Friday, April 12, 2013

Campfire Talk

There's something wonderful about a campfire in the bush on a rainy night and waking up to the smell of smoke still in my hair. 

Earlier this week I finally met some other forestry students from SCU. Lauded though the program here may be, the number of students is very small. Currently, there are fourteen first years (freshmen) who remain ambiguously out of touch and only about four students slated to graduate in the next year. The number of faculty and lecturers is barely half a dozen and the program offices are tucked away in a hidden section of the sciences buildings. It was by chance that I found the professor who helped set up this exchange program and after meeting with him about a month ago, I was a little discouraged at how small the program was, how out of touch he was with anyone at NAU, and how negatively forestry is viewed in this part of Australia. [The one time I wore my NAU Forestry t-shirt, the green one with the crossed axes, I got some very odd looks]. The Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, where Lismore is, is a very "hippie" area with a lot of environmental activism and protesting of things like coal seam gas mining (A.K.A. fracking). That's an issue in and of itself but my point is that this culture of protesting anything that appears outwardly harmful or destructive explains a bit why many people's faces tend to shut down or become disinterested when I say I'm a forestry major. SCU seems to have a very strong environmental sciences program but forestry is the black sheep, the ugly duckling, and even some of my environmental science professors are outspokenly against forestry.

I'm still trying to get a feel for how large the forest industry is here in Australia but from what I'm told, there are not many job openings. There's no National Forest Service with an abundance of seasonal positions like in the US, though state forest land is managed primarily for timber. Private industry provides most of the old-school forestry-type jobs as far as I can tell. Many of the forestry students at SCU are external, meaning they take many of their classes online and come for a week in the middle of the semester to do all the lab work within a short, three-day period. Consequently, I finally met a few forestry blokes this week and spent a couple nights out with them. I was so excited to finally have the chance to meet some other forestry students (I'm a geek, what can I say) and these guys did not disappoint. Nearly all of them have some level of experience in the timber industry that far surpasses my own knowledge and I envy them their experience. I love silviculture with a passion but have never had any "on the job" application with it outside of the one semester back home at NAU. One of the guys here was a third-generation logger in Tasmania before the industry fell out and reminds me of some one of those big Logging Sports guys from Montana or OSU that I often heard about from our Logging Sports team members. He knows his forestry and forest operations better than any professor back home or here even, I'm sure, and acts as a student liaison, something he's well suited to. And, his name is Mick. It's a common Aussie nickname, but it just makes everything that much more awesome.

Anyways, last night he, his wife, and a couple other forestry blokes took me with them on their habitual residential-week excursion into the bush. I'm not saying these guys are rednecks, but they are very close to the redneck stereotype, in the best possible way (I can say that, my dad's a redneck). Getting a campfire going in near-constant 100% humidity is not an easy task, but they made it happen. I finally made a connection to forestry people and if I'm lucky, Mick and his wife, Carly, will take me hiking with them sometime soon! (Since I went hiking in New Zealand, I've been chomping at the bit wanting to go hiking more. Not having a car of my own sucks!). 

For all you NAU forestry people wanting to come here, I'm going to do my best before I leave to get an active communication going again between the two forestry departments and I'm going to try to track down the first year students here to get them interested in going to NAU. I would be so excited to see an Aussie student at NAU again and I think they could get a lot out of it. Because the program here is so small, many classes are only offered every other year, but for those of you wanting to come next year, you're going to have the opportunity to take some really neat subjects. I believe Native Forest Silviculture, Forest Operations, and Wildland Fire Ecology are all being offered next year. The first one I was most excited about of course, but I would have loved to take the other two to get an Australian perspective and also because Forest Operations back home was just... Well, I'll leave it at that. Apparently, it suffered similarly here last time it was offered but I think it would be worth taking again especially since there's basically no timber industry in the Southwest USA and there is more here. The fire class is basically like the intro class back home but I've only gotten bits and pieces of fire ecology in Australia and I think this class would at the very least give you a great understanding of fire in this part of the world. 

The picture I painted may seem a little bleak and discouraging, and it is a bit. Unfortunately, the forestry program here at SCU is undergoing its own challenges very similarly to NAU's. It's not 100% perfect but the experience is absolutely well worth it. Do not let me discourage any of you who were interested in coming here. Without a doubt, it is one of the best things I've done in my life and even if my "forestry" experiences here have seemed a little lacking, it's only because I wasn't proactive enough in the beginning to make the connection. Don't expect people to find you; you go find them! So I challenge you all: Go get 'em and good on ya for doing it.



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