KALAMA, Wash. (AP) — Senior Sam Bacon and junior Cody Mortensen looked on as Chris Stone, a science teacher at Kalama Middle-High School, wiggled his shovel into the dirt.

"Try to go straight down," he explained, "so the seedling won't bend."

Stone then grabbed a Douglas fir seedling and placed it into the soil. It was one of 300 trees the class planted over the course of the week in the school district's 38-acre forest.

Stone's natural resources program, launched this year, serves many purposes. First, the class shows students real-life applications of science and provides hands-on learning. Moreover, the course "makes students aware of career opportunities in forestry in particular," according to Superintendent Eric Nerison.

Splashing through the mud on a cool Friday morning, the 10-student class split into teams of two and branched out into different sections of the forest, working independently to plant the remaining seedlings. "The proof of their work is in the work," Stone said.

In the classroom, Stone leads lessons on invasive species, ecology, tree identification and other topics. The heart of the program, however, is outside, among the forest's mossy trees and rocks.

Though most districts would need field trip slips and a school bus to bring students to the great outdoors, in Kalama the forest is only a three-minute walk from the classroom door. The district bought the land in 1991 with plans for expansion, but it hasn't managed the forest in the years since, according to Nerison.

Students pull on rubber boots and tromp into the forest at least once a week, where they plant trees and clear invasive plants such as blackberry and scotch broom.

The program is not only a science course but a Career and Technical Education (CTE) course as well. Nerison noted last week that the course is "tied to the skills and abilities you need to have a career in forestry and/or the natural resources environment."

Exposing students to the industry is particularly important given the small labor pool. According to the state Department of Natural Resources, "DNR has difficulty recruiting for forest management jobs in this area and similar regions."

Students learn forestry management first-hand from industry partners, ranging from government agencies such as DNR and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to private companies such as RSG Forest Products and Weyerhaeuser Co.

Weyerhaeuser employees visited the school last Tuesday to donate the Douglas fir seedlings and to show students how to plant them.

Most students didn't seem eager to enter forestry management, but internships, jobs and course credit with Grays Harbor College will be available to future classes who express interest in the field.

Senior Marcos Martinez said he wanted to be a flight attendant one day. "I want to fly over the trees instead of planting them," he said.

Senior Peyton Spitzer said she wasn't interested in planting trees, but she would like to work outdoors as a fish and game warden. Others said they wanted to pursue jobs in engineering or law enforcement.

Nevertheless, students already have ideas for their forest stewardship plan, which they will present to the school board at the end of the year. As part of the program, Stone also partners with English teacher Jon Josten, who teaches students the skills needed to articulate their stewardship projects.

Spitzer said she would propose an outdoor classroom. Martinez said he wanted to create a trail for future classes to use. Fellow senior Bradon Thompson is considering a pond or a supply shack. Junior Isaiah Velilla's idea is a bit more creative: a paintball course.

After the groundwork is laid by this year's group, future classes will work to execute their vision.

While scouting for shade tolerant spots in the forest, Seth Janke, a senior, told The Daily News he took the class on a whim. "Because it's the first year, I thought, 'Why not try something new?' " he said.

That novelty has come with many surprises.

Janke said that he was surprised by just how many colleges have forest management programs.

"I didn't know there were so many jobs in forestry," Velilla added.

Though new to students, the program was years in the making. In Nerison's first year as superintendent, a group of science teachers applied for a grant to try to build an addition to the school's CTE building and "create some opportunities for science and CTE to be able to work together," Nerison said.

The school didn't receive the grant, but the seed of an idea was planted. Later, Stone approached the district with the idea of using the forest as part of a natural resources class. With the help of Stewardship Forester Julie Sackett, the Department of Natural Resources soon entered the picture.

The program is one of the first proposals chosen by DNR for its Rural Communities Partnership Initiative. DNR Senior Strategic Advisor Josh Wilund said last week that "It's also one of the first ones we knew we needed to run with."

DNR doesn't finance the program, but several of its employees periodically advise students on site. They show students "what opportunities are there within a sustainable forestry management career that are possible for them and are really needed," Wilund said.

Two-thirds of DNR's employees live and work in rural areas, he noted. "We have a moral obligation to ask those communities what more can we do."

Kalama students aren't the only ones who benefit from the program. According to Nerison, the community will prosper too: "We want that property to be an asset to the community that the community can access."

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Information from: The Daily News, http://www.tdn.com