Tucked away on the fringes of an active cow field and the edge of a timber forest in southwest Olympia is a classroom. There are no walls, no Pledge of Allegiance and no detention hall, but there is plenty to learn.
On Tuesday, Port Blakely gathered its primetime players together in that sylvan nook in order to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its unique environmental education program.
The program began with the notion of getting all of Washington’s fourth-graders into the woods in order to learn about the natural environment. Other timber companies have run similar programs in their own right but few, if any, have mustered the same continued commitment to the program as Port Blakely.
In the past quarter century, the Port Blakely environmental education program has conducted 2,750 guided tours, with 65,721 students and 14,066 adults tagging along. Additionally, Port Blakely runs similar programs in Oregon and New Zealand.
Anna Scheibmeir was once one of those fourth-graders on the mile-long wooded trail off of Delphi Road.
Scheibmeir, 20, is a native of Centralia who now attends Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. When she was in fourth grade at Oakview Elementary, though, Scheibmeir was a self-described know-it-all on the education trail.
At Tuesday’s luncheon she vividly recalled her experience from a decade ago. Noting that she had more outdoors experience than almost all of her peers, Scheibmeir remembered that she was excited to tell her classmates everything about everything. As it turns out though, she wound up being wrong about most of it and had to learn on the fly right along with her peers.
“That’s the beauty of this program is that no matter what your background, you are guaranteed to learn something new,” said Scheibmeir who, after 10 years, was able to laugh at the gaffes of her younger self.
She says she still fondly reminisces on the experience with her classmates and other locals who have gone on the field trip.
“It was something I looked forward to for years,” said Scheibmeir. “I mean, who doesn’t love a good field trip?”
Scheibmeir has previously worked as an aide to U.S. Congressman Denny Heck, who was also in attendance, and noted that her experience on the trail was useful many times over in that line of work.
“Working as a congressman for the Northwest, the environment is a huge part of what he does,” noted Scheibmeir.
Scheibmeir added that the walk in the woods tours are perhaps most important to urban students who would not otherwise have the opportunity to get out in the pungent air beneath the canopy of trees, even if it is a second generation reproduction forest planted exclusively for timber harvest.
“I think having a chance where students can come out and not only walk around but have a great guide is important,” said Scheibmeir. “I have a ton of respect for it.”
The “great guide” that the Oakville Elementary alum referenced is Kelly Stanley. As the environmental education coordinator for Port Blakely in Washington, Stanley has been on nearly every one of those thousands of field trips, explaining points of interest and the interconnectedness of nature to students, teachers and parents alike.
An integral part of the program from its inception, Stanley has noticed one big difference over the years.
“Without wanting to sound like one of those people, a lot of kids don’t get outside as much anymore,” noted Stanley. “Even in some of the rural schools I do like Morton, Mossyrock and Randle, where you would expect them to know a little bit, they don’t.”
In Lewis County, Stanley works with the Mossyrock, White Pass, Morton, Napavine, Chehalis and Centralia school districts, and previously she’s worked with Adna and Evaline.
No matter what school she works with, Kelly says the goal is not just to show the students the forest, but to open their eyes to the natural world in full, including wildlife, wetlands and insects.
The main takeaway cannot be catalogued by genus or species though.
“I’ve had how many thousands of students on this tour, and I think the takeaway is joy,” said Stanley. “At the end of the day I just think there is a joy of being outside.”
Stanley noted that fascinated parents often tag along with the students and teachers for a trek through the woods, and she has the handwritten thank you card to prove it.
One of the favorite activities over the years has been a scavenger hunt where students seek and find common household items and foodstuffs like pencils and candy bars hidden in the forest and then guess what they all have in common. Spoiler Alert: They all contain tree products.
Asked if programs like Port Blakely’s environmental outreach have attained the goal of getting every fourth-grader into the woods, Stanley replied in earnest. “Absolutely not. But I think Port Blakely has done their part.”
Kelly Stanley’s husband, Court Stanley, is the president of forestry for Port Blakely. Court agreed with his better half that the timber company receives plenty of positive PR from the program and said that the long-term payoff of the program is essential to the success of Port Blakely’s family run operations.
“We need a social licence to work in the industry of forestry,” said Court Stanley. He believes the environmental education program does just that by getting fourth-graders excited about the forest.
It might seem counterintuitive to teach children about the natural world within the parameters of a forest grown specifically to be cut down, but the Stanleys say the kids come to learn and appreciate the cycle that creates local jobs that curate useful wood products right outside their backdoors.
“We never cut more than we grow,” said Court Stanley. “We have more trees now than we did 100 years ago.”
He calls their approach a “non-declining sustained yield.”
Onny Warjone, former president of forestry for Port Blakely, said it is the fact that the company does not operate its own sawmill that allows it to ration its pace of harvest independent of the whims of the lumber industry.
Warjone retired in 2006 but was around for the fledgling stages of the program in 1991. On Tuesday he admitted that he had no idea 25 years ago that the program would last so long and be so successful.
“We were very fortunate to find Kelly. She’s the Energizer Bunny. She keeps the whole thing going,” said Warjone.
Warjone added that, “One of the things you have to remember, when we do environmental education we are not brainwashing students to think a certain way about forests and timber harvests. We’re letting them make their own decisions.”
To inquire about Port Blakely’s environmental education program or to sign up a class for future attendance email Kelly Stanley at firstname.lastname@example.org.