PRIEST RIVER — Established in 1911, the 6,368-acre Priest River Experimental Forest has a number of ongoing research projects, including silviculture, weather and stream flow monitoring, and snowpack observations.
The research center also provides the perfect place for local youth to learn about outdoor stewardship and the significance of the forests around them. This was the idea the Priest Community Forest Connection had when they began busing Priest River Elementary sixth graders to the site in 2007 for what has become the annual Forest Expo.
“We just want to get the kids out in the woods,” said PCFC executive director Liz Johnson-Gebhardt. “We feel like this is their heritage.”
In the years following the inception of the event, PCFC added Priest Lake and Idaho Hill elementary schools, as well as sixth graders from Sadie Halstead Middle School in Newport. Because many of the PCFC board members have been or are part of the timber and forest industries, Johnson-Gebhardt said, they thought it was important to get the kids outdoors. This year, on May 23-24, about 100 kids attended the Forest Expo each day, where they went around in teams to the 10 stations, learning about everything from forest management and wildlife, to forest products and paper making.
The sixth graders spend about five weeks studying the information ahead of time, using a workbook developed by the PCFC crew, so they are “prepped to ask questions,” Johnson-Gebhardt said, which is what they are encouraged to do.
Gina Davis, with the U.S. Forest Service in Coeur d’Alene, was manning the forest management station and said she was primarily talking to the kids about how the forests are used for many different things. By understanding what trees need to grow, as well as the things that kill them, they can better manage them.
“I am kind of focusing on how we would manage them, to control and keep insects and the diseases from killing them,” Davis said.
Jake Hirst, with the U.S. Forest Service out of Priest Lake, was teaching the kids about fire ecology. While fire can be a bad thing, he said, that is not always the case.
“Fire can be a useful tool,” Hirst said.
As each team stopped by the station, Hirst demonstrated to the students how controlled burning can help keep the forest clear, lighting the ground on fire in a circular area. Burning some of the growth can help reduce the risk and spread of wildfires, he said.
Davis and Hirst were just a couple of the 42 people from the U.S. Forest Service, Idaho Fish and Game, Mike Reynolds Logging and local lumber mills, among others, who helped out at the event. A number of community members volunteer each year as well, Johnson-Gebhardt said.
“The dedication of the community has just been amazing,” Johnson-Gebhardt said.
PCFC dates back to 1998, when an informal group of community members from diverse backgrounds of environment, forestry, business, construction, education, civic groups and private landowners, came together after a downsizing in the forest resource industry in the area resulted in mills closing and jobs lost.
According to the PCFC website, the situation lent to a demoralization of the entire community and the group decided something had to be done. Working with the U.S. Forest Service to implement a stewardship project, the group formally became the Priest Community Forest Connection in 2005, gaining its nonprofit status in 2006.
In addition to the Forest Expo, some of the projects PCFC is or has been involved in include the Lakeface-Lamb Forest Stewardship Project — a forest restoration project in Priest Lake — the Hughes Aquatic Restoration project north of Nordman, a landfill restoration project in Priest River, and the Granite Creek Wood Replenishment project among others.
PCFC supports other youth education efforts as well through the forestry class taught by Jared Hughes at Priest River Lamanna High School. The two-semester class culminates in the students participating in the Idaho State Forestry Contest in May each year. Hughes and his students also participate in the Forest Expo.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.