School officials work to establish forestry as formal program

Sean C. Morgan

When Kristin Tolle graduated from Oregon State University last year, she had a job lined up with Weyerhaeuser.

She was able to buy her first home fresh out of college.

Starting out in marketing, she soon decided to switch gears and moved to Tangent, where Weyerhaeuser is training her as a trucking supervisor.

She credits the Forestry Club at Sweet Home High School and the South Santiam Youth Watershed Council for directing her into the timber industry, beginning a career she thoroughly enjoys.

“I honestly didn’t even know much about forestry till I joined the forestry program,” said Tolle, a 2012 high school valedictorian. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if we didn’t have the program.”

All of the students were excited, she said. “We worked hard just because we loved it.”

It’s something she has enjoyed every day, Tolle said. “Everybody I’ve met in forestry loves their job. The atmosphere is an extremely genuine and wholesome kind.”

Tolle graduated from college with a degree in forestry engineering and a minor in business. Weyerhaeuser hired her as a professional development candidate. That first marketing job was in Longview, Wash. Employees in the program are able to experience all of the other fields of work available at Weyerhaeuser, and Tolle took advantage of it.

Three months into the program, she switched to trucking and worked in dispatch, Tolle said. She has since moved back to Oregon and is training to be a trucking supervisor.

Through her connection to the Youth Watershed Council, she was able to go to work for the U.S. Forest Service after graduating from high school.

The future of the Sweet Home High School Forestry Club, where Tolle’s professional aspirations began, has been in question this year following the formation of a new state-level association, Future Natural Resource Leaders (FNLR), which serves as a conduit for funding and oversees the statewide forestry competition.

Dustin Nichol, who had been adviser for the club since it started in 2007 until this year, said the creation of the FNLR has doubled the number of schools involved in forestry competitions and events, from six last year to 12 this year.

Based on information he’s received, the fact that forestry was a club and not a class made Sweet Home ineligible for the statewide convention and competition, Nichol said.

“You have to have an approved program, where you can get two credits over the course of two years.”

The school needs a career and technical education instructor running the program, which students can use to transition to college, he said.

“Since we don’t have that, we have a club. Technically, we weren’t supposed to be able to participate at the state convention.”

As it turned out, two FNLR officials invited Sweet Home to the state competition anyway, and the club members placed second as a team, Nichol said. Still, the future of forestry at the high school has been uncertain and endangered.

School Board member Chanz Keeney told the Budget Committee earlier this month that this program needs to be preserved because of the opportunities it provides for students. He and other board members, like Jason Redick, have regularly repeated the same sentiment toward this and other technical programs, such as metal shop.

Adding to the uncertainty is Measure 98, approved by voters in November. The measure provides direct funding to school districts to increase graduation rates. Funding may be used to establish or expand career and technical education, college-level opportunities for students and dropout-prevention strategies in high schools.

However, the state budget remains unsettled, and districts don’t know what it will provide this year. Districts may not know whether they will actually get Measure 98 funding until July, after the beginning of the 2016-17 fiscal year. Business Manager Kevin Strong is estimating $270,000 at this point.

Last Friday, Supt. Tom Yahraes told SHHS Principal Ralph Brown to start planning the program for next school year, despite the uncertainty.

“We’re not going to be complacent,” Yahraes said. “We’re going to be bold and move forward with it. We can’t be static and wait till next year.”

The district will move forward in its budget, assuming that it will have access to Measure 98 money, Yahraes said. The school will need a teacher with a “partnering” license, and it will need to develop career and technical education classes for credit in natural resources, engineering and related areas, with tracks and pathways leading to careers and higher education.

“I’m excited,” said Brown, who has substantial experience working with similar Future Farmers of America programs in his previous school, McLoughlin High School in Milton-Freewater, and whose son is participating in the Forestry Club.

“I’m very excited. Since I arrived here and started to get to know the community, forestry has been one of the big positive things. All of us think this is a good thing for the kids in the community.”

These students, FFA, 4-H and forestry, are good groups of students, Brown said. At the recent state convention, “they represented the school well – that’s just the club side.”

Brown said he wants to make sure the program has longevity and will remain in place long-term.

“Now comes a little bit of work finding the right person,” Brown said. “We need to go out there now. We’re starting to look really hard.”

Yahraes is moving fast on this, Brown said. Normally, adding a program like this would take place over an extended period. Instead, he’s got a green light to move forward. The only question before “signing” someone on is to make sure of the money.

Nichol said that it is “marvelous that they’re doing this.

“Great for kids.”

He has resigned as adviser this year to spend more time with his family, he said. This year, parent Niki Stafford, who has helped for the past five years, has begun taking over Nichol’s duties.

“I don’t plan on being completely out of it,” Nichol said. He said he’ll help if others in the program need or want him to, but he plans to work more behind the scenes, to be a go-between with the program and the industry and to handle discipline.

Nichol remains passionate about educating students in forestry and natural resources. The timber industry remains at the heart of the Sweet Home community – although SHHS hasn’t had a forestry class since 1984 – and the community should be demanding a program, he said.

“That turf field (Husky Field) was built by timber and (timber-related) construction,” Nichol said. “This is one way that our school system can give back.”

It’s an opportunity for Sweet Home graduates, Nichol said. Timber jobs pay well, and jobs are widely available.

Alumnus Karla Burcham, who worked for Weyerhaeuser at the time and reminded Nichol of the school’s old forestry program, helped him organize the current Forestry Club in 2007.

Sweet Home timber industry members jumped on the opportunity and have continued to support it by donating money, product and equipment. Those supporters include Weyerhaeuser, the Friends of Paul Bunyan, Rice Logging, Burke Logging, Melcher Logging, THI, Timberline Logging and McCollum Logging.

“We’ve put back a number of people into the industry,” Nichol said. Rice Logging has employed 11 of his students.

“This is a huge thing for the businesses of Sweet Home that we as a district can give back. There are three kids in our school system right now that are going to be forest engineers.”

“It needs to be expanded,” said Ted Hufford, who owns Timberline Logging, is a member of the Friends of Paul Bunyan Foundation board of directors and has recently employed three workers who were part of Scio’s forestry program. “They come with a little bit of knowledge. It’s nice.”

The program gives students an advantage if they’re looking for work, he said. “They’re absolutely a step ahead.”

They know what a choker is, he said. They know how to set a choker. They know know the basics.

Timber remains a huge part of the Oregon economy, Hufford said. “It’s a much needed commodity.”

And jobs are available in the industry.

“I could put five people on right now,” Hufford said, and only two of those positions require experience.

At a recent logging conference, loggers were discussing how to get more youths interested in the timber industry, Hufford said. The industry has jobs available, and those jobs pay well, from $16 to $25 per hour, with benefits.

Hufford said he can’t think of many jobs for an 18-year-old that pay as well.

Brown said he’s been able to see first-hand what this program can mean for students.

One sophomore was involved in sports when he was younger, but since reaching high school he lost interest in sports and wasn’t very involved in school activities, Brown said. Instead, he has become more interested in cars, racing and welding – and he got involved with the Forestry Club.

“He’s one of our top kids,” Brown said. “He has a family here – a forestry family.”