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PCHS forestry class goes high tech


Logging is one of the world’s oldest industries, that started with cavemen chopping down trees with stone axes. Nowadays, many loggers use high-tech, computerized equipment to do their jobs faster and more efficiently. An important aspect of logging is the timber cruise, a sample measurement of a forest to estimate the amount and type of standing timber that the forest contains.

For centuries, loggers used a pencil and paper to record data from timber cruises. Many loggers continue to use this technique, but many have switched to handheld computers. Thanks to a local teacher’s initiative, students at Pocahontas County High School have the opportunity to get hands-on training with the new multi-function devices.

PCHS has maintained one of the best forestry programs in the U.S. A wall full of awards from national and state competitions attests to the quality of the program.

Scott Garber is in his fourth year as forestry teacher at PCHS. Garber graduated from PCHS in 1994, where he was a standout student and athlete. He earned forestry-related degrees at Glenville State and WVU and went to work as a forest manager in 2000. After four years of managing a 30,000-acre forest in Southern West Virginia, the young man went West.

“It was always a dream to get out West,” he said. “I think anybody in the forestry field probably wants to go out there for a little while, whether it’s fighting fire or what-not.”

Garber worked for the Forest Service for two years in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, in a project called Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA). He completed his mission in the rugged western mountains and headed back East to a Forest Service job in Tennessee. After a short stint in Nashville, Garber accepted a four-year term job in New York State, where he worked on another FIA project in the Adirondack Mountains. With six months left at his New York job, Garber started looking for a new position.

“I was down to three months,” he said. “I’d been looking for three months prior to that and hadn’t found anything. It just so happened, I talked to somebody here at PCHS and they told me, ‘Mr. Burns has just put in his paperwork to retire at the end of the year.’ So I called Mike up and he said, ‘I think you should put in your name.’”

In 2010, Garber took over the program, made so strong by former forestry teacher Mike Burns. This year, Garber decided that his students needed to start learning how to use state-of-the-art equipment being used in the field.

“The way things are headed with forest inventory, it’s all computer-based now, or it’s getting to that point,” he said. “People still do it all hand-written and make their stand and stock tables, which are important, as far as timber cruises and selling timber and land management. They are done now on a handheld computer.”

Garber used his industry connections to get good deals on four handheld computers for his class.

“Through some grant money and the generosity of a company that has these handheld computers, and the company that made the software, we were lucky enough to get four of these with the software, which saved us about $10,000,” he said. “We’re probably the only high school, or one of two or three in the country, that has this technology.”

Earth Vector Systems,of Charlottesville, Virginia, gave the school a generous discount on the computers.

“I talked to the folks who carry the handhelds and being educational, they gave us a huge discount,” Garber said.

The forestry teacher stresses the importance of establishing and maintaining good professional relationships.

“I tell this to the kids, ‘Don’t burn your bridges, just meet as many people as you can and make connections, you never know when you’re going to need them.’”

Garber’s good relationship with a former employer helped the school obtain free software for the handheld computers, saving the school thousands of dollars.

“The Cruise Control program actually was developed at the company I used to work for, Landmark Forestry,” he said. “The way they looked at it, just through talking to me, they know the history of the program, how many graduates we send to Glenville and WVU. They gave us the Cruise Control program for free.”

Garber’s students will continue to learn the old-fashioned method.

“They’ll learn the basics of the pen and paper, because I think that’s still important, to see how far it’s come,” he said. “You never know what could happen. You’re not always going to have a company that has these. When I was at Glenville, we still had to do everything pen and paper and know all the math behind it.”

The Trimble Juno handheld computers include data input capabilities, maps, a camera and a built-in GPS, which shows the user’s exact location. Garber is training himself how to use the new devices and will start teaching students soon.

“As soon as I can wrap my head around all of it and make sure we get all the bugs out, we’re going to jump right in with it with the students,” he said.

PCHS students have the option to take one to four years of forestry. Garber said eight to 12 students normally complete all four years. Class teams, consisting of four students, have won many state and national competitions, which are organized by the Future Farmers of America. The class is beneficial for students interested in careers directly out of high school, and also for those who plan to pursue college degrees.

“The county and the state are forestry-driven,” said Garber. “It’s a big industry here and there’s a lot of interest. A lot of students have always been interested. When I was in school, the classes were always full. Since I came back, the classes have generally been full.

“We learn a lot of local West Virginia tree species and we learn forest measurements, ecology and wildlife aspects. The farther you go along, we get into forest management and stuff like the different types of cuts, how to manage timber land, BMPs [best management practices], watersheds and we get into insects and diseases and invasive species.”

Advanced students produce lumber, using the school’s portable sawmill and kiln.

“Toward the end, when we’re getting ready to graduate, you can take a harvesting class,” said Garber. “They learn to run a chain saw safely and different felling techniques. They can actually see a tree, measure it standing in the woods, mill it out, see it in the kiln, and if they buy some lumber, they can actually put it in a building or a house. They can see a tree from step one all the way through.”

The teacher maintains contact with several class and competition alumni, who have been successful in the industry. He plans to organize an alumni group.

“My goal is to get a group of all the former state teams and start an alumni group and, hopefully, in the next couple years, maybe set up a scholarship for the top-scoring person or for all four team members, if it goes well enough,” he said.

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