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Early Forestry Education
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Auburn University’s summer forestry camp for high school students helps prepare the next generation of land managers.



By Becky Barlow and John Kush


On warm June mornings, you might notice groups of students in forests near Auburn, Alabama.  Listen and you might hear cicadas hum in the distance, the clinking of logger’s tapes and the unmistakable squeak of an increment borer biting into a pine. There is a murmur of voices as an Auburn University professor moves from group to group.


These are not, however, college students. They are high school participants in a forestry camp as part of Auburn’s summer youth programs. This fourth-annual, week-long residential camp, scheduled this year from June 25-30, gives students ages 15 to 18 the opportunity to learn about the profession of forestry and the management of associated natural resources. 


The camp was inspired by a discussion with high school teachers at an Alabama education conference five years ago. The teachers expressed frustration that there were limited options for students to learn about natural resource management as a profession. Alabama is the nation’s third-most forested state – two out of every three acres – but Auburn did not have a forestry camp along the lines of its many sports or academic summer offerings for high school students. Thus, the idea for a high school forestry camp at Auburn was born.


Those teachers were right, of course. Forestry is important to Alabama. The state has a rich forest history dating back to the early 1800s when sawmills began to appear along dammed streams. Often developed in conjunction with gristmills, mechanical power to these early sawmills was supplied by water wheels. Small communities grew up around the mills, which produced planks, shingles, clapboards, barrel staves and shipbuilding parts helping fuel economic development.


Forestry and related manufacturing sectors still play a vital role to Alabama’s economy, ranking second only to automobile manufacturing. Once the need for a high school forestry camp was identified, the question became how to make it happen.


Thankfully, Auburn’s Office of Professional and Continuing Education (OPCE) has an experienced summer camp development team as part of its Auburn Youth Programs. They have organized successful camps like the Fisheries and Aquaculture Camp hosted by Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) and Auburn University Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures Department. It was a natural choice for ACES and Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences (SFWS) faculty and staff to work with Auburn Youth Programs to develop a hands-on camp curriculum that would give students an opportunity to get outdoors and learn about forestry in Alabama.


Student campers live on the Auburn campus for the duration of the weeklong program.  They arrive on a Sunday afternoon where they are greeted by Auburn Youth Program councilors who help them with the registration process. Camp participants have 24-hour supervision by trained camp counselors who take them to meals, along with evening social and recreational activities, giving students the opportunity to experience campus life in a safe and supervised setting.


 Once they are settled into their dorm rooms, students enjoy a pizza party, tour the Auburn campus, and review rules and expectations for the week with camp staff. Each day, students are taken by their counselors to breakfast as a group and then head to the SFWS building for class. Alabama Extension and SFWS faculty and staff serve as instructors for classroom and field lab portions of the camp from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Counselors are present during all activities. After the daily sessions, students and counselors leave the camp instructors for dinner and evening activities, which may include swimming, kickball, and karaoke.


On the first full day of camp, Monday, students learn about forestry in Alabama, the importance of weather and climate to forests, and go into the field to collect soil samples and learn classification techniques - all before lunch. They return to the classroom after lunch to learn map reading and the basics of tree identification. 


On the second day, students return to the SFWS, where they learn about tree identification, how to compass and pace, and measure tree diameters. After a break for lunch they learn how to measure tree heights and make a personalized cruisers staff that is both a Biltmore stick and Merritt Hypsometer.


On the third day, Wednesday, students participate in a fun geocaching activity using professional-grade GPS units and learn how forestry is an important part of wildlife management. On Thursday, students learn how to install a circular plot in the forest to sample trees, use a prism to calculate basal area, and bore trees to estimate tree growth and age. That afternoon they get to see forestry equipment like skidders and fellerbunchers up close, and learn how they are used to improve forest health and harvest forests. 


Friday is the final day of camp where the students participate in a “Forestry Conclave” event. It’s a friendly competition that tests their newly acquired skills in tree identification, tree diameter and height measurement, and compass and pacing. The week wraps up with a graduation ceremony attended by family and friends. 


Topics and activities such as these are typical in college-based forestry curriculums.  In fact, some of the material presented at the camp was adapted from courses taught during the forestry summer practicum at Auburn. This can be beneficial to students who are considering a career in forestry or related natural resource management, as it gives them an idea of what college courses will be like, and what career opportunities are available to them after college.   


Student reviews of the camp have been overwhelmingly positive, with a few of the students choosing to come to Auburn and enroll in the SFWS as freshmen.

 “I absolutely loved Forestry Camp. I had tons of fun, and I learned so much,” said Mary Berkstresser, a sophomore in Natural Resources who attended the first forestry camp at Auburn.   “Before going to camp, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Forestry Camp helped me understand what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”


Another student, Cal Logan is a pre-forestry major at Auburn. “My time at forestry camp helped me better understand the profession, and helped me discover a love for forestry,”he said. “I am now pursuing a degree in Forestry at Auburn. The camp was an amazing experience that I will forever cherish.”


In a 2016 Alabama Extension grassroots survey of outreach needs, the promotion of careers in forestry was noted as an area of importance. Camps like this one are an effort to help address this need. In fact, ACES again is partnering with the SFWS and Auburn Youth programs to develop a Wildlife Summer Camp that will be offered from July 23-28 at Auburn. Like the forestry camp, the wildlife camp will introduce high school students to the science of wildlife management through demonstrations and hands-on activities like trapping, night vision technology, and bird call identification.


For more information on upcoming forestry, wildlife and similar summer camps visit 


Becky Barlow is an Alabama Extension Forestry Specialist and John Kush a research fellow at Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.


*This story initially ran in the March/April issue of Forest Landowner Magazine.







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