The Boy Scout motto is “Be prepared.” Alex Tomczak might add “Be persistent.”
Tomczak, an Eagle Scout, recently received the prestigious Hornaday award for scouts, which took nearly four years to achieve.
“At times, I wanted to give up,” said the Minnetonka High School senior. “But my parents encouraged me to stick it out. Plus I didn’t like the thought that if I quit, all my hard work would be for nothing.”
The Hornaday award recognizes scouts who have made an outstanding contribution to conservation or environmental awareness.
The oldest conservation award in the U.S., it is named for Dr. William T. Hornaday, a champion of natural resource and wildlife conservation and founder of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Only about 1500 Hornaday awards have been given in its 98-year history. Tomczak is the 19th scout from Minnesota to receive the award.
In eighth grade, Tomczak decided to set his sights on the Hornaday.
“I’m in a large troop so I was looking for a way to differentiate myself as a leader without having to wait my turn at a troop position,” he explained.
Tomczak noticed that the outdoor learning center (OLC) at his former elementary school, Scenic Heights, had become overgrown with invasive species like garlic mustard and buckthorn.
Invasive species threaten native plants like wildflowers by monopolizing light, moisture and nutrients. This deprives wildlife of essential food sources.
Without other plants to eat, birds will eat buckthorn berries which cause a severe laxative reaction. The birds become dehydrated and die.
Tomczak knew that removal of invasive species would require heavy tools and hard work in order to remove the entire root system.
It would also require a lot of time. Removal of the invasive plants would have to be done twice a year for three years in order to wipe out the seed supply.
Scenic Heights had been relying on volunteers to maintain the OLC through the Adopt-a-Plot program. Each volunteer would commit to maintaining a smaller parcel within the four-acre OLC.
“These volunteers were overwhelmed by the work involved,” said Tomczak. “Many of the plots had little or no work being done on them after the volunteer’s initial visit.”
Tomczak took his idea to Dawn Christesen, a teacher at Scenic Heights.
“When Alex approached me, I was amazed at the complexity and dedication it would require,” said Christesen.
Tomczak organized work crews consisting of fellow scouts and their parents to bring in chainsaws, weed wrenches, and wheelbarrows to clear out buckthorn, garlic mustard and other debris.
He estimates the crews collectively worked over 200 hours at the OLC. Tomczak spent 130 hours of his time on the project.
Juggling the OLC with his athletic schedule was a challenge. “Sports are a big part of my life,” said Tomczak, who has lettered in football and wrestling.
The results were worth it. Today the OLC is thriving with native plants for Scenic Heights students to learn about and enjoy. Students use the OLC for nature classes, pond water study, tree planting, art and descriptive writing.
The Adopt-a-Plot program has improved too, because it is easier for volunteers to maintain the plots.
“Alex did an amazing job creating spaces where student learning could take place, but more importantly, creating a plan for its sustainability,” said Christesen.
Between scouts and sports, Tomczak has little time to visit the OLC these days. “I like to take relatives to see it if they haven’t been there,” he said. “I took my grandma and great aunt there a few weeks ago.”
For Tomczak, scouting is a family affair. In 2010, he became the 12th Eagle Scout in three generations of his family.
Tomczak never felt pressure from his parents to become an Eagle Scout. “But I did put pressure on myself,” he said. “I thought it was something I could be proud of.”
What is the biggest thing Tomczak has gained from 12 years of scouting? “Leadership and people skills,” he said.
Minnetonka head football coach Dave Nelson sees these skills in Tomczak. “Alex is a young man of tremendous character,” said Nelson. “He is committed and leads by example.”
After graduation, Tomczak will attend college and hopes to become a teacher and coach.
Though he won't pursue a career in conservation, Tomczak plans to continue to be environmentally conscious. “I believe in everybody doing their part for our environment,” he said.