VIOLA, Calif. — As a group of seventh-graders looked at a fire bulldozer during a field trip at a logging site, Larry Strawn asked them how many played video games.
Most of the youngsters raised their hands.
“Tell your parents you’re practicing for your career,” said Strawn, owner of Blue Ridge Forest Management in Redding, Calif.
In reality, Strawn tries to limit the hours his grandkids spend on video games. But educating future generations about the timber industry has always been a top priority, and computers and video technology are a wave of the future.
Operating machines is “all hand-eye coordination, just like with a video game,” the 70-year-old Strawn told the youngsters from Evergreen School in Cottonwood, Calif.
Strawn was instrumental in starting education days in the woods in the early ’90s, working with a long-time employee, Delbert Gannon, who later became his business partner.
It was a time of change and contraction for the timber industry, as the federal listing of the northern spotted owl and other environmental regulations were causing upheaval. Loggers began to realize it was important to tell the public what really goes on at logging sites, they have said.
“The first class was eight,” Strawn said. “We did that for a number of years with Sierra Pacific (Industries) and Blue Ridge and it grew to about 200.”
Enter the Sierra Cascade Logging Conference, with which Strawn has been involved for more than 20 years. The annual Anderson, Calif., gathering in February began to include an auction dinner to raise funds for educational activities, including the springtime field trips to an active logging site.
“It was hard to get kids to come up here because schools are so strapped for funds that they couldn’t come up,” Strawn said. “Now we fund the buses.”
This year, more than 600 elementary through high school students attended the lessons and demonstrations at a logging site in a meadow near Viola, about 40 miles east of Redding, on April 29 and 30.
Each year, the students visit about 15 stations learning about various aspects of logging, including maintaining water quality near sites, how various equipment is used and how forests are replanted after timber sales.
“There’s career opportunities out here,” said Gannon, owner of Creekside Logging Co. in Redding.
Often, the annual field days have specific themes. For instance, students two years ago visited a salvage logging operation in an area burned by the 2012 Ponderosa Fire, a nearly 30,000-acre blaze that swept through miles of brush and timber and forced evacuations of three mountain communities.
The burn areas provided a backdrop to inform students about wildfires and the efforts to restore forests in their aftermath. Students saw a demonstration of felling what was left of some trees, watched as charred bark was scraped from logs that were later loaded onto a truck, and heard firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection discuss the behavior of wildfires.
This year, presenters — which included crew members from Blue Ridge, Sierra Pacific and Creekside as well as representatives from Shasta College in Redding and Cal Fire — stressed the growing role that computers and technology are playing in the industry.
“It’s just great to interact with grade school kids and get them seeing what they can do in the forestry industry,” said John Livingston, a heavy equipment instructor at Shasta College, who’s been presenting at the field day for the past three years.
The field trip is one of several education-related events hosted by the logging conference, which also brings as many as 800 fourth-graders to its large-equipment expo at the Shasta District Fairgrounds each year.
College students hold logging sports competitions during the logging conference while FFA members test their knowledge of forestry. Sierra Pacific also sends teams to festivals and fairs to teach kids about the many uses of wood, and last fall the timber giant hosted a tour for adults at its Anderson mill.
But one of the biggest events of the year is the field trip to the woods.
“This is Sierra Cascade’s highest priority — education for young kids,” Strawn said.
A Redding resident, Strawn spent lots of time in the woods as a boy helping his father, who was also a logger.
“I didn’t think there was much of a future in it,” he said. “I took a job driving a low-bed truck. I made three times the money I had made logging and was miserable.”
In 1969, a friend had “an old junk Cat and I bought a junk loader and we were partners for a year,” Strawn said. The friend moved to Idaho and Strawn stayed in Redding.
Gannon, 43, worked for Strawn for 20 years before his mentor started pondering retirement and helped him start Creekside. Work for Blue Ridge is slowly being phased out, Strawn said.
The two still believe there’s a future in logging, they said.
“It’s a good industry to get into right now, just like farming,” Strawn said. “Delbert and I felt that with kids’ education in school, logging just had a bad name. We wanted to get the word out that we’re here to stay. It’s a natural resource.
“We’re trying to get high school students to make a career out of it,” he said.
Residence: Redding, Calif.
Family: Wife, Trish; children Sandi, Sheri and Mike Strawn; eight grandchildren; one great-grandson