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UC Berkeley Web Feature

2 forestry students

Students Zachary Wasserman and Wesley Stratton at forestry field camp.

(Cathy Cockrell photos)

Forestry from the ground up
Wildfire, wildlife, soil, timber, people — managing our woodlands looks anything but simple from UC Berkeley's venerable classroom in the Sierra

Forestry camp multimedia

Student examining a wood sample. Get a glimpse of student life at camp. Flash slide show

Student profiles
 Theo Slomoff An Olympic swimmer, a future forester who grows tomatoes, a former gang member who hopes to practice environmental law ... Meet some of the students at camp this summer. Flash presentation

Plumas County voices
 Lorena GorbettA forest-fire expert, a timber operator, members of the Maidu tribe.... Local leaders discuss issues facing rural communities. Flash presentation

— It was 90 years ago that four University of California students set out to learn forest science from a tent encampment in the northeastern Sierra, eight miles outside the town of Quincy. "Arrived in Meadow Valley and found … the four boys all incapacitated because of sunburned feet which they got fishing from a raft at Silver Lake," wrote Woodbridge Metcalf, an instructor with UC's fledgling forestry program, in his diary on July 5, 1917. Only half the class finished the program. A war was on and two students left at midsummer to join the Army.

Initial attrition notwithstanding, the idea of learning forestry in a forest, from soil to canopy, was an idea with legs, as the 48 students just home from UC Berkeley Forestry Field Camp  — and generations of Cal forestry grads before them — can attest. Since its early years, the summer program has been a touchstone experience for many working in forestry, says Keith Gilless, interim dean of Berkeley's College of Natural Resources (CNR) and director of the field program. "The list of its former grad-student teaching assistants," he says, "reads like a who's who of forestry in California." Alums have gone on to prominence in the timber industry, as well as to state and federal land-management agencies, environmental organizations, and academia.

The eight-week program totals 10 undergraduate units; forestry majors (for whom it's required) typically attend between their sophomore and junior years. "It makes upper-division classes more tangible," and abstract concepts easier to retain, says Gilless. Non-majors can earn a minor in forestry by attending camp and taking one additional offering from a prescribed list of courses.

Classroom and field

From its humble beginnings on the banks of Schneider Creek, the field camp now features a large dining hall, faculty cabins, and a rudimentary communications infrastructure (wooden phone booth, mess-hall Wi-Fi, a computer lab under construction). Students room in wooden bunkhouses or more primitive two-person "shanties" that feature screening rather than windows. Instruction is given in a rustic one-room classroom, built in 1921 and now named for Professor Emanuel Fritz, a major figure in California forestry (and forestry at Cal) for most of the 20th century.

Site of past wildfire near Antelope Lake. Site of past wildfire near Antelope Lake.


"We got up in the morning, had breakfast together, went to class in a one-room schoolhouse with an iron stove. I loved that," says camp alumna Gina Lopez, a forestry major. "It's such an old facility, and dozens of classes before me attended class in that very room."

Then, typically, students travel in vans to field sites — to look for flora and fauna, collect data, meet working foresters, observe the results of varied forest-management schemes and the aftermath of catastrophic wildfires. On one such assignment this summer, students hunted for threatened plant and animal species. "We never found ours," laments Yamile Colque, whose group was assigned Mimulus pygmaeus, a tiny monkey flower native to meadows around Plumas County's Lake Almanor. "A lot of the girls were really disappointed. They were like 'We're going to find it, no matter how long it takes!'"

Three weeks are devoted to Sierra Nevada ecology, adding a handful of new species each day to students' knowledge base. "Everything else would have been impossible without that," says CNR student Theo Slomoff, a San Francisco native to whom "every tree looked the same" when he first landed at camp. Learning to tell a Jeffrey pine from a Ponderosa is empowering, and sets the stage for weeks 4 through 8, on forest management (a.k.a. silviculture), forest measurement, and forest operations.

Stasis and change

Many aspects of the summer curriculum have changed little over the years. Students still spend "as much time in the woods as possible," says Gilless. "This is our great opportunity to get them out of doors." And they must still learn to ID dozens of native tree and herbaceous plant species. Mastery of traditional surveying techniques is no longer emphasized, however. Instead, 21st-century foresters are often called upon to do public speaking — so students are asked throughout the summer to present their findings to the group.

 3 female students
Students (L to R) Yamile Colque, Melissa Chun, and Sarah Ismail.

Who comes to forestry camp is evolving, as well. It was not until 1953 that a female student attended. Today women slightly outnumber men (and have for at least a decade), and there's far more ethnic diversity than in early years. Where the program once served forestry majors exclusively, this summer's student roster included more than 30 undergrads (and a few grad students) from other departments under CNR's big tent.

"One of the exciting things about CNR is that there are these wildly divergent views," notes Louise Fortmann, professor of natural-resource sociology in the college's environmental science, policy and management department. There are molecular biologists jazzed about bioengineering as well as students dead set against GMO "Frankenfoods," students who aspire to careers in the timber industry and those who categorically reject commercial tree harvesting, particularly on public land.

When students on opposing sides of such questions engage with each other, Fortmann says, their debates can be ferocious, and yet useful — "if people are actually dealing with data, and not just saying 'I take this position; you're an idiot, or a sinner.' " Some students have a "very rhetorical view of the world; the phrase 'capitalist pig' comes naturally to their lips," she notes. "We can make lots of critiques of capitalist business. But I say 'you shouldn't let your rhetoric outrun your data.'"

The human dimension

By design, it's hard to leave summer field camp with a simplistic view of forests or forestry. Abstract notions and strict rhetoric butt up against considerations as mundane, say, as how to finance a forest-management measure dictated by good science. Your plan might be stellar, but can you make it fly?

This summer CNR complicated the picture further by including for the first time a week-long unit on rural community issues as they relate to forestry, led by Fortmann and her first UC Berkeley doctoral student, Jonathan Kusel '91. Now founding director of the Plumas County-based Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, Kusel noted that foresters need to know plants and animals, of course, but also to understand the economic and social issues facing rural communities and their residents — who in California are not only loggers, ranchers, and farmers but also, increasingly, urban exiles, migrant workers, retirees, and second-home owners, among others.

Mimulus pygmaeus (Egg Lake Monkeyflower)
Mimulus pygmaeus. (Steve Schoenig photo)

To that end, students met with local leaders and stakeholders — a timber-company owner, a county supervisor, U.S. foresters, local Maidu tribe members, a member of the Quincy Library Group (a renowned citizen's group that drafted its own forest-management plan) — and visited new housing developments along the shores of Lake Almanor. Later, at a working meeting of a watershed advisory group, they heard locals wrestle with how to protect a fragile meadow being impacted by recreational vehicles. Members of the committee showed keen interest when Sarah Ismail — one of those students who had hunted in vain, weeks before, for Mimulus pygmaeus — raised her hand to mention that the meadow under discussion was one of the few known habitats for a threatened species of monkey flower.

'A big family'

Those who have been to forestry camp tend to maintain strong connections through the Cal Forestry Club, as students, and later as California Alumni Foresters (CAF). They keep up time-honored traditions like the club's annual Christmas tree sale and the alumni group's summer picnic at camp, and give generously to an endowment fund that helps defray students' summer expenses. "It's sort of a big family," says Al Stangenberger, CAF's executive secretary for nearly 25 years.

What makes the place so memorable for so many is its mix of academic instruction, hands-on field experience, and social bonding in the woods at a formative time in students' lives. "Here you're learning even when you're not trying. You're immersed in it," says 2007 participant Sarah Heard. "What struck me most, and what stays with me, is the camaraderie," says Lopez, "the sense of community among the students and professors, even the staff, like the cooks."

Class time in the woods. 

"Numerous events of note, such as great strings of fish, collections of rattlesnakes that escape, wild animals that die, and chipped fingers and toes, tend to repeat every few years," longtime Berkeley lecturer Paul Casamajor wrote in Forestry Education at UC: The First 50 Years. "But some years appear to carry a special character," he added — citing Snowy Year (1922), Naked Camp (1927), and Mumps Camp (1937) as examples. In that vein, 2007 may go down as the year of Knitting Camp, in honor of a cohort of students who — guided by an experienced yarn artist in their ranks — fashioned scarves, socks, baby blankets, even an eye patch and a loin cloth (the latter made in haste once a contest, with prizes, was announced for the last day of camp).

Knitters and non-knitters alike have now moved on — a few to life after Berkeley, most to fall semester. "Life in civilization is more of an adjustment than I'd thought," Slomoff reported soon after his return to campus. "The weirdest part by far is seeing former campers in fancy clothes, showered and clean-shaven."

Hopefully, students have also gone through changes that a comb can't touch. Gilless puts it this way: An aspiring timber operator, say, eats breakfast all summer next to an environmental activist. "On campus those two students might have difficulty finding each other and becoming friends." But life at camp tends to shatter stereotypes, leaving many with "a richer understanding of people who look at forests from very different perspectives."

As it happens, he notes, respectful dialogue between warring factions is precisely what's needed if we're to restore our troubled and much-contested forests.

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