Transition and Tradition
Seventy-five years of forestry at Michigan Tech
It began as a school for foresters back in 1936, preparing skilled professionals for the Upper Peninsula's logging industry. Its first department head coached football and hockey and just happened to have a master's in forestry.
Seventy-five years later, Michigan Tech's School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science is a research powerhouse. It brings in more grant funding per faculty member than any other unit on campus. The School ranks number one among all US forestry programs in the number of research citations per faculty member, a measure of the quality of their science.
And yet, its faculty and staff still slog about in the mosquito-y woods with undergraduates, passing on the finer points of timber cruising just as they did three-quarters of a century ago.
"It's been a great ride," says Margaret "Peg" Gale '77 '81, dean of the School.
Back when a forestry program was twinkle in the eye of Tech president Grover C. Dillman, there was even some doubt as to whether it was legal under the college's charter. At the Board of Trustees' request, Michigan's attorney general verified that what was then the Michigan College of Mining and Technology could indeed broaden its curriculum to include a radically new field of study. Then athletic director Ubald J. "Bert" Noblet took the reins of the new Department of Forestry.
The fledgling department attracted a handful of students and graduated its first class in 1940. Charles Rollman '41 left his home in Green Bay to come to the college in 1937.
"We were just pulling out of the Depression," he says. "We didn't have many students, five, six, or seven to a class." Noblet and R. C. Miller were the only teachers, and forestry students took classes in Hubbell Hall, sharing space with engineers.
Tech didn't have a training camp for foresters, so students attended Michigan State University's facility on the Saint Mary's River, in the eastern Upper Peninsula. "They wanted me to transfer to Michigan State, but I didn't," Rollman recalls. "Noblet said Tech was a natural place for forestry, and he was right. This is a nice, wild place, with not too many people around to ruin it."
A camp of their own
The department acquired Camp Pori, located fifty miles south of Houghton, in 1946. In the department yearbook, the 1950 Forester, Noblet called Pori "as fine a summer forestry camp set-up as one could wish."
Apparently, the bloom faded quickly from the rose. "We are not satisfied with our present Camp Pori," Noblet wrote in the 1953 Forester. "It needs too much attention and repairs for a permanent set-up."
What he did not say was that he and Ted Rogge were laying the groundwork for one of the most important acquisitions in the department's history.
Rogge managed the Ford Motor Company operations in the UP, including the company town of Alberta. Now a dot on US 41, it then provided lumber for Ford vehicles, but as the need for wood declined, it was becoming a relic.
"He and Bert Noblet were pretty close, and my dad came up with the idea of donating Alberta and about two thousand acres of timberland to the University," said Ted's son, Roger Rogge. In 1954, the Ford Motor Company Fund turned the keys over to Michigan Tech.
The Ford Center complex now houses the School's undergraduate practicum known as Fall Camp and a conference center. But in the 1950s, it was a hotbed of applied forestry research.
"That research is essentially what put Michigan Tech forestry on the map with the big boys, like the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Yale, Harvard, and New York's School of Forestry at Syracuse," said Roger Rogge, who managed Ford Center operations from 1972 to 1984.
"Alberta became the biggest user of computing equipment on campus," he said. "The UP's big sawmills, in South Range and Shingleton, were built based on our database. People said you can't make a living cutting them damn little trees, but we proved you can."
The University was delighted to get the Ford Center. There was only one hitch: it would not be part of the Department of Forestry. "Dillman wanted it to be a stand-alone department," Rogge said. "He didn't want it buried in academia because he wanted Ford to see benefits. That really ticked Bert Noblet off."
Years later, Noblet would be vindicated. In the interim, the department would focus on earning accreditation from the Society of American Foresters (SAF) in 1958, only to have it rescinded four years later.
A new tree house
The fire marshal had condemned the department's headquarters, the old Hubbell School, and forestry would not regain accreditation until 1968, when the new (and current) Forestry and Wood Products Building was completed.
Noblet retired in 1961, with classes still being held in a condemned building. Judy (Wuebben) Hesterberg was secretary for the new department head, Gene Hesterberg, whom she would wed years later. "The Hubbell School was kind of neat; all the classes were there, and I think that's one reason we were so close knit. But it was such an old building, we always said if there was a fire it would go down like kindling wood."
Norman Remington '61 also remembers the old Hubbell School. "I'll never forget, the steps to the second floor were very worn," he says. "If you had conditions like that in this day and age, you wouldn't have students."
Issues like the building's questionable state of repair were eclipsed by the department's culture of camaraderie. "Gene [Hesterberg] was Gene, and I was Norm to him. The faculty were concerned about your well-being," says Remington. "Gene went to the trouble of lining up jobs for people. Bert Noblet, Gene, Bob Brown, Dick Crowther, Vern Johnson—and Hammer [Helmut] Steinhilb! Hammer was one of the boys. It was absolutely amazing to have a relationship like that with your professors."
Hesterberg in particular labored to insure his students' future. "He couldn't stand the thought that his students would leave without a job," said Judy. "Some said they were about to quit school, and he talked them out of it. If he didn't remember their names, he called them ‘Pard.'"
Hesterberg spearheaded reaccreditation and propelled the department into a new era.
SAF accreditation hinged on more than buildings, remembers forestry professor Marty Jurgensen, who joined the faculty in 1970. The department was transforming from a top-notch school for foresters into a full-fledged academic unit, and the faculty did not all reflect that transition. Trained to train foresters, not everyone was prepared for the looming expectations to conduct research. "That's why Hesterberg made a big push for PhDs," Jurgensen remembers. "He hired new faculty who had doctorates, including me, and they sent various faculty off to get their PhDs. That's why we got accredited again."
But the zeitgeist never waivered. "SAF accreditation team members can't believe how well we get along together," says Jurgensen. "It came from Hesterberg. He had an open-door policy, and we were all on a first-name basis.
"That's always been the culture," Jurgensen says. "We're not a big land-grant school, and for us to be as successful as we are, at this location, at this kind of university, is phenomenal."
In 1964, MCMT became Michigan Technological University, leading to its reorganization into colleges and schools. The School of Forestry and Wood Products served as an administrative umbrella for the Department of Forestry, the Ford Center, and the independent Institute for Wood Research. Eric Bourdo, the first dean of the School, said the reorganization, "perhaps more than anything else, has precipitated the development at Michigan Tech of one of the finest and largest forestry education and research centers in the country."
However, reorganization did not mean collaboration. "The Ford Center mostly did research, and they were independent," Jurgensen said. "And the Institute for Wood Research was separate. We called the wall between us in the Forestry Building the Wooden Curtain."
Perhaps it was just as well, because the forestry faculty had their hands full. Enrollment skyrocketed in the 1970s, as veterans returned from Vietnam and interest in the environment blossomed. Women began to enroll, and in 1976, there were more undergraduates majoring in forestry—722—than in any other program on campus. A new MS in Forestry program was under way, along with BS degrees in Wood and Fiber Utilization (later Wood Science) and Land Surveying.
Almost as quickly, the bottom fell out of the job market, and student numbers collapsed. Hesterberg retired, and, with state support dwindling, the dean's position was left vacant after Bourdo's retirement in 1981, Lindo Bartelli was named department head, and the Ford Center merged into the forestry department.
Bartelli soon retired, and in 1984, W. Ed Frayer came to the University. As dean, he assumed the role of both dean and department head, and the administrative distinction between the department and the School dissolved. Frayer was immediately faced with a quiet crisis. In the 1986 Forester, he wrote that the School needed 160 forestry majors, 60 wood and fiber students, and 40 or 50 grad students. "We have half of that," he noted.
Things got so bad, Jurgensen remembers, that some suggested the School be dissolved and its resources transferred to the engineering disciplines, which were eyeing those forestry faculty positions longingly.
"Frayer really saved us," Jurgensen says. "He was able to convince the administration to take a chance on us and give us more faculty. Ed's philosophy was to get good people and leave them alone, and it worked."
An age of discovery
With fewer students, a new PhD program in Forest Science, and all those good people, research began to flourish. "The Institute for Wood Research was absorbed into the School during Ed's time, student numbers were down, and we had growing biotechnology and forestry research," Dean Peg Gale recalls. "Ed brought in a new group of researchers, starting in 1986."
Research may have been essential, but it was not paramount. "Ed always emphasized that if you weren't a good teacher and a good researcher, we weren't interested in you," Gale said. "That didn't always set well with some longtime faculty, but over time we melded into a unit. We had a philosophy that we would not set up a class system of teachers and researchers. That's what Ed created."
Under Frayer's leadership, the wood science degree was suspended, the School's surveying degree moved to the School of Technology, and new, more popular undergraduate programs were added in applied ecology and in wildlife ecology and management. Faculty members launched major research initiatives in forest science and biotechnology, putting the School on a competitive footing with larger, well-established forestry programs.
Student advisor Mary (Frantti) Jurgensen came to the School in 1968 and witnessed the expanding curriculum. "Our graduates have so many career choices now," she said, from environmental law and construction to nature education and, of course, forestry. "And before, the only graduate degree we had was a master's in forestry. Now we have two PhD programs, one in forest science and another in molecular genetics and biotechnology." The School's Peace Corps Master's International program in Forestry has inspired half a dozen similar programs throughout the University.
After Frayer's retirement in 2000, forestry professor Glenn Mroz assumed the deanship, guiding the School through another four years of research growth. Enrollment stabilized and now approximates Frayer's 1986 wish list. The School's name was changed to its current School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, and remodeling on the forestry building was completed; the building was expanded to include Hesterberg Hall and Horner Hall. It was renamed to honor Noblet, the coach who started it all.
Peg Gale assumed the leadership of the School in 2004, when Mroz became president of Michigan Tech. Not long after, the Chronicle of Higher Education ranked the School as the top forestry program in the nation for scholarly productivity.
A natural balance
It's a much different place from when Bert Noblet took Charles Rollman's Class of 1941 to Michigan State's forestry camp on the St. Mary's River. Still, the old traditions flourish.
"Having graduated from this program myself in the late 1970s, I can see there's just as much camaraderie and love of the outdoors, the same quality teaching and caring for students as when this program began," Gale said. "Some people question, ‘If you go heavy into research, how can you do good teaching?' But we've managed to do that, and do it very well.
"This is still a great place, and it's still a great ride."