Teachers’ Tours provide a close up view of the forest and the forest economy
By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine’s Future writer
Wayne Hapgood’s “ah ha! moment” came during a tour of a Pleasant River Lumber Co. sawmill. He was captivated by the computers, the optimizers, the automation that turned softwood logs into lumber.
“It was pretty amazing. I was pretty blown away by the sophistication of those mills,” said Hapgood, a teacher of building trades at Biddeford Regional Center of Technology.
For Anna Wood-Cox, a fifth grade teacher at Drinkwater School in Northport, it was a visit to a wind farm. And a “very cool” bit of science revolving around life in and under a rotting log. And the forestry techniques used to create habitat for woodcock at the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge.
In fact, said Wood-Cox, the whole experience of the Forest of Maine Teachers’ Tours is a “phenomenal program. It’s so interesting learning about our own backyard, which we never have time to explore deeply and learn about the Maine woods and forestry, so much a part of the state and our cultural heritage.”
Hapgood and Wood-Cox are among more than 1,000 graduates of the annual Forest of Maine Teachers’ Tours by the Maine TREE Foundation. Now in its seventeenth year, the Teachers’ Tours aim to help educate educators about the Maine woods and the state’s forest economy, with the idea that they will take the lessons they’ve learned back into their classrooms.
“The teachers’ tours are about muddy boots on the ground. It’s an opportunity for them to see for themselves and to ask questions of the people who know what they’re doing — the foresters, loggers and mill managers — and want you to understand what they do and why they do it. I think that is a great message. And teachers go away with a new understanding of the Maine forest and the various ways people use it,” said Sherry Huber, the executive director of the Maine TREE Foundation and the person who has planned every tour since the program began in the late 1990s.
Each tour follows the same general pattern: the party sets up shop at a nice lodge or resort. For the first tour this year the base will be The Birches in Rockwood, for the second tour it will be Mount Chase Lodge at the gateway to Baxter State Park. Huber said she wants people to be comfortable, to enjoy good food, and to have the opportunity to enjoy woods and water-related activities in their “off” hours. “We try to make this, if not a vacation, a comfortable professional development opportunity,” she said.
The tour includes a workshop on Project Learning Tree (all participants become PLT-certified). Day trips include visits to wood harvesting operations and mills; biomass plants and wind farms. The specific locations vary year to year.
Huber said she likes to make sure that the tour visits a clearcut, either a recent one or one that has grown back, and to have the opportunity to talk with a forester about the reasons for that type of harvest. After that stop on one tour a teacher said: “I still don’t like clearcuts, but now I understand why they do it.”
Huber said she loves visiting the mills and seeing how technology has radically changed the forest products industry. Teachers are fascinated as well. “We haven’t got as many mills, but the ones that are out there are modern and efficient, the people are paid better, the skills needed are of a higher level and they’re much safer than in the old days.”
Today’s tree harvesting machines are stars of the show. “They’re of interest to all teachers” said Huber. “These machines are impressive and are operated by loggers who are extremely dexterous with them. To see a feller buncher reaching into a stand of trees and plucking out one tree after another and lay them by the side of the trail is really a pretty cool thing.”
She also likes to work in a few shorter stops: to check out a vernal pool, say, if they happen to be going past one, or a fish hatchery, maybe even a museum with a lumber and logging theme, anything that contributes to the forest flavor of the trip or the ecosystems in the area they’re in. Lunch is usually on the banks of a stream or lake. “We even had a moose stroll right through our lunch space one time,” she said, a memorable unscripted moment of connection with nature.
One thing Huber has to fight against is what she says is her natural tendency to try to pack too much in. But there’s so much she wants to show people about the Maine woods, it’s hard. She doesn’t schedule evening events, preferring to let the teachers talk among themselves — kayak, swim or hike — and, in general relax.
“We called it forest camp,” said Anna Wood-Cox. “It was like a paid vacation. It was really luxurious to have this essentially free experience. It was huge. Most of us wouldn’t have gone if we had to pay what it was worth. We couldn’t have afforded it. It was like this gift.”
Wood-Cox went on a teachers’ tour two summers ago with her husband, Jon Cox, who is also a teacher. It was such a fabulous experience, she said, that she signed up for one of the 2013 tours, along with some other teachers from her district.
She has become something of a cheerleader for the tours. “I tell them it’s a lot of fun and it gives us a sense of place, an understanding of this state we live in that we don’t get normally. Most of us don’t get to spend time in the North Woods and touring paper mills. We can see a little bit around the edges, but to go inside and see it is a different thing. And I talk to them about the fabulous comforts, the comfortable tour bus, the lake, the chance to swim and relax in the most beautiful surroundings, and just how much fun it is.”
Hapgood said the 2013 tour he went on was “really worthwhile for me. I had some misconceptions and it allowed me to focus on things that weren’t on my radar.”
It was also a plus, he said, that the teachers on the tour had a variety of interests and perspectives. While Hapgood, as a building trades instructor, was especially interested in adding to his knowledge about where the products he works with come from, several middle school teachers from his district on the same tour came at things from an ecological perspective. “There were a lot of people looking at things from different angles,” he said.
Hapgood said the tour “covered a lot of ground and the professionalism was incredible. The Appalachian Mountain Club’s Chairback Lodge, where they stayed, was “gorgeous and there were fresh linens and great meals. We were not roughing it, that’s for sure. And they kept things rolling. But everything was delivered in a way that wasn’t cumbersome. It was very informative, productive and well-spaced. It was rewarding. Time well spent.”
The views of Wood-Cox and Hapgood are not unique, said Pat Maloney, the Project Learning Tree coordinator, who has helped Huber plan every teachers’ tour since 2000.
“I happened to run into a teacher this last Friday who had attended a tour a number of years ago. She immediately told me that she has used the experience and the PLT curriculum in her classroom practice ever since and encouraged other teachers to attend,” Maloney said.
Maloney said teachers are amazed at the extent of the northern forests “and leave with a respect for the people who work in the woods, from loggers to forest managers to tree farms and mill workers.”
In general, she said, “teachers start out with eyes wide open and look forward to learning but their experience on the tours provides opportunities that far exceed their expectations. So often we hear that teachers are so impressed with presentations from people at all facets of their tours and they are so appreciative of the mutual respect that they experience. We frequently hear the words “respect” and dedication.”
Teachers comment on how important it is the having the entire “stump to product” experience of the forest and remark on how many people and how much planning and knowledge goes into forest management and creating the wood products people use every day, Maloney said.
“Teachers have also thoroughly enjoyed learning how to ID trees as well as learning about the ecology of the forests from interrelationships of birds and mammals to forest practices,” Maloney said.
The Project Learning Tree component of the four-day Forest of Maine Teachers’ Tour provides the educators with concrete ways to incorporate their newfound knowledge of the Maine woods and Maine’s woods economy into their lesson plans.
Exactly how many teachers on the tours are able to do so, and exactly how they do it isn’t well known, Huber acknowledges.
“Sometimes we will get groups of teachers from the same school who plan to jointly create a unit with what they’ve learned. There are also the Project Learning Tree materials. But our one regret is we simply don’t have The cameras come out to capture a monster crane at Pleasant River Lumber Co.’s Dover-Foxcroft sawmill during 2013’s second tour. (Photo courtesy Maine TREE Foundation)the ability to follow up as much as we would like to,” said Huber.
Maine TREE is looking into the possibility of getting grants that would pay for research on how teachers apply their Forest of Maine Teacher’ Tours knowledge and experience.
Wood-Cox admits that incorporating what she’s learned into her fifth grade classes is difficult. “With the pressures we’re under as educators things have to give. and that’s one of the things that gives. One of the first to go is getting kids outside to touch the land. I could go on a tour every year just to be continually reminded to fight for that,” she said.
At stake are some important things, Wood-Cox said. “If we’re not teaching kids about the forest they’re not going to be good stewards of the land. They’re not going to get it. So Project Learning Tree and ‘forest camp’ are probably the most effective ways to keep those issues front and center.”
For Wood-Cox, the teachers’ tours have made a difference in how she and her husband John view their 60 acres of mixed woods. Where once “every tree was sacred,” the tours taught her that managing the forest is a good thing. “We appreciated how we weren’t helping our woods over the long term” with a hands-off attitude. “Our own woodlot management has changed dramatically,” she said.
For Huber, who goes on every tour, each is a new adventure and she never gets tired of it. Some things are sort of predictable. On about half the tours, for instance, the comfy tour bus is cruising north through a forested landscape and someone will muse out loud, “I never realized there were so many trees . . .”
But then, the forest tour experience works a transformation as teachers get to explore the woods in more depth through the people who work in them.
“The teachers go away with a much better impression of the hard work and the integrity that they’re seeing and are much better able to understand this resource that has so many values and is healthy and able to provide for hunting, fishing and camping; for animals; and wood products from housing to furniture,” Huber said. “It’s a resource we don’t appreciate enough in general. This gives people a very good opportunity to understand it better. I don’t think any of them forget it either.”
Joe Rankin writes forestry articles and keeps bees. He lives in New Sharon.
Updated February 2023