The Oklahoma Youth Forestry Camp encourages today’s teens to unplug the headphones, drop the smartphones and branch out.
Packed with experiences from tree identification to an active timber harvest and compass lessons to a bug petting zoo, the camp draws 60 boys and girls ages 13 to 15 to Beavers Bend State Park in southeast Oklahoma each year. On any given day during the six- day camp, which marked its
60th anniversary in June 2016, around 30 professionals deliver educational programs, provide unique recreational experiences and prompt the teens to see the forest for the trees.
“The whole mission of this camp is to educate youth in Oklahoma about our vital natural resources and also show them careers in natural resources,” says Jerí Irby, camp director and education coordinator for OFS. “It’s a great break from technology nowadays. We understand technology is helping our society, and we embrace that in natural resources, too.
“At the same time, this camp gets them out in the forest to see the trees and animals and experience what’s out there,” she says.
Even six decades after its inception, the camp continues to produce “aha” moments all week long for Oklahoma youth. From the first day of camp, teens develop an appreciation for the forests and forest industry around them.
A stop at the Forest Heritage Center Museum at the start of camp tells the tales of traveling timber “towns” that once crossed Oklahoma to harvest trees. By the end of the week, the teens have witnessed the takedown of a nine-story pine at an off-site industry tour.
“They are always amazed when a 90-foot pine tree is taken down in less than a second,” Irby says. “A lot of kids have never seen timber harvested before, and some don’t realize we have a timber industry in the state that adds $2.9 billion to our economy every year.”
Over the course of the week, the group of rural and urban teenagers learns how trees are an agricultural commodity. University and natural resource agency professionals deliver hands-on, interactive sessions about wildlife, water quality, tree identification and soils.
The campers visit a wildlife management area and learn how fires are a tool in the management of natural resources. They are educated about tree genetics and grafting. The teens also gain an appreciation for the industry’s environmental efforts to develop sustainable, healthy forests.
The campers get a chance at forest recreation, too, with canoeing, swimming, fly-fishing,
hiking, archery and arts and crafts. One evening, they engage in geocaching, a game in which the campers use their newfound knowledge of compasses, pacing and global-positioning devices to find caches hidden throughout the park.
Funding the Future
The Oklahoma Youth Forestry Camp costs $200 per youth, with OFS offering scholarships for those needing assistance. The investment reaps invaluable rewards, whether by instilling respect for natural resources, providing an awareness of the forest industry or inspiring a career path.
Irby says that at least two former state and district foresters in Oklahoma attended this camp as children.
“We are not in this to make money. We are here to educate,” Irby says. “I just want to encourage kids who are interested in the outdoors to learn and explore forestry. It’s a great opportunity for kids to get outdoors and see that they too can have a career
in the field.”