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Foresters Take Logging Skills to Cutting Edge

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When Gina Lopez told her pals that she had joined the school’s logging team, they were aghast.

"Gina, I can’t believe you’d do that,” one of her housemates said. “It’s logging!”

But here she was at the California Conclave intercollegiate logging competition, gripping a double-bladed ax with both hands, rearing back and letting it fly at a bull’s-eye painted on a round slab of Douglas fir.

A few dozen competitors from California’s only university logging teams—Berkeley, Humboldt State, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo—had spent a chilly night on this rugged 3,200-acre ranch north of Santa Cruz.Mostly forestry students, they emerged from their yurts in the morning to vie against one another in about a dozen events, including woodchopping, ax-throwing, and heaving a 10-foot log called a caber.

Big, friendly dogs were sniffing around, Johnny Cash tunes were wafting out of a boombox, chain saws were being unloaded from mud-splattered pickups, and burgers—both beef and tofu—were sizzling on an open grill.

“It’s a new era in forestry,” said Lopez, who, unlike Paul Bunyan, is short, female, Latina, and vegetarian. Taking in the scene, the sophomore from Gardena was looking forward to a full day Saturday of obstacle-course-running and race-like-a-bear-is-after-you tree-climbing.

Such diversions have been part of the logger’s leisure hours since men who ate meals the size of small ecosystems felled trees for the first ancient subdivisions. But today’s up-and-coming foresters can find it disheartening to hone the same skills on campuses where ax-flinging and competitive chain saw events are seen as so not right.

“Even saying I’m a forestry major, I get attacked,” said Mike O’Brien, an avid logging competitor and president of Berkeley’s forestry club. “But you have to take the time with people and be patient with them.”

O’Brien and his seven teammates have persevered. Cal’s logging squad went dormant in the early 1990s and was revived only in the last few years. It raises funds selling Christmas trees, and members also peddle specially designed T-shirts at Berkeley’s annual football showdown with archrival Stanford, whose symbol is a goofy-looking, bug-eyed redwood.

Last year’s T-shirt pictured Stanford’s beloved tree as a stump, with the ominous caption: “Not every tree deserves a hug.”

At the ranch, competitors would pause after grueling spurts of sawing to scrutinize tree rings, cambium layers, and massive knots. After a while, they’d gather up the energy to heave a caber, stride across open pits on teeter-totter logs while hauling a 35-pound steel cable, or dash up an inclined pole with a chain saw, rev it up, slice off a chunk of wood, and run back down.

When they weren’t straining, grunting, or cheering for anyone at the business end of an ax, they were engaging in the more cerebral events—leaf identification and compass skills.

“What people miss is that we’re not talking about guys whose goal in life is to go out and clear-cut a forest,” said Roger Phelps, a spokesman for Stihl Inc., the world’s biggest manufacturer of chain saws. “These are intelligent individuals studying sustainable forestry, wildlife ecology, and resource management.”

-Steve Chawkins

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