FARMINGTON — Five girls are among the 18 students taking the forestry program at Foster Technology Center at Mt. Blue High School, and next year, 10 girls have applied.
This traditionally male program that used to stress brawn has been adapting to the new world of work where more students are going on to college and looking for a range of skills that are needed in more advanced careers, forestry instructor Dean Merrill said.
Last weekend, Elizabeth Abbott of Wilton was the only female competitor in the cookie-cut chain saw competition at the regional 35th annual High School Woodsmen’s Competition held in Dixfield on May 12 and 13. She went on to win the event.
Abbott, a senior at Mt. Blue High School and a cheerleader, will be attending the University of Maine at Farmington in September to pursue a degree in community health.
“I took the forestry class because I wanted something that was outside my comfort zone,” she said in a recent interview at the school.
“I come from a logging family, so I have always been comfortable around big equipment. It is something that interests me, and I also thought it would look good on my transcript,” she said.
Another girl in the class, Lillian Dunham, scored a perfect 10 in the spring pole release contest.
Jill Orcutt, the only female high school forestry program teacher in Maine, is seen as a role model, and she acknowledges her presence may be a reason for the spike in applications from girls.
Orcutt is also a certified professional logger and said she believes she is the only woman in Maine who has attained that certification.
“Most of the girls tell us they want to take our course because they like being outdoors, they like the idea of running heavy equipment and chain saws, and they have usually heard that Dean and I create a pretty special place to learn,” she said.
“This class is far deeper than taking kids out in the woods every day,” Orcutt said. “The self-esteem and teamwork they learn is a validation of who they are as a person. That is priceless.”
“It is so huge for them to be successful in a nontraditional environment, and they carry this into every aspect of their life,” she said. “It is simply amazing to watch.”
The school offers 20 career and technical programs to students from Mt. Blue, Mt. Abram, Jay, Livermore Falls and Rangeley high schools.
Merrill said he often is contacted by forest products employers who have jobs to fill in the field.
“At Foster Tech, we stress teamwork, good attendance and good attitude in addition to learning entry-level skills. That is what businesses are looking for,” he said.
“They aren’t looking for Paul Bunyans,” he said, referring to the giant mythical lumberjack.
“In recent years, logging jobs have decreased, and I am seeing more kids go on in their education. Some go on for a degree in heavy equipment. Next year, one student is going into marine biology,” he said.
Many go on to two- and four-year colleges, work for large forest product companies and move up the management ladder, while a few start their own businesses.
The program also lays the groundwork for students to become game wardens and forest and park rangers, he said.
One graduate is now the director of the Maine Wildlife Farm in Gray. Another is a trainer for a major tree service company.
Another strength of the program is a unit on the business of logging that Merrill developed to focus on basic economics. He teaches students how to balance income with expenses, how to track costs, buy and sell logs and even how to apply for equipment loans.
“What they learn here gives them skills they can take anywhere,” Orcutt said.
At the woodsmen’s competition May 12 and 13, hosted by Region 9 School of Applied Technology in Mexico, students competed in 16 forestry-related events with the judges from the Certified Professional Logging program.
Other competing high schools at the two-day event were Oxford Hills Technical School in Paris and Region 2 School of Applied Technology in Houlton.
Foster Tech/Mt. Blue senior Ryan Barker of Farmington won the coveted Individual Game of Logging competition. He said he plans to work in the family business, and one day hopes to go out on his own.
“It feels good to come out on top,” he said as he displayed his trophy.
It was the second year in a row the school took first place in that premier event, Merrill said.
Second place in the Team Game of Logging event was won by Foster Tech students Brandon Bragg, Lillian Dunham and Jake Freeman.
Game of Logging is a world-recognized training curriculum that teaches chain saw skills and logging techniques that demonstrate modern forestry skills with the latest safety systems. The “game” refers not only to the friendly competitive aspect of the training but also to the necessity of having a winning plan or strategy for felling trees and working safely, according to the Game of Logging website.
Foster Tech meet results: 1st place, pulp throw for accuracy: Shane Sinclair, Jake Freeman, Chris Jackman and Tyler Jackman; 2nd place, log roll: Brandon Scott, Chris McGhee, Brandon Bragg and Robert Boulay; 2nd place, vertical boring: Brandon Bragg; 2nd place, cross-cut relay: Brandon Scott, Chris McGhee, Chris Jackman, Shane Sinclair; 3rd place, dot split: Stephen Hatch and Jake Toothaker; and 3rd place, pulp throw for distance: Brandon Scott, Jake Freeman and Robert Boulay.