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PCHS forestry program climbing to the top

The Pocahontas County High School Forestry team, from left: Cora Hedrick, Kyle Cohenour, Jacob Jones, Noah Barkley and teacher Scott Garber. This year, three of the four members were named the top three forestry students in the state competition. Photo courtesy of Scott Garber

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

When the Pocahontas County High School Career and Technical Education [CTE] department implemented the new Simulated Workplace curriculum, it wasn’t much of a change for the forestry department.

“It’s kind of what we were doing before,” forestry teacher Scott Garber said. “Now it just has a title and the kids actually established their company. The name they decided on a couple of years ago was Axe Avenger Forestry Services. They establish all the company rules – more or less – and procedures and policies. With that, it’s kind of run just like a company.”

As a company, the students decide who will take the positions of crew foreman, safety officer, equipment manager, technology officer and more.

The rest is class as usual – learning the ins and outs of forestry including tree species, timber cruising, sawmilling, tree diseases and much more.

Garber has tried over the years to show students – with the help of guest speakers and fellow foresters – that forestry is much more than knowing species and how to properly cut down a tree.

“That’s one thing that I really want the kids to see is that it’s not just, ‘I’m going to be a timber cutter,’ ‘I’m going to be a skidder operator or a dozer operator,’” he said. “That’s all great. We need those, but there is the veneer buyer. There is a computer programmer. I went to college with a guy – he got two forestry degrees. He’s a computer programmer that made cruising software for the company he worked for.

“There’s so many different aspects,” Garber continued. “There’s an arborist climbing trees and you could move to the city and be an urban forester and diagnose tree problems. There’s so many options.”

Along with class work and projects for the community, the forestry department participates in the annual state competition – an event where the PCHS team is a juggernaut to defeat.

This year, three of the four members of the PCHS team were the top three forestry students in West Virginia. The fourth would have rounded out the top, leading the school to sweep the top four if not for a scantron test issue.

“That would have only happened three times in competition history and the competition started in 1986,” Garber said. “The other two times were Pocahontas County.”

The students were disappointed, but just knowing the scores put them in the top four was enough to come home with their heads held high.

“It’s a pretty special group,” he said.

While the students are focused on the task at hand that weekend, there is still time during the competition to enjoy themselves.

Garber said this year he took the students on a tour of the West Virginia University campus, the Cooper’s Rock State Forest research forest and a new, exciting tour – the WVU tree canopy tour.

“Most people say it’s just a zipline course, but it’s a STEM program that they can explain as you’re going through the zipline tour in the tree canopy,” he said. “They explain the math and physics and the why and how the zipline works and why certain trees are selected.”

Usually the forestry students don’t get to have their feet off the ground, up in the trees during class, but in previous classes, Garber was able to offer an intro to arboriculture class where students were able to use climbing gear and get into the trees and learn about urban forestry and how to safely climb trees.

The forestry department has a well-rounded curriculum which covers much more than “this is how you cut down a tree.” As well as learning how to timber, the students are learning the importance of conservation.

“That’s actually my favorite part,” Garber said. “So, we do the cruising, but then you get into the actual management. We’re actually growing more [trees] now than possibly we ever have in the state of West Virginia. Part of that reason is because things are managed in the correct way, depending on the site and the composition of the forest. That, to me, is the fun part.

“There’s doing things in the right and correct way versus, ‘all right, I just want to cut it all down.’”

Part of the reason PCHS students are so successful and well-rounded in their forestry education is because the school is surrounded by forests which are readily available for them to study.

“I think one thing that our program has that most programs in the state that have forestry don’t have is we have woodland as part of our school,” Garber said. “A kid can go from forestry 1 – learning their trees and measuring a couple trees here and there – to where, in our advanced class, we can talk about ID a little bit more and how you would do management for each little individual species – what would they need – but then we could cruise it. We could go through the management techniques. Then we can do the harvesting part – we can cut it and they can see the product of what they decided.

“Some of that, we can mill out in the sawmill, so they can see it from beginning to end,” he continued. “A lot of times, college students don’t even get to see that.”

Between the school’s forest and the forests around the county, the students are constantly exposed to new projects – some of which may not have anything to do with trees so much as clearing out brush.

“We’re always open for new things,” Garber said. “Last year, we went and the [Durbin] Lions Club, Bob Sheets got us working with clearing a historical graveyard in Frank. That was pretty neat. We got a nice history lesson there. That was pretty cool and it was a cemetery that was completely covered with brush and bramble, and everything else. We actually located six or eight graves that were covered up.”

That lesson covered something that many would mention in passing instead of covering it properly – the forest floor. A forester has to think not only about the trees, but the forest floor where the trees are rooted.

“Things like that can really ruin someone’s forest,” Garber said. “If you get grapevines up there and they hold their leaves, and you get a bunch of snowfall, that’s so much weight on a tree that it wouldn’t normally have.”

Field trips to do projects like the cemetery clean-up are possible now because last year the forestry department was able to purchase a van due to funds from a project at the Green Bank Observatory.

With the van, Garber and his students visit college forestry departments – including Glenville State College, Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, Potomac State College and West Virginia University – as well as job sites and forestry businesses.

Recently, the students visited the site of a helicopter forestry job.

“Last spring we had our forty years of forestry [picnic] and we had a good turnout for that,” Garber said. “That led to a few more contacts and that’s how we got to go to the helicopter job. John Paul Burks – talking to him there and then talking to him in the fall – he said, ‘hey, let’s get you over here to look at this.’ The first thing he said when we walked into the mill, within a few minutes, was, ‘fellows, there’s jobs and there are good paying jobs.’”

Having connections with both the colleges and professionals, Garber is able to set his students up for the future in whatever direction they plan to go.

“I think those professionals will tell you that contacts and just putting faces to names and knowing interests – in the forestry world, those contacts are a big deal,” he said. “We’ve got connections, so there are avenues for the kids.”

As forestry continues to grow as an industry, Garber and his students will continue to grow their program and competitive team for the future.

Fourth in a series about the CTE programs at Pocahontas County High School

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