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August 2004

Reading, Writing and Rangering

Plus surveying, ax-throwing and forest management. Welcome to higher education in Wanakena

Calling the Ranger School in Wanakena a tight-knit community would be an understatement. All of this year’s forty-three students fit easily in the new—and only—lecture hall on campus. Pine rafters lend a rustic touch to sleek desks with laptop ports. The students take all their classes together, today a seminar on identifying birdcalls. When it’s over, they stuff notepads and books into backpacks and file out.

Christopher Westbrook, the school’s director, breezes in. A fifty-something in wire-rimmed glasses and a logger-plaid button-down, he shouts, “Back inside, don’t leave yet!” The students return nervously to their seats, anticipating an impromptu lecture on Friday night’s antics in the lounge or the mess in the dorm kitchen.

The school’s five faculty members stand against one wall. Administrative, kitchen and most of the maintenance staff sit in the front row. Virtually the entire Ranger School is in attendance—about sixty people.

Westbrook takes the podium. “Today’s not the day my neck veins pop out and I go crazy. Today’s a nice day.” The tension breaks. “Today’s the day we want to recognize your performance from last semester.”

This is the midyear awards ceremony. As professors hand out scholarships and praise, students cheer as their colleagues come forward. Westbrook beams throughout the proceedings. There are ripples of laughter at inside jokes.

“We had no clue. This was a total surprise,” Kevin Murphy recalls later. The 2004 class president, Murphy won an award for ex­cellence in surveying. Being recognized in front of the entire school, he says, is special. “At other schools you don’t have the whole class there. Here, when somebody receives an award, everyone in the class understands that’s a big deal because everyone in the class went through it.”

The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry Ranger School, known simply as the Ranger School, is an anomaly in higher education. Founded in 1912, it’s the country’s oldest continuously operating forest-technician school (Paul Smith’s College matriculated its first class in 1946). It’s a place where everyone knows everyone’s name, where skipping class or sleeping late is unheard of, where the campus bookstore is in the village general store, where the only athletic team throws axes instead of footballs and where classes are held outdoors as often as indoors. It’s also a place known for physical and mental rigor, where it’s not unusual to snowshoe several miles in subzero temperatures to survey a plot of land and where students hunch over protractors and drafting paper at library tables late into the night. Graffiti on a dorm room door puts it best: “Class: 4 hrs. Lab: 4 hrs. Meals: 2 hrs. Worktime: 12 hrs. Staying Alive: priceless.”

A long haul from anywhere, the hamlet of Wanakena (year-round population: sixty-five) is tucked deep in the northwest Adirondack woods. The Ranger School is another couple of miles down a dead-end road, about 150 miles from its parent institution, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, in Syracuse. The road meanders past a few primitive camps and the Pinecone Restaurant, where generations of alumni remember tipping a few. The drive ends at a wide flow of the Os­wegatchie River less than a mile before it empties into Cranberry Lake. In winter, the road gets less traffic than the river it parallels, where snowmobiles whiz by all day.

One building dominates the campus: a long sandy-brown edifice from the 1920s, when schools, hospitals and prisons were built to look equally proud. A couple of maintenance garages, houses for faculty and alumni, a tennis court, an athletic field with basketball courts, and a twenty-eight-hundred-acre forest complete the property.

Every student lives, eats and studies inside the main building (students with families sometimes live in the hamlet). Class size fluctuates between forty and sixty. Thirty-six men and seven women make up the class of 2004. Their single year at the school is the second in a two-year associate in applied science degree in forest technology. The first year consists of thirty credit hours in English, precalculus, economics and biology from any accredited college.

The Ranger School is a lot like a study-abroad program. Instead of soaking in the linguistic and cultural differences of Paris or Bangkok, students leave their home campuses behind to learn the language of the woods. Some are city-bred and know almost nothing about nature; others have been hanging around with woodsmen or hikers all their lives. Either way, the curriculum is based on the premise that a well-trained forester first needs a strong vocabulary. “If you have no knowledge of the forest whatsoever,” associate professor James Savage tells his students, “it’s like going into an art gallery with all the paintings facing the wall.”

The first classes are in dendrology, learning to identify trees and plants, with leaves and without. “When I came here, I loved the woods, going out hunting, camping, hiking, but I didn’t know much,” says Nathan Waterfield, a stocky nineteen-year-old with a bushy black beard who came from northwestern Pennsylvania to prepare for a ca­reer as a forest ranger. “Now I go into the woods and start identifying trees, and my friends are like, ‘Shut up already!’ It’s so much more of a reward to go into the woods now.”

The students are rewarded after graduation, too. Some alumni go on to become forest rangers, conservation officers and technicians with New York’s Department of En­viron­mental Conservation; others are forest and watershed technicians and wildfire fighters with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the school’s name is something of a misnomer; graduates also work as land managers, construction inspectors, surveyors and lumber purchasers with private firms. Of the two most recent classes, forty-three percent of graduates got full- or part-time jobs in forestry, thirteen percent in surveying. Almost half of the students continued on to a four-year degree. Only one or two students a year end up dropping out.

“The most important attribute of the Ranger School grads is the work ethic,” says Jim Thew, principal of Thew Associates, a surveying firm based in Canton. A third of Thew’s staff are Wanakena alumni. “They’re not afraid to go out and cut a lot of brush or run long traverses. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing. These kids will come out and do anything for you.”

Discipline and hard work permeate every facet of the school. A typical day starts at nine o’clock with classes on silviculture, forest ecology, forest measurements and statistics, surveying, timber harvesting, plant pathology, and wildlife and recreation. After lunch students and instructors head to the school’s sprawling experimental forest for lab work. They learn to design and build roads and trails, survey a parcel of land, use and fix a chain saw or assess and contain a wildfire. Director Westbrook says this part of the day is the core of the Ranger School experience. “Here they’re going to get that hands-on experience to be able to work with the people who use the forest: the managers, the loggers, the recreationists and the wildlife people.”

Students eat dinner after classes end at five. “From dinner, you work as long as you can stand it,” says Paul Bragger, a twenty-seven-year-old surveyor from Watertown. “If you want to take it easy, you can work until ten or eleven, then go to bed.” So much for the happy hours and late-night gabbing of the typical college experience.

When people talk about the Ranger School, words like “intensity,” “discipline” and “motivation” are common. Students say the school is for a certain kind of person, meaning ambitious and willing to sacrifice social life for learning the ways of the woods. “If you’ve got the kind of mentality where you’re a procrastinator, you look at everybody else and it kind of puts you in check,” Murphy says. “We drive each other to work harder.” That’s talk that must make the school’s founding fathers nod approvingly.

The Ranger School has a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes history. It was created in 1910 when Rich Lumber Company closed its mills in Wanakena and left behind a burned, denuded wasteland. Forestry as a science was a new idea, and local resident J. Otto Hamele thought the land would make a perfect educational forest. He persuaded Mr. Rich to sell eighteen hundred acres to the College of Forestry at Syracuse University. (The university still holds the deed to the land in trust for SUNY.) Entrance requirements for the inaugural class were bare bones: male, physically fit, eighteen to thirty-five years, grammar-school education, “motivation first in importance.” In September 1912 fourteen students and director Phillip T. Coolidge, a recruit from the Colorado School of Forestry, came by rail and then horse-drawn carriage to the wild north woods.

The thing is, they didn’t have a school to attend. All winter they cut roads, cleared land, built docks and constructed a long shed to serve as a classroom. The shed was supposed to have electricity and steam heat, but reports say neither materialized with any consistency. Students and faculty slept in tents. The academic year ran from March to February, with no time off.

This is perhaps the Ranger School’s prototypical image: its first students, innocent and lean but hard-working, struggling against the howling wind and driving snow to clear a place for their own education. The physical hardship drove away many faculty and directors early on. Sixteen teachers came and went in the first eight years. Still, enrollment grew to thirty-seven students.

The Ranger School’s identity coalesced when a World War I army sergeant took a position as assistant professor of forestry. James Francis Dubuar became director in 1921 and held the position until his retirement in 1957. He implemented a military sense of discipline. “He could be threatening when an­gry and perhaps feared by some students,” recalls Randolph Kerr, a 1947 graduate who be­came a New York forest ranger. Students awoke to reveille, rushed to meals at the sound of a bell, and attended classes weekdays and Saturdays. “Du­buar stressed if you go to work for a man,” says Kerr, “you have to earn your money and give him a day’s work.” Du­buar’s legacy remains the soul of the college today.

Despite its isolation, the Ran­ger School couldn’t hide from changes in the increasingly competitive world of higher education. In the early 1970s the two-semester system re­placed the March to February academic schedule. The bells went silent. Students got Saturdays off. Afternoon errands and weekend getaways to visit family or a girlfriend or boyfriend were possible. “We’re a little bit more relaxed to get in tune with today’s young people,” says Wayne Allen, a 1979 graduate who is now a professor. He re­members silent classrooms with instructors patrolling the aisles.

The college accepted its first female student in 1973. Hilda Webb grew up in a Ranger School family. Her father, Frank Kuhn, graduated in 1927, her uncle ten years later, and her older brother twenty years after that. A horticulturalist for Agway in Potsdam, Webb is a quiet, gentle woman with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. “I wasn’t interested in the traditional women’s jobs. I liked outdoor things,” she explains.

School officials were reluctant to accept a woman. They said they weren’t equipped with the proper facilities, Webb says. “But my father was a persistent person. He wrote letters and telephoned people until they backed down.”

Webb rented a room in Wanakena and walked the mile and a half to school every day. Teachers and students were awkward around her at first. They didn’t swear in her presence and avoided “male” conversation. “No one was outwardly antagonistic. I was just a different kind of species,” Webb recalls. “It was lonely sometimes, but it was worth it.”

She plays down her role of breaking down walls for women in a place known for its masculine toughness. “I still think it’s no big deal,” she says. But six more women matriculated the year after she graduated. Today, of the Ranger School’s 3,758 graduates, 208 are female.

The Ranger School is a different place now; gone is the quasi-military, nose-to-the-grindstone austerity. But Du­buar’s legacy endures in the academic intensity and in the twenty-eight-hundred-acre forest that bears his name. So it’s appropriate that those woods are where the school’s signature work takes place.

The snowdrifts seem a little higher in Wanakena than other places, the wind’s teeth sharper. On a wicked February day, students in Carhartts, wool pants and neon-orange hard hats strap on snowshoes as they stand on the shoulder of Route 3 a few miles from campus. They tromp down an old logging right-of-way. After a few hundred feet, the thick forest breaks the wind and it becomes calm and pleasant. “Did you see what happened when we came over that hill?” associate professor Michael Bridgen shouts from the back of the line. “We didn’t see all these thick beeches and red maple. Keep your eyes on that.”

This afternoon students are learning to eyeball a forest. Even subtle changes in tree density or sunlight teach a lesson. “They can look at individual trees,” Bridgen says, “so then they can evaluate things like standing mortality, the health and vigor of individual trees, the size of the trees. The students are learning to make sound management decisions when they’re out on a job.”

Groups of three split off over snowy ridges to figure how much timber is growing on small plots. Rob Cole, a lanky twenty-year-old from Binghamton, huddles with his partners and surveys the parcel. “It’s got a lot of dieback, a lot of snags in the tops of the trees. There’s a big space right there. So I’m gonna say all the dieback is because it was overstocked.” The other two nod in agreement. Then they measure the diameter of each tree, calling out figures. Cole jots the numbers on a clipboard. The trio re­groups and compares the results to their estimate.

Bridgen clomps over and grills them. “Your guesstimate was overstocked, but now you’re saying understocked.”

“Yeah, because of all the dead timber,” answers Cole, hesitating.

“Right. You gotta take that into account,” Bridgen agrees.

Cole relaxes. This guesswork is a forest technician’s best tool, he says. “If you come up here and do this and it’s poorly stocked, you’re not going to send in the loggers to cut it down, ’cause it wouldn’t be worth their time and you wouldn’t make any money off of it.”

This real-world approach marks the Ranger School’s reputation in the industry, says Douglas Staiger, of Haywood Community College in North Carolina. He chairs a committee that certifies twenty-five two-year forest-technology programs in eighteen states and three Canadian provinces for the Society of American Foresters. Staiger cites the school’s experimental forest as a major asset. “It’s right on their doorstep,” he says, “and it’s been used so long just for education that the stands have been developed specifically as a teaching forest.”

In the Adirondack Park, the James F. Dubuar Forest occupies a special niche. As Syracuse University property and a designated teaching forest, it’s exempt from the “forever wild” regulations that govern public land in the park. Years of experimental logging, selective cutting and surveying have given the tract a more spacious look than the blowdown-choked woods in the nearby Five Ponds Wilderness Area. Wanakena students are quick to highlight the difference between a managed forest and a wild one. “The best thing isn’t necessarily to let a forest go, like in these wilderness areas,” explains student Nathan Waterfield. “We specifically did our pathology exercises in the wild forests because it’s so infested with disease and stuff. I want people to know you can go into a woods, harvest trees, manage it for our use and still [have] a healthy forest.”

Those may be alarming words to certain preservationists. But people at all levels of the Ranger School say the debate between conservation and utilization of the forest has become too polarized. “We’re trying to create a balance,” says Westbrook. “We want to take the tree hugger and the clear-cutter and try to bring them together.”

Caleb Combs, a twenty-four-year-old from Warrensburg, admits he’d thought all logging was bad until he came to the Ranger School. “We could take ninety percent of your environmentalists and show them what we see,” he says.

“Same for your hard-core loggers,” echoes Angela King, of Stanley, New York, whose e-mail name is horseloggergal. “We’re talking about stereotypes, but people who think there’s just one way to log or manage could get a really good picture planted in their head here.”

This sense of balance may be the Ranger School’s greatest contribution to the region. “It’s a venue to move out of the often strident debate about the park and its lands,” says Adirondack Park Agency chairman Ross Whaley. He was president of the Ranger School’s parent institution, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, for sixteen years. “The very education that the students get ideally gives them a way of thinking that would allow them to enter the debate a little bit differently than simply Joe Citizen, who may not be knowledgeable about the way forests grow.”

The students also gain something less tangible in the woods. Despite the long, deep winters and the springs thick with blackflies, they learn to be at ease outdoors. As Bridgen’s silviculture class wraps up its projects for the day, some students fall back into the snow and gaze up at the canopy. They meet up in a narrow ravine off the trail, hack down dead branches and build a roaring fire in the snow. “Where else can you do this?” chuckles one student as laughter echoes through a stand of sugar maples.

While the Ranger School stands by its hands-on, no-nonsense roots, it’s also working hard to stay relevant. Last year the school unveiled a six-million-dollar expansion (the first major renovation since 1960) that added a new dining room, more dormitories, a computer lab and a lecture hall. It also debuted a new concentration in surveying that adds another level of professionalism to the associate degree.

One late Friday afternoon in the computer room the surveying students are slouched at their monitors. Dressed in T-shirts, sweats, baseball caps and sandals, they act like this is their living room. In a way it is; their dorm rooms are just down the hall. On his screen Jeremy Reppel, of Remsen, has three windows open: Autodesk’s Carlson Survey 2004, the latest in surveying software; CBS SportsLine to follow the March Madness basketball scores; and an audio program to play DJ for the rest of the class. He clicks, and the theme song to Cheers (“where everybody knows your name . . .”) plays soothingly from the speakers. Unlike the Du­buar days, music is allowed in class now, although it’s still controversial (a recent faculty meeting was dedicated to the topic).

Alumni and faculty agree the biggest change over the years has been the advancement of technology. As surveying professor Mike Webb, class of 1974, shuttles from student to student answering questions, he remembers the old days. “The square-root key on a calculator was a big deal when I went to school here.” Today students use drafting software and printers, surveying calculators that can upload global positioning information, and computer programs that model timber harvests. One of the school’s biggest challenges is keeping up with technological changes in the industry on a state university budget.

Still, students spend much of the first semester with compasses, protractors, square rules and graph pa­per, sometimes to their chagrin. One student joked that on a recent visit to the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, he saw grainy photographs of old-time foresters using the same equipment he was trained on last week.

“It’s a thing that comes up every year,” comments professor Wayne Allen. “What they’re probably referring to is that they’d just like to punch a button and have it draw a line. I’m having them draw a line with a pencil and ink. There will be times when you’re in the field and you can’t bring your calculator and you have to know how to do things the old-fashioned way.” This struggle to incorporate technology into an institution known best for its old-fashioned work ethic reflects a basic dichotomy.

The Ranger School stands with one foot in the past and one in the present. Its campus is austere compared to most colleges—no bustling activities center, campus radio station or food court. Its students plan for a Friday night bonfire rather than taking in a concert or heading to a frat party. Even the industry the school serves is looking more and more like an anachronism, with paper mills go­ing quiet and timber giants going global at an alarming pace.

Yet it continues to enjoy a strong reputation. It’s a flagship of two-year forestry education, says the Society of American Foresters’s Douglas Staiger. And enrollment is holding steady.

Every student interviewed for this story gushed about the Ranger School. Class president Kevin Murphy swears he’d have been kicked out of any other college without the discipline and work ethic. But as the winter snows melt into spring mud, the workload starts to grind, and the late nights become more stressful than heroic. There’s an inspirational message many students have taped on their dorm room doors that captures the Ranger School’s impact: “Looking forward to missing this place.” The students will go on to embrace new opportunities, challenges and technologies, but there will always be something enduring about a fundamental education in the woods based on discipline and hard work.

David Sommerstein is a reporter and producer for North Country Public Radio. He lives in Pierrepont.

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