A century of Berkeley students have come to these woods – for very different reasons

Trees as old as 350 classrooms and student cabins at UC’s Meadow Valley Forestry Camp, now celebrating 100 years.
Trees as old as 350 classrooms and student cabins at UC’s Meadow Valley Forestry Camp, now celebrating 100 years.

A stand of ponderosa and sugar pines towers over a cluster of humble buildings near this Plumas County town. The trees have shaded 100 classes of UC forestry students, witnessing changes in their academic curricula that mirror society’s attitudes toward natural resources.

On Saturday, the conifers will provide canopy for a picnic as students and alumni gather beneath them to celebrate the Meadow Valley Forestry Camp’s centennial.

The rustic classrooms and surrounding woodlands are where forestry majors since 1917 have learned the arts of working in the woods, skills they can’t get at their urban home campus, the University of California, Berkeley.

“This is where they establish relationships with forests and people, and develop professional field skills,” said Rick Standiford, a UC Cooperative Extension forest management specialist who taught 37 years at Berkeley and will emcee Saturday’s festivities.

Launched in 1915 in Quincy, the camp was created at a time when most academic forestry departments were developing field stations. Today UC’s Meadow Valley camp is the only one in California and one of just a handful left in the country.

Students in the original summer sessions learned how to build logging roads that minimized erosion and cut trees in a way that promoted the growth of new ones – preserving the long-term lumber supply.

“Forests were viewed as a resource for lumber,” said Scott Stephens, a UC fire-ecology professor who is teaching a three-week class at this year’s Meadow Valley camp.

That began to change in 1919 when Emanuel Fritz joined the university faculty. He raised questions about wildlife and other forest resources, nudging the thinking toward ecosystems. While the focus remained production oriented, field classes began to include dendrology (the scientific study of trees) and, by the 1960s, soils and wildlife habitat.

When Harold Biswell joined the faculty in 1947, he introduced the concept of fire as a management and protection strategy. This was “blasphemy,” said Stephens.

Biswell’s ideas about using prescribed burning to mimic or reintroduce the natural fire cycle made their way into classes at Meadow Valley decades before they were accepted as management tools. The practices of prescribed burning he recommended are now official federal policy for national parks and forests, and are used by private owners of forests and rangelands.

Although they still visit sawmills in Quincy and Chester, the classes taught to the 36 students in this year’s summer field camp reflect the radical changes in the program over 100 years. On a recent morning, the topic of instructor Bridget Tracy’s lecture was Sierra Nevada ecology. The first three weeks of the eight-week session are “all about ecology,” including meteorology, aquatic ecology and hydrology, Stephens said.

The 180-degree conversion reflects changing public attitudes. People are increasingly connected to and knowledgeable about forests, strengthening powerful emotional bonds, he said. But he’s concerned that the shift toward hands-off forest management could go too far, precluding prescribed burning, thinning and other tools Stephens believes are critical to forest health.

“Forests are so much more vulnerable to change now. They are a magnificent cathedral, but they’re a little sick,” he said.

With changes in social attitudes toward forests have come changes in composition of the summer forestry camp. With the exception of one woman in the 1940s, field students were all men until the 1960s. Today two-thirds are women, and racial diversity has increased dramatically, Standiford said.

Forestry majors are required to take the Meadow Valley summer session, which offers 11 units of credit. But while forestry majors once made up 100 percent of the class, today they include only nine. Other students are majoring in social sciences, art, environmental engineering and legal studies, said Standiford.

On Sunday they will all climb Spanish Peak, a forestry camp ritual cherished by alumni. The 100-year tradition at the end of the first week is part of the bonding that builds during the summer. That camaraderie often becomes vital to students at a key point in their lives, said Standiford.

Despite the changes in student composition, the camp’s curricula and social attitudes toward forests, a fundamental attribute of forestry camp students has remained constant, said Standiford: “They come here passionate about forests and forest processes. I don’t think that ever goes away.”