CORVALLIS - A K-12 program that began in the mid-1980s with virtually no budget, no staff and a gaping educational void to fill has blossomed into one of the nation's most successful natural resource education efforts.

The Oregon Forestry Education Program, or OFEP, was the brainstorm of educators and foresters at Oregon State University. It's now entering its second decade with a privately-funded $300,000 annual budget, growing plans for the future and several hundred thousand success stories under its belt.

"The management of our natural resource base should only matter to people if they eat, drink, read or breathe," said Barbara Middleton, program director in the OSU College of Forestry.

"We don't want to hit folks over the head with it, but they have to make that connection between natural resources and their daily lives," she said. "We want nothing less than communities that are economically, ecologically and socially healthy. That's what drives our educational vision."

With considerable success, it appears. A recent survey found:

-About 94 percent of responding K-12 teachers said that attending OFEP workshops improved both their ability and interest in conducting natural resource education.

-About two-thirds of those surveyed said their students had learned a great deal from OFEP-related classroom activities.

-On average, respondents reported spending about six hours a month on forestry and natural resource education, and interacting with 84 students a year.

-Based on that, it appears that the OFEP workshops from a single year succeeded in generating 40-50 hours of instruction in natural resource management for each of more than 50,000 Oregon students.

All that, and it even appears the kids are having fun.

"My fifth-grade class and I would like to thank you," wrote Deantha Maddox, a teacher at Sisters Elementary School. "We had so much fun with your activities and learned so much that we'd like to throw away our textbooks."

OFEP, Middleton said, was born amid the timber and natural resource crises of the mid-1980s that filled newspaper headlines.

K-12 teachers were inundated with questions about streams, logging, fisheries, and endangered species which they were unprepared to answer.

In a state that depended upon enlightened management of natural resources for much of its economic base, Middleton said, it became clear that this field offered both an educational opportunity and a social obligation to properly prepare the citizens and voters of the future.

Various OFEP programs have evolved over the years, but all help train educators and provide them with the integrated materials they need to bring ecology, economics, and natural resource management into the K-12 classroom. In one stroke, students also learn about science, cultures, natural history, mathematics, writing and many other skills essential to their education.

Offerings have included the nationally recognized Project Learning Tree guide, targeted to teachers in kindergarten through eighth grade along the Interstate-5 corridor; "forest discovery" and "tree cookie" kits for hands-on learning; and the "paper chase" that includes books, activities, and an actual papermaking kit.

OFEP, Middleton said, advertises itself as teaching students "how to think, not what to think," about natural resources, their management and future. That's essential in an area so ridden with controversy.

"At various times it seems we've been both complimented and criticized by virtually all sides, including the timber industry and environmental groups," Middleton said. "So we must be doing something right. What we strive for is to base our education on the best, latest science available and the highest quality educational techniques."

But what makes the program really special, she said, is its emphasis on the human touch. Tree farm managers who have grandchildren in school have been brought into their classroom. Local community experts are tapped by teachers and students. Hands get dirty planting a tree or making paper.

There is still room for expanding the program and improving it, Middleton said. A single statewide clearinghouse for natural resource education would be desirable so teachers could easily access information.

Different programs could be encouraged to better coordinate efforts with thematic approaches. And both short-term exposure to materials and integrated long-term field experiences could enhance K-12 education even more.

Dozens of continuing OFEP workshops will be taking place during this fall and winter across Oregon, Middleton said.

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Barbara Middleton, 541-737-1347