Dabney Lancaster looks to draw forestry students

By Olivia Hewitt

Too many jobs and not enough takers – it may sound too good to be true, but it is a familiar story for those at the Dabney S. Lancaster Community College forestry program.

Boasting the only two-year accredited forestry program in Virginia, the community college wants to double its forestry class size next year in hopes of training people who could meet the demands of the job market.

And the school just acquired a toy to lure in new, younger students: a bright yellow bulldozer.

Scott Reigel, head of the community college’s forestry department, said the bulldozer will allow students to learn how to build roads and handle a large piece of machinery.

“We are able to give students a different asset … so it’s very nice to have that,” Reigel said.

The bulldozer will ultimately train students to understand machinery and manage a crew, he said.

The bulldozer would have cost the school $50,000 had it not been donated. (Photo Credit: Scott Reigel)

The Virginia Department of Forestry donated the used bulldozer to the school’s forestry department on March 13 after receiving funding from the Virginia General Assembly to replace several of the state’s machines.

State forester Karen Stanley said old materials such as trucks and bulldozers are usually auctioned offDabney is the only community college to receive such a donation.

“It’s very special and we have a really good working relationship with Dabney,” Stanley said. “We have a bunch of graduates from that program who work with us.”

Reigel said he hopes the addition of the bulldozer will help the program spike admissions.

“The job market is huge,” he said. “We have the need to get younger generations that are very tech-savvy … willing to get out and get into the environment and understand how it all works.”

Stanley said graduates of the program receive two to three job offers with starting salaries of $30,000 a year. State foresters can make up to $60,000 a year, she said.

There are typically 12 to 15 students in the first year of Dabney’s program, and 10 to 12 of them return to complete their second year, Reigel said. In order to meet the needs of the market, he said, the department is trying to enroll 25 new students next year.

“We’re looking at Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and some of these high school professional development programs, seeing if we can get some students,” he said. “If they can come into a program like this and want to, it’s huge. The opportunities are huge.”

Lee McCoy, a 25-year-old forestry student from Botetourt County, will graduate from the program next month and continue his education in forestry at West Virginia University or the University of Montana. He said if he were not exposed to forestry in high school, he would not have known about the field.

“In high school, I had an agriculture teacher who was really forestry driven and he piqued my interest,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily provide you with a desk job, but it gets you a part of the forest products industry.”

Reigel said the college will use social media to promote its new equipment and generate excitement about the forestry industry.

“We’re understanding that we need to educate the high schools and folks that are interested in changing careers of what opportunities are out there. And there are some,” Reigel said.

Graduates of the program generally seek careers in ecological restoration, forest management and timber harvesting. The harvesting class is the most popular with forestry students, Reigel said.

“They’ll utilize [the bulldozer] in the timber harvest class,” McCoy said. “[They] actually go out and will harvest three acres of timber to simulate actual logging jobs. That’s where the bulldozer will primarily be used.”

Stanley said the Rockbridge area is home to hardwood trees such as oaks, hickories and poplars.

“We have an abundance of sawmills around Rockbridge,” she said. “They’re quite a large market and there’s a lot of [forestry] markets in a lot of counties in Virginia.”

Dabney is considering replacing four traditional forestry courses with environmental courses in biology, chemistry, horticulture and soils, and hydrology and wetland management.

The forestry department is one of the oldest programs at Dabney and attracts students from across Virginia. The community college’s main campus, where the forestry department holds classes, is in Clifton Forge. Some of the classes are live video streamed to the Buena Vista campus at the Rockbridge Regional Center.