Philmont Visiting Forester Program Helps Youth Discover Forestry

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

By Rick Thom

Philmont Scout Ranch in the Cimarron Mountains of Northern New Mexico is the largest outdoor youth camp in the world.  Each year over 22,000 young men and women from throughout the U.S. come to Philmont to experience adventure and learn outdoor skills. 

Thanks to the Philmont Visiting Forester Program, my friend, Greg Hoss, and I have had the pleasure of talking about forests and forestry with many hundreds of young people, their adult leaders, and Philmont staff.  A week at Philmont as a visiting forester is an invaluable investment in young people and the future of our profession. I’m confident you will personally gain as much from the experience as you give!

Philmont established its 40-acre Demonstration Forest in 2002, tested the Visiting Forester concept in 2009, and launched the program the following year.  Philmont recruits two foresters per week to staff the Demonstration Forest beginning in late June through late August. Philmont looks for individuals who can relate to Scouting and young people and who have an interest in helping them learn about forests, natural resources, and the profession of forestry.   Some Visiting Foresters have participated previously at Philmont as Boy Scouts, Venturers, or staff, but this is certainly not a requirement.

Most crews that stop at  the Demo Forest are interested in a program.  However, this is the crew’s choice; the amount of time varies, with most programs lasting from 15 to 40 minutes . Many programs begin with a discussion of the history of the forests at Philmont, including factors such as fire exclusion, livestock grazing, and the insects & diseases that have dramatically changed the forests since the arrival of Europeans and the displacement of Native Americans. We use a 412-year old ponderosa pine cross section from the University of Arizona’s Tree Ring Laboratory to illustrate the changes in fire history.  This tree recorded fires as burn scars that can be traced to specific rings/years, providing cogent support for our fire history story (frequent fires until the last 150 years, then only two fires, one in 1842, and the last one in 1890.  No fires were recorded by the tree from that year until its death in 1996.).  This information is crucial to understanding the present forests of Philmont and in many parts of the West.

After this historical background, we customize the program to the interests of the crew.  Sometimes we talk about forests in their home state.  We point out that the shelter under which they sit was built from logs harvested in this forest.  We talk about Philmont’s forest management plan, its affiliation with the American Tree Farm program, and its certification by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) program.  If the crew’s itinerary includes a hike through Ponil Burn of 2002, we talk about why this type of large, intense wildfire is becoming common in the West.  We help them identify tree species and talk about the different life zones so they can appreciate how elevation and aspect relate to the vegetation they see.   Participants are also interested to learn about the different silvicultural treatments showcased in the Demo forest. If a crew has time, we show them how to use an increment borer, giving them hands-on experience in aging a tree and interpreting the annual growth ring patterns. Crews love this activity.

Greg Hoss and I, both retired from the Missouri Department of Conservation, have served for several years at Philmont.  As Visiting Foresters we are attached to the seasonal staff at Hunting Lodge.  Philmont provides us with comfortable platform tents and we share meals and routine chores with the staff.  It is a pleasure to work with these conscientious young adults who are typically 18-25 years old. Our typical day starts about 5:30 with a quick breakfast, packing a lunch, and a half-mile hike to the covered pavilion, which is next to the Demo Forest.  We often leave Hunting Lodge before the staff stirs so we can ready our station for early trekkers between 7:30 and 8:00.  On some days we wait a while for business, using this time to set up our teaching props and to become better acquainted with the plants, birds, and other natural features nearby.  From 9:00-3:00 we expect to be busy giving programs to crews.  We close shop around 5:00 and hike back to Hunting Lodge.

Philmont provides very good background material for Visiting Foresters before they arrive, including an operations handbook and a staff guidebook.  At the Demo Forest pavilion there is a wide range of publications covering forestry, plant ID, wildlife, etc. and all the standard tools you need for tree/forest measurement.  When you first arrive at Philmont base camp around noon on Saturday, Philmont staff provides a first-class orientation. All your lodging and food is provided during your week at the ranch. You provide your own personal gear, including a sleeping bag.

Are you interested in being a visiting forester at Philmont? Several weeks in 2017 still have openings and we are glad to receive applications for 2018. The co-leaders of the Visiting Forester program are Mary Stuever, Chama District Forester for New Mexico State Forestry, and Mark Anderson, Philmont Director of Program.  For more background and history of the Visiting Foresters program see Mary’s Forester’s Log: http://www.foresterslog.com/Home/mary-s-links/swsaf/philmont-visiting-forester-program.

For additional information and an application please contact: