WANAKENA - Charlie Platt was working as a claims representative for a Social Security Administration office in Oswego in the late 1980s when he decided he needed a career change.
So Platt, in his 30s at the time, enrolled in the Ranger School in Wanakena. After two grueling semesters, he graduated with an associate's degree in forest technology in 1989. A year after that, he was working as a ranger with the Maine Forest Service in Millinocket. Then in 1993, he got a job as a forest ranger with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, a job he desired since he was a kid growing up in Elizabethtown. Today, Platt continues to work as a ranger and oversees much of the High Peaks region as a lieutenant.
Platt is one of nearly 4,000 people who have graduated from the Ranger School, which is celebrating its 100th year of existence this year.
A student works on a test at the Ranger School. In the background is a mural painted by Barry Nehr, a graduate who worked as the regional illustrator for the U.S. Forest Service in Atlanta for 20 years. The mural was painted for this year’s centential celebration.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Located on the shores of the Oswegatchie River, the Ranger School is a small technical college that was established in 1912, a time when the small hamlet of Wanakena was in flux.
Wanakena was established in 1903 when the Rich Lumber Company moved into the area to log the land, according to the book, "The Ranger School: A Century in the Forest," published by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The company built a sawmill and railroad, and soon a small village came to life. By 1912, the company was ready to move on and did, along with most of its workers. As a result, Wanakena's population dropped from between 1,500 and 2,000 to just a few hundred.
That's when J. Otton Hamele, who was in charge of the transition for Rich Lumber Company, came up with the idea of creating an experimental or demonstration forest.
In April 1912, the Rich Lumber Company offered 1,814 acres of land to the newly established state College of Forestry, which had been created in partnership with Syracuse University. The company had proposed that the school use the land as a demonstration forest; however, Dr. Hugh P. Barker, dean of the forestry school, convinced the Rich Lumber Company to sell the college the land to start the Ranger School. Syracuse University received title to the land in July. It was given to the private institution so the land wouldn't become "forever wild" state Forest Preserve.
Soon after, Philip T. Coolidge was hired as a director of the Ranger School. In August, Coolidge and 14 students went to work on building the school so classes could start in September, which they did. In March, 16 students enrolled in the college with the plan of having the first graduating class in 1913. It was also then that the school administration decided to have the school year run from March until late December.
In May of the next year, a state bill allowed the state College of Forestry to take possession and manage the Ranger School, and it did so by acquiring it from Syracuse University. About this same time, the state College of Forestry obtained its own site next to Syracuse University in Syracuse, a major step in establishing its own independence.
Today the state College of Forestry is known as the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and is totally separate from Syracuse University. The Ranger School is still part of SUNY-ESF.
The Ranger School has also gone through significant changes. In the early years, forestry and ranger schools focused mainly on training men to become skilled in managing and conserving forests. That was the case with the Ranger School. Now the Ranger School offers three degrees: forest technology (the original degree), land surveying and environmental and natural resources conservation.
Of the three, the last is the newest, having been created in recent years to reflect the changing work force. There are now fewer logging industry and state jobs at places like the DEC and a growing number of wildlife and land conservation jobs.
"Used to be in the old days, our graduates went to work for (places such as the) International Paper Company," said Ranger School Director Chris Westbrook. "They went to work for the big paper companies, but they don't hire anymore. They've sold off a lot of their lands, like Finch, Pruyn. "
Now, a growing number of graduates work at places like The Nature Conservancy, small timberland consulting companies and for the state, when jobs open up. Many graduates work at the DEC as forest rangers, environmental conservation officers and forest technicians. Some also wind up at the state Adirondack Park Agency or other state and federal agencies throughout the U.S.
Westbrook said employers want to hire graduates of the Ranger School because it has a reputation for rigorously testing students in the classroom and in the field.
Students who attend the school must first take 30 credits - usually two semesters - at another college. The student then transfers to the Ranger School, where they spend a fall and then a spring semester working on one of the three associate's degrees. In recent years, it's also becoming more popular for students at SUNY-ESF to spend a year there, then go to the Ranger School and return to SUNY-ESF to get a bachelor's degree.
While at the Ranger School, students go to class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The first half of the day is spent in the classroom while the afternoon is dedicated to lab work, either in the field or perhaps in the computer room. Students actually wind up earning 45 credits in one year at the Ranger School, compared to the average 30 credits required by many other colleges.
"This is not your standard college semester," said Ranger School professor James Savage. "We're trying to set them up for the real world, so to speak, and get them ready for the standard work day."
Platt agreed with the assertion that the school was very tough.
"They had no problem flunking people out," Platt said. "They taught you the way to do things the right way, and if you didn't do things the right way the first time, you did it the right way the second time."
That's apparently a tradition that started from the first year. The Ranger School history book states that "it is believed that 30 students were enrolled throughout the first class and eight graduated."
The school is also different from your average school because of its remote location and small size. There are roughly 50 students per year. That just about doubles the population of nearby Wanakena. Needless to say, there's not much of a local bar or social scene like at other colleges. Instead, students spend their time hiking, canoeing or just studying.
"The workload is so intense," said 19-year-old student Miranda Nunn. "It's not something that you can just waltz into. It's very specific toward our professions. You have to know that you want to do this."