Paul Ahlen, a safety and training specialist with NATS, recently donated his time and expertise to the Science of Tree Felling weekend course at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UW-SP). The three-day, immersive chainsaw handling and tree felling course is offered each year, and is made available to 25 students, most of whom are UW-SP students. Over the course of the three days, the students receive one day of demonstrations, theory and lectures, followed by two days of hands-on training.
“They’re [the students] running saws under the supervision of trainers, and the student:instructor ratio is about 3:1 or 4:1,” says Paul. He adds that most of the college students who take the course are going to school for forestry, forest recreation, forest management, or urban forestry, among other disciplines.
“In general, they’re forestry students who may have summer jobs or graduating from college and beginning arborist careers as climbers, doing inventory, or as heavy equipment operators,” says Paul.
“The course is beneficial to them to have chainsaw experience under their belt, whether they’ll be doing the work or leading others doing that work,” he adds.
Before he attended UW-SP, Paul says he had been in the woods running saws with his family and “thought I knew everything.” When he took the Science of Tree Felling course during his college career, he recalls “…10 to 15 minutes into basic PPE that’s required for chainsaw operation in the industry — I didn’t know those things existed.”
The course was pass/fail when Paul took it; he passed, and was invited back as a student instructor, which he says he did again and again.
“It [the course] ran six weekends in the fall, and I was there for all of them; I just ate it up,” he says. “For the rest of my college career I was out there as a student instructor. It provided continued training and I got more practice in a great environment. I tried things and if I didn’t understand, there was someone with more knowledge to ask what happened.”
Les Werner, forestry professor and director of the Wisconsin Forestry Center at UW-SP, oversees the current iteration of Science of Tree Felling. The idea for the three-day course came to him while he was working with a master logger in Germany, where there was one-on-one training. He used that training as the model for the course.
“Then I thought, ‘Can I get pros in here to work with people in small groups to provide that intimate, on the spot feedback and training?,” Les recalls. He called upon Paul and other alumni and professionals and launched the new three-day course 10 years ago.
“It’s hard to describe watching people in the field,” he says. “It is poetry — they’ve got the students attention. I get goose bumps thinking about it.”
“Any time you have a collection of people working with same tools, in different settings, there’s power of a dozen brains as opposed to your own with your own perspective,” says Mike Demchik, a professor at the UW-SP Wisconsin Forestry Center.
Les adds that companies and organizations like NATS, the Forest Preserves of Cook County and Davey give employees time off to come in and work with the students; many of those employees are UW-SP alumni, and “they’re lining up to volunteer.”
“That contribution is absolutely invaluable,” he says. “It takes it to a whole new level. A colleague of mine in the college was blown away that we have so many professionals coming in to help with this.”
According to Les, the course is evolving, noting when Paul and his colleagues introduce something new in their best practices, they work to figure out how to make it a part of the course and available to everyone.
In addition to university students, Science of Tree Felling is open to a handful of high school students in Wisconsin. To that end, the Wisconsin Forestry Center received a state grant of up to $8 million to “…support education and create a pipeline to forestry careers for the next generation;” essentially, work force recruitment.
To spread the word of the high school component of Science of Tree Felling, Les and his colleagues post information on the school’s website, network through the teachers’ association, and also attend teacher conferences. Typically, the course has five slots for high school students.
“It’s a statewide application process, and they [the high school students] have to write an essay about why they’d be interested in the class,” says Les. “Once they’ve completed the course, they get college credit under the university’s umbrella.”
The Science of Tree Felling course pays dividends to the students who complete it, whether college or high school.
“We had one student who had done a lot of cutting and classes attend the [recent] weekend training,” says Mike. “He spent most of time learning how to do things more efficient and effectively. At the end of the weekend, he said, ‘I didn’t realize how bad of a sawyer I was until I went through Sunday.’ He realized what he didn’t know, like how to carry efficiently and effectively.”
“Over the course of my career, I have benefited immensely from formalized chainsaw training ,” says Paul. “In my very first year it opened a lot of doors for me professionally because I became reliable and could pick up a saw and clear a trail, or clean up.
“It really created a lot of opportunities that I could put on a resume,” he continues. “It’s a solid, hard skill that a lot of employers put a lot of value on. It greatly benefited my professional career time and time again.”