JACKMAN, Maine — A tour bus carrying 25 teachers bounced down a dirt road into the forest on a recent July morning, close enough to Canada that a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer pulled it over. He explained he’s not used to seeing this type of vehicle traveling on the logging roads toward the border.
After a brief explanation of what they were doing, the teachers were allowed to continue on their way, which would take them through the site of an active tree harvest, then to a sugar house and on a tour inside a mill.
The events were part of a four-day professional development workshop organized by the Maine TREE Foundation and Project Learning Tree. The idea is to enhance educators’ level of knowledge and perceptions of the forestry-products industry so they will teach their students about the industry and present it as a viable career option.
“We need laborers,” Jeannot Carrier, a contractor for E.J. Carrier, told the teachers. “We need their hearts and their minds. We don’t need muscle anymore.”
Carrier explained his company needs workers with a wide range of tasks, from operating their new computer systems to quickly building roads and bridges to making smart decisions about how to use the trees on a particular site. He also said there’s a lack of qualified young people to fill those jobs in Maine.
That is where those participating in the workshop hope the teachers will help. Participants will walk away with a Project Learning Tree curriculum that includes more than 100 lessons, contact information for the foresters, researchers and mill workers who they meet and can invite into their classrooms and, for some, video and photos of the industry in action.
“Kids aren’t out in the woods enough. This is how you get them in the woods,” Cynthia Nye, a literacy specialist and curriculum integrator for the public schools in Old Orchard Beach, said. “I think field trips are the vehicle for learning. We should prepare for them a lot and not look at them as extended recess.”
At the helm of the program is Sherry Huber, executive director of the Maine TREE Foundation, the nonprofit that has organized the teachers’ trip for 17 years. Huber is a former state legislator whose late husband, David Huber, was vice president of the J.M. Huber Corp., a global consumer and industrial products company.
“There are a lot of stories to tell,” she said. “One of the things teachers learn right away is you don’t just go in and start cutting (trees down).”
At Frontier Forest LLC, the first stop on the teachers’ trip, Thomas Coleman, a forester with LandVest Timberland Division, explained he assesses this land acre by acre to determine which trees to cut.
“In any harvest, we’re balancing the biology, the economics, personal relationships — and the interests of the landowner are top priority,” he told the teachers, who gathered around him on a dirt road that cut through 53,000 acres of forest at various stages of harvesting. He added watershed management, road construction and simple math are important parts of his job.
Susan Aygarn, a regional forest manager with LandVest, related Coleman’s presentation to the lessons teachers will be conducting in school.
“When kids are struggling with math, we can put some examples in front of you about conversions,” she said. “The applications are right here in Maine. You don’t have to go out to the Amazon. We need kids with math skills.”
Huber hopes teachers walk away with an “understanding of why you do certain things even though the general perception may be negative.”
When the Maine TREE Foundation began the teacher training workshops in 1998, environmental activists raised concerns about the program, saying teachers would get a one-sided account of the forest-products industry from industry professionals, according to news reports from that time.
“We don’t have any kind of an agenda here except to help people get the best understanding they can of the Maine woods,” Huber said at the time of those accusations.
Teachers pay $95 to attend the four-day workshop, which was hosted at the Birches Resort in Rockwood this year, but the majority of the program’s costs are covered by the Maine TREE Foundation. The nonprofit receives many donations from the forest-products industry, according to its newsletter.
Bill Livingston, associate professor of forest resources at the University of Maine, said that, though the organization is not advocating for preservation of the forest, they aren’t purely pushing for the wood and paper products industries either.
“They’re not out there trying to promote a specific use of the forest. They’re out there to show the range of the uses of the forest and help teachers understand that better,” he said. “Whether that’s good or bad, that’s for people to decide.”
Huber is not shy about the objectives of her organization.
“Students today are not encouraged to become loggers and go into forestry because it’s not a very glamorous profession and it’s seen as dangerous,” she said.
Though there are fewer workers needed in today’s economy because so much of the harvesting and processing is automated, the jobs that do exist are safer and require a higher level of skill, which means they’re better paid, she said.
“It’s really about restoring manufacturing to northern Maine,” she added.
That will be difficult, if projections by the state are correct. The two industries that are projected to lose the most jobs in Maine between 2010 and 2020 are paper manufacturing and wood products manufacturing, according to data from Maine’s Department of Labor. There were about 11,500 such jobs in 2010, and that number is expected to drop by more than 3,000 jobs by 2020, according to the DOL.
On a tour of Moose River Lumber Co., a mill in Jackman, president Charles Lumbert told the teachers the part of his mill that dries wood once needed 36 people to operate but now employs only six because a computer system does much of the work.
Aygarn said though there will be fewer jobs, there will still be positions available in the industry because the workforce is aging.
“Our workers are going to retire in the next 10 to 15 years,” she said. “So we need young people to come in and take their place.”
In 2012, 62 percent of workers in the industry were over age 45, according to a report from the Maine Forest Products Council.
The math, social studies and science teachers on the trip said the information they were gathering would give them real-life examples to use in their lessons.
“I’m trying to do more with standards-based stuff,” Pat Stanton, who teaches history at the Maranacook Community School in Readfield, said.
Schools in Maine are at varying stages of transitioning to an education system that puts a premium on students’ mastery of state-determined standards.
“The geography standards are so widespread and broad,” Stanton said. “This provides something to focus on.”
Robert Weed, a teacher at Gorham High School, said the skills valued by this industry are essential no matter what fields his students pursue.
“I keep hearing from everybody that they’re looking for kids who are willing to work hard and can think on their own,” he said. “That’s the thing that I’m going to bring back to my students.”