The first graduating class of The Ranger School. Photo courtesy of the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
For many, fond memories of college might include football games, Homecoming, and perhaps a keg party or three. For the alumni of The Ranger School, nostalgic reveries conjure images of hard hats, tents, and teetotalism. And by all accounts, the school’s 4,200 graduates to date wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The Ranger School of the State University of New York (SUNY) School of Environmental Science and Forestry – the oldest forest technology school in North America – is celebrating its 100th year during the 2012-2013 school year. The school was founded in the tiny logging village of Wanakena, New York, on the shores of Cranberry Lake. A nearby, cutover 1,800-acre forest – originally donated to Syracuse University by the logging company that had harvested it – became the demonstration forest for the Ranger School.
In A Century in the Forest, a book published by the school to commemorate the centennial, one of the school’s earliest directors, James F. Dubuar, said the school had been an experiment when it was founded, and its mission was “to train students to fill the gap between the less educated woodsman and the professional forester.” James Coufal, who graduated from the Ranger School in 1957, calls the place “the school the students built” – and that’s not hyperbolic. An essay in the book written by one of the school’s first students, Harold E. Colburn (class of 1913), described his arrival by boat at Wanakena in 1912. “Observance revealed nothing to indicate that anybody had EVER been there,” he wrote. He then spotted “three small army tents hiding in the trees and brush…. Our first job was to clear a site and put up a shack.... When it was finished, we felt that we were living in luxury. Surely all things in life are comparative!”
Over most of the next two decades, students worked mornings from seven to nine (for wages) on building construction before classes began. Classes were sometimes held in tents, sometimes outdoors, and sometimes in spaces rented in town. Dropout rates reflected the grueling program, but as noted in A Century in the Forest, many of the students who stuck it out said the experience was life-changing.
Today, hard work and long days are traditions that continue at the school, although modern buildings and conveniences have eliminated most of the physical discomforts. Students come to The Ranger School with their first year of college already under their belts. They then complete 45 credits in Wanakena in two semesters. Classes include all the staples: silviculture, wildlife conservation, and firefighting, as well as more high-tech studies, such as advanced techniques for taking forest inventories.
Coufal said that the centennial barbecue, held August 4, hosted 550 people, including families of alumni and several who traveled from other continents to share in the celebration.