20 Nov This Bright Tree ~ A Beacon Toward a Shinning Future
After more than 30 years in the outdoor recreation industry, I am still pleasantly surprised when I see people of color actively engaged in the management of our public lands. The 2023 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree was harvested and packed for transport to Washington D.C. with the assistance of the young men and women from the U.S. Job Corps of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. This year, all were Black or Hispanic. As much as I would like to believe that this is not a big deal, I must acknowledge that this represents the progress that we all must strive for in order to preserve the long-term sustainability of our natural resources both here in the U.S. and across our planet. In the spirit of the holiday season, by bringing the People’s Tree to our nation’s capital, we can commit to working together as a community to protect the soil, air and water of our forests .
These young students, from the Harpers Ferry U.S. Job Corps, came to the Monongahela National Forest to help with the task of making the People’s Tree ready for its journey to Washington D.C. Ironically, their participation in this event links them permanently into the history of forest preservation as well as the continuing struggle for diversity, equity and inclusion in natural resource ecology. As we traveled around the state, I was able to take few moments to reflect upon the importance of the conscientious forest management that has made this special delivery possible.
“The event of being part of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree harvesting and packaging was an honor for the Harpers Ferry students and staff,” said Shawn Miller, director of the Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center. “This event provides a sense of purpose for our students. They were able to participate and be an intricate part of this Nation’s history, a gift to the people of the United States of America.”
The 63-foot Norway Spruce is affectionately known as “wa’feem’tekwi”. Chosen by the native people of the Shawnee Tribe, who still call this region home, the word means “bright tree” and is pronounced “ wa-thame tech we”. This towering evergreen is a wonderful example of how our public land can be both thoughtfully maintained and also restored from near environmental collapse.
Each year, the harvest of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is a testament to the health and resilience of the forest community from which it comes. Part of this annual tradition is the selection of a 4th grader from the home state of the People’s Tree who will travel to Washington D.C. and flip the switch that lights the tree on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building. This year, Ethan Reese, from Beverly Elementary School, was chosen from hundreds of students who submitted essays that expressed what the Monongahela National Forest means to them. Having very eloquently shared his thoughts on the natural environment he loves, Ethan also revealed a direct familial connection to our efforts to preserve it.
“Most of our forests were clear-cut long ago, but there were many people who helped restore our forests,” he wrote. “One of those people was my great-great grandfather, Arthur Wood, who became Superintendent of the Monongahela National forest in 1931. He set a plan in motion to plant millions of trees to rebuild the forest for future generations.”
Arthur A. Wood was born on a farm near Lost River State Park in Hardy County, West Virginia. He embarked on a remarkable career that left a lasting legacy in the field of forestry that resonates to this day. In 1913, Wood began in the profession of wildlife management as a temporary forest guard in the Monongahela National Forest. His passion for conservation and dedication to the field were evident from the start. Later that year, he became the first person in the Eastern United States to pass the Forest Ranger examination. Wood rapidly rose through the ranks, progressing from Assistant Ranger to Ranger and ultimately to Senior Ranger of the Potomac District.
In 1925, Wood took on the role of Assistant Supervisor of the Shenandoah National Forest, further expanding his influence in the forestry community. His expertise and leadership qualities were recognized, and in 1931, he was appointed as the Supervisor of the Monongahela National Forest.
When Wood assumed leadership of the forest, it was often referred to as the “Monongahela National Briar Patch.” The forest covered 250,000 acres and had been heavily harvested and ravaged by ground fires, leaving vast areas of land with only stumps or scorched earth. Many regarded its restoration as an impossible task, but Wood saw it as a unique opportunity. The forest was predominantly composed of hardwoods, and he envisioned transforming it into a showcase of hardwood forestry.
Wood set out to rejuvenate the forest. He demonstrated that good forestry practices could yield dividends, not only for the forest but for adjacent landowners as well. During his tenure, an additional 550,000 acres were purchased and incorporated into the forest.
Wood’s influence extended beyond his work in the forest. In the early 1930s, he played a pivotal role in the establishment of a forestry program being developed at West Virginia University. His beliefs and guidance were instrumental in the creation of the program, and he became known as the “father” of the university’s School of Forestry. Later, he worked tirelessly to transform the two-year program into a four-year curriculum.
Recognizing the need for a summer camp where forestry students could gain hands-on experience, Wood ensured faculty had access to one of the abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps. This camp, located in Neola, Greenbrier County, was subsequently named “Camp Wood” in his honor. Another CCC facility, Camp Thornwood, was made available for the Pocahontas County 4-H Camp, and the National Youth Science Camp has used it since 1963.
As a pioneer in the field of forestry, Wood helped to bridge the CCC of the 1930s through to a modern expression of youth environmental engagement that is now the U.S. Job Corps. While the CCC was a temporary program during the economic hardships of the Great Depression, the U.S. Job Corps is a long-term initiative that continues to provide support to disadvantaged young people. The historical connection lies in the shared objective of addressing economic challenges and providing training opportunities during times of need. Students in the program today build the skills and experience they need to pursue careers in a variety of different fields, including natural resource management.
“I’ve been able to have the pleasure and opportunity to go to New Mexico in the Gila National Forest and help out with the remodel of some houses for the barracks of the Beaver Head/Black Range firefighters,” said student Jordane Carter. “It was really interesting and very rewarding. I gained some knowledge, gained some experience, and put some stuff on my resume. I was also able to help out with the harvesting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. It was truly an honor.”
As the home of the U.S. Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center, the cultural significance of Harpers Ferry as a national historic site should not be overlooked. It was here in October of 1859 that the abolitionist John Brown led an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory in an effort to launch a violent rebellion meant to end the Institution of slavery. After the Civil War, the great educator W.E.B. Du Bois lead a pilgrimage to this place in 1906 as part of the Niagara Movement, an organization of scholars and civil rights activists who sought to address issues such as racial equality, economic justice, and political representation.
An admirer of Brown’s commitment to his cause, Du Bois and his colleagues advocated for the peaceful abolition of segregation, the end of disenfranchisement, and the promotion of civil and political rights for Black Americans. The Niagara Movement played a crucial role in laying the groundwork for the later establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, of which Du Bois was a founding member.
Located just a few miles from where John Brown was captured, now a monument managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Job Corps provides vocational skills training for young people of color to make valuable contributions to their community. The Norway Spruce that will grace the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building was planted just 38 years ago under the plan devised by Arthur Wood 54 years before that. This is Bright Tree, named by the Shawnee People, shines at the center of a remarkable story that carries forward the original mission of the Niagara Movement. Enlightened by the wisdom of generative conservation, today students like Carter look to the U.S. Job Corps as a viable alternative to a 4-year college education. This program offers him and his peers the chance to overcome decades of social inequities that had limited their job prospects or the ability to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty that disproportionately impacts people of color.
Just as young Ethan Reese can embrace the historic contributions of his great-great grandfather, the students involved in today’s Job Corps can also celebrate the legacy of cultural leaders that advanced their rights as citizens. As part of the 2023 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree project, they are actively participating in the promotion of natural resource stewardship that will help to preserve our public lands for decades, even centuries to come. Opportunities such as these can help modern youths establish their own relationship with the natural world and provide them with the tools and training they need to protect its future. With solid prospects for advancement, Carter and others can envision for themselves a long-term career in maintaining the integrity of the forest land first stewarded by native people like the Shawnee for millennia and restored in modern times through the efforts of dedicated administrators such as Arthur Wood.
“I want to leave my mark on the world and make a difference. My overall plan is to finish advanced training in Ogden Utah at the Weber Basin Job Corps in advanced fire emergency dispatch,” said Carter. “And hopefully get a permanent job with the U.S. Forest Service.”
Author’s note: To my students of Outdoors For All (Enviro 308) at the University of Wisconsin- Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, a least a few of you might recognize, as I do, that the U.S. Job Corps today better resembles the philosophy of Booker T. Washington. A contemporary and fierce rival of Du Bois, Washington advocated for professional skills training and economic development for Black Americans over the advancement of political power and civil rights. His “accommodationist policies” aimed to avoid direct confrontation with the racially exclusive power structure of the dominant society that segregated and oppressed Black Americans. In the 21st century, however, with the cultural advancements of the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, economic advancement through gainful employment and federal service are more favorable ways to achieve personal success and I believed Du Bois and Washington would both agree.
The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is delivered each year as a gift to the American public by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service. Organized by the non-profit Choose Outdoors, this monumental task is performed through the contributions of many corporate and charitable organizations. No taxpayer funds are used.