to 90 minutes with reservations required. “When people visit, they have complete privacy.”
With the opening of the St. Croix Valley forest having occurred a few weeks ago, the opportunity to be a part of something special is happening now. “This is where the Founder’s Memorial will be – we are celebrating our first 500 reservations by preserving the names of our first “founders” as a special part of the architectural design,” Sharon states.
The conservation memorial forests aren’t the only ways Better Place Forests is making an impact. “For every tree purchased in any of the locations, Better Place Forests has partnered with a nonprofit called One Tree Planted to plant more trees in areas that needs reforestation,” Todd explains. “This directly impacts the areas experiencing wildfires, floods or disease.” “Any customer that refers another customer,” Sharon adds, “receives an additional 100 saplings that will be donated toward forests in need. In addition, those they refer receive 15% off their tree and an additional 10 saplings in their name.” Todd continues, “It’s really nice because not only are they conserving forests by buying the land, but Better Place Forests is also helping other forests throughout the country with regrowth.”