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Students forge links between forest health and people

Students in the Green House program at Southern Oregon University like to get out of the classroom and apply their knowledge in the real world, doing some real good and participating in environmental sustainability and community building.

So, it was right up their alley when 30 such students traveled to the upper slopes of Ashland’s watershed, where they put on gloves and started attacking piles of trees that had been thinned as part of the Ashland Fuels Reduction Project.

A sawyer cut the softwood trees into five-foot lengths, light enough for students in pairs to schlep them to nearby pickup trucks. From there the logs went to the wood yard at the Jackson County Fuel Committee, a volunteer organization that supplies seniors and others in need with firewood. In coming days, some students will help buck the logs into rounds, split them with “Goliath,” a powered maul run by a Volkswagen engine, then deliver and stack the firewood.

(Correction: An incorrectly used homophone has been corrected in this sentence.)

“This project has the goals of understanding AFR, the Ashland Fuels Reduction Project, and then exploring environmental protection and how wood-burning stoves affect that,” said Vince Smith, a professor of environmental studies and sociology. “There are a lot of old stoves out there (put in use before environmental clampdowns on wood fires).”

The students will work at JCFC next Friday as they “get engaged and face real-world problems and deal with the social arguments around fuel independence versus dealing with large corporations and oil reserves and what makes sense with all that,” said Smith.

As she tossed a length of fir on a pile up by Horn Gap, Bella Uribe, a journalism and environmental science major, said, “What I’m picking up is that we can contribute to the safety of the valley (from wildfire) while providing a heat source to folks in need. The other side is that I’m working with the paradox of using fuels in new ways that redirect our understanding of resources and the community.”

Uribe added that “it’s so beautiful to be up here hiking and working. I’m grateful, instead of sitting in class learning things but not applying them.”

Manhandling a narrow pine trunk, felled by Lomakatsi in the past year of thinning, student Sydney Lund, observed, “It’s so nice to be out here. It’s awesome to get a chance to volunteer for such a good organization as JCFC. We’re providing fuel and warmth for people who can’t pay their utility bills, and that’s what our class is about. The forests are also too dense, and it’s awesome to help clear this wood out.”

JCLC volunteer leader Doug Hoxmeier reminded the class that every person in the outfit is a volunteer, and that everyone involved makes it happen.

The wood that students are loading in trucks is not merchantable, he said, but is too good for slashpiles, so “what it’s good for is firewood.”

The Green House program at SOU has tapped into two major thrusts of environmental sustainability and community — the city’s fuels reduction in the Ashland watershed and JCFC’s efforts to turn such fuels into heat for the winter, said Steve Kem, an SOU professor in the Outdoor Adventure Leadership program.

Part of their project in the future will be to write requests for funding for the programs, he said, as well as to use the projects to learn team-building and group processes.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Laura Bergner carries some of the wood SOU students are transporting from the Ashland watershed to the Jackson County Fuel Committee. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Southern Oregon University students Henry Craft, 18, and Garrett Grabes, 18, carry a log in the Ashland watershed. The students are turning thinned trees into firewood for the Jackson County Fuel Committee. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch