Astoria middle-schoolers have been learning about environmental stewardship at its roots, in an outdoor location that didn't take them too far from homeroom.

More than 100 seventh-graders converged on the Oregon Department of Forestry's Astoria district last week. Broken into small groups, students learned about the environmental, economic and social bearings of the 154,000-acre Clatsop State Forest, one of the largest shares of Oregon timber in the state.

The outdoor sessions led by resource professionals tied back to lessons taught in the classroom, and helped plant some seeds of environmental awareness among the young teenagers.

"I think it's really important for kids to be able to use the real world and natural world to learn, to make their lessons real," said Glenn Ahrens, an Oregon State University Extension forester for Clatsop and Tillamook counties, noting the Clatsop forest offers a tool for local learning. Ahrens collaborated with ODF Astoria support unit forester Larry Sprouse to tailor the curriculum to AMS seventh-grade classes.

While seventh-grade science instructor Stanette Klatt said her class has been studying ecology - habitat and species diversity, which students "applied to the forest ecosystem" - activities crossed content areas. Some students wrote poetry about nature. Social studies teacher Scott Murphy's class studied the impact of humans on the forest, considering how things may have looked when discovered by early explorers.

Sprouse said opportunities abound at the local branch of the state forestry department. Some improvements at the Astoria district have strengthened the outlook for local learning, he said, including updates to the arboretum and demonstration forest, and new interpretive panels to guide trail-users.

"It provides an outdoor setting for hands-on discussion related to natural resource management," he said. "There are pretty much unlimited opportunities. You could use this setting here for math, measuring trees' diameters and heights. You could use this setting for art, for literature, for social education as far as decision-making and social values."

But the recent focus for Astoria students was on forestry management.

Whenever state-managed timber is harvested, foresters prepare the land for replanting and eventually grow new trees - typically a combination of species suited to the environment and to the state goal of regenerating a complex, diverse forest. Astoria's ODF district illustrates a variety of those combinations over 18 plots of a "demo forest."

Near the front of the compound, trees aren't much older than the seventh-graders who examined them - about 13 or 14 years old. But venture deeper along a short trail into the seven-acre tract, and you'll find a more mature stand of timber, up to 60 years old. There, sunlight floods through canopy openings left as trees aged or succumbed to other forces, such as bugs. Some may have snapped and left snags, but the remains provide nutrients for other plant life, Astoria District Forester Tom Savage told his group of students.

"You don't just have all trees all the same age and all the same species," he said. "You've got biological diversity. And the more biodiversity of trees, the more other plants, and the more birds, you'll see."

Foresters might prune or cut selectively to improve the species mix, boost growth rates and improve timber quality, he said. To do that, they consider the environment, soil and beginning species composition. The state manages forests for sustainable timber harvests, but also to provide recreational benefits like hiking, camping, hunting and wildlife viewing, to protect fish and other wildlife habitats, to promote water quality, and to oversee economic impacts, he said.

Timber is one of three chief industries driving Clatsop County's economy, and a lot of the profits from harvests on land deeded to the state by the county have a direct impact on students, said Savage. ODF returns about two-thirds of local timber-sale proceeds to the county, which funnels much of the money into schools. Along with Tillamook, Clatsop County represents the bulk of state timber, he said, pointing to local land conditions as a boon for the industry.

"We have some of the best soils for growing trees," Savage said. "That's why we're able to grow so many."

The Clatsop State Forest encompasses some of the most fertile property in the state, according to the forest recreation management plan: Only 4 percent of the area is considered "non-production" land. Most of the temperature rainforest's trees are Douglas fir and hemlock, although alder is also harvested from some stands.

But aside from wood, the coastal economy is known for fish and other marine life. Before examining forestry last week, middle-schoolers checked out tide pools at Cannon Beach's Haystack Rock, a trip that correlated with some earlier lessons on geology. Next year, teachers might even take classes across the river. Klatt, a science teacher, wants them to examine rare plant species and work with biologists.

Such trips allow students to work with professionals in the field, said Ahrens, at the OSU Extension office.

"That's a bigger goal," he said, "to expose the kids to a different learning environment that will hopefully help them learn more."

Those lessons, Ahrens added, lead to a better overall understanding of the environment.

"Our water mostly comes from the forests," he explained. "That connection is pretty important to everybody. Once water leaves the forest and enters our more developed world, what role does it play? In many cases, it's good quality, from a good environment in the forest, compared to a developed environment with houses and streams and pollution.

"The forest is a good place to learn how the world works," he said. "It's important for people of all ages."

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