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Alumna Hits the Road with Collaborative Woods on Wheels Exhibit

Woods on Wheels travel exhibit, forest panel inside.There are nearly 5 million acres of woodlands in Indiana and the state’s hardwood industry has an economic impact of more than $10 billion and supports 70,000 jobs.

In order to spread the word about Indiana’s forests, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association (IHLA) and Purdue Forestry and Natural Resources (FNR) have collaborated on the Woods on Wheels project, a travelling exhibit that will be educating residents of all ages across the state.

The exhibit breaks down everything from the benefits of forest management and how it supports Indiana’s native wildlife to the history of Indiana’s forests and the many industries that rely on the state’s magnificent hardwoods to produce the products we all know and love, to forestry-related careers.

“It is vital that the public understand the tremendous ecosystem benefits provided by forests across the state, how they are at risk from invasive plants and insects, and the tremendous role that hardwood forests play in the economy of the state,” Dr. Bob Wagner, Purdue FNR department head, said. “Woods on Wheels will help inform the public about these topics in a new and proactive way.”

IHLA Executive Director Ray Moistner says Woods on Wheels will bring information to visitors of all ages and backgrounds.
Woods on Wheels travel exhibit, timber harvesting panel inside.“It gives us a tool for taking a positive message about sustainable forest management to our communities; an interactive and memorable way to educate children; a means for exposing young people to the broad spectrum of careers in forestry and the forest products industry, and a way to make landowners aware of the benefits of forest management,” Moistner said. “It also strengthens the dynamic relationships between industry, Purdue University, and state government, for the benefit of many stakeholders. Finally, it will bring field trips to schools and rural communities, who face increasing strains on funding.”

The Woods on Wheels project, which is housed in a 40-foot trailer pulled by a pickup truck, will be driven, literally and figuratively, by 2019 Purdue alumna Sara High.

High is uniquely qualified to guide visitors through the Woods on Wheels exhibit thanks to both her upbringing and her education, both collegiately and professionally.
Woods on Wheels travel exhibit trailer.The daughter of a logger, High came to Purdue to major in forestry with her eyes set on someday taking over her father’s company.

“Growing up I was always the kid who said I am going to be just like my dad,” High recalls. “I said you guys watch, I am going to be a logger too. I was actually still on the game plan of taking over my dad’s company until about my junior year of college.”

A week-long study abroad trip to France with the department of hospitality and tourism management changed everything. While she enjoyed eating different foods and seeing “some crazy places,” High noticed in her journal that she was looking at all of the trees and asking forestry questions. Even at the wineries, she was asking them about their barrels and their white oaks trees, comparing them to those in the United States.

After that trip, her career path was unsure, but she knew logging was “your whole life” and she wanted to see more of the world and check out other possibilities. She took internships with several mills, one with a forestry consultant, another at a veneer mill in Coldwater, Michigan, and a third with a hardwood lumber operation in Salem, Indiana.
Sara High with family at her Purdue FNR graduation.Like many graduates, the law of supply and demand impacted High’s eventual job search.

“When I graduated and started getting back in contact with the mills I had worked for, they were kind of in a slump,” High said. “Red oak had hit a rock-hard bottom in the markets, and all of the mills were scrambling with the new tariffs too. So, I kind of decided that getting a new look at forestry is never a bad idea.”

A chance encounter landed High in a spot where she thought she would never end up, the government sector. With jobs at a premium, High was working as a server at the French Lick Resort in French Lick, Indiana. As fate would have it, one weekend the venue was hosting the nationwide Association of Consulting Foresters convention.

“There were just hundreds of foresters throughout this whole hotel and I was getting to serve them and I got to tell them a little about my story and how my job had kind of fallen through that summer after college,” High recalls. “They told me to bring my resume and walk around the convention. They said that they would introduce me to people. This was just a handful of random foresters from all over the U.S. that had offered to help me out. So, I printed off my resume and went to the convention the next day. I just walked in and started handing people my resume and then I ran into my old boss from an internship I had the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, an amazing forestry consultant named Chris Egolf. He got me introduced to the right people in the DNR and he even gave my resume to Ray Moistner, the head of the IHLA, whom I have been working closely with on the Woods on Wheels exhibit.”

Through the experience, High found a job doing classified forestry inspections for the Indiana DNR, which she says put her in a position to see a whole new world of forestry, that of the government side, which allowed her to work with landowners to brainstorm ways they could achieve their objectives and benefit their forests, something she truly enjoyed.

Again, opportunity found High where she was, this time within the DNR. An internal email she had previously bypassed came back around just a few days before interviews for the Woods on Wheels operator position were to begin.

“I crack the joke that with COVID, I was interviewed on a Monday, hired on a Tuesday and went into a job freeze on a Thursday,” High says with a smile. “But as I was getting into it and finding out what all this was supposed to be, I couldn’t help but wait. I really wanted to see this position through and I want to put my all into it honestly.”

High is driven to spread the word about wood, partially due to the many misconceptions about the logging industry that people around her had when she was growing up.
Sara High as a little girl on her dad's tractor.“I saw how my dad treated the woods and how much care and time that he put into making sure his landowners were happy and that the woods weren’t being torn apart and he was able to run his company honestly, and I really felt that we got a bad rap growing up,” High says succinctly. “That is kind of why I like the fact that I was able to jump into veneer, lumber and now working with public and even consulting foresters, because I wanted to get an understanding of all aspects of forestry. I really want to make sure that I can push that this industry in Indiana is a positive for all of us because so many people I grew up meeting had no idea that any of this industry was going on and had no idea that management and taking trees out of the woods, can be and is beneficial to restoring Indiana’s hardwoods. A hundred years ago, we cut everything down and stripped the land for farm land. We are growing so much and already we are on such a great path to do so well and I want to get the public on board to understand what we are doing.”

High’s background makes her as comfortable talking to professionals at the IHLA board meeting as sharing with landowners in their 80s about the future of their properties or with elementary school children about what they are seeing outside or with high schoolers figuring out what to do with their lives, a struggle High can relate to directly.

“For me, I almost didn’t go to college because there was a possibility of going straight into the company,” High said. “I knew that it would be beneficial for me in the long run. I feel like I was completely right on that.

“I got to meet some unique professors that I would never have had the chance to come across on the job had I taken over my dad’s company right away. Being in FNR (at Purdue) kind of showed me that forestry is not just what my dad was doing in the backyard. It is not just logging or forestry consultants in mills, there is so much research going on, and communication, trying to educate the public and get people to understand what we are doing.”
Sara High with other Purdue students.In addition to knocking down the walls of miseducation, High also is cognizant that her position with Woods on Wheels allows her to put a different face on the forestry industry for everyone she meets.

In an industry traditionally viewed as a male-dominated profession, Sara’s presence on the job, whether in the log yard at the mills she worked at or as a consulting forester working with landowners with the DNR has raised some eyebrows, but the 5-foot 5-inch redhead embraces the challenge and has consistently proven that she belongs.

“When I started working in the mills, I wasn’t going to allow anyone to treat me like I couldn’t do exactly what they were doing.,” High recalls. “A lot of those jobs starting out were manual labor and I think they were just trying to see if I could do it. Can she go weed whack the entire perimeter of the property all day? Or can she buck logs? Can she use the chainsaw? Can she even start the chainsaw? I don’t really like anyone tell me that I can’t do something. I know I don't always look like I belong among the rough and tough lumber jacks, but I still do the same hard labor as the rest of them and I have yet to be physically unable to keep up! I had a good time in the log yards, honestly, putting those guys in their places, and showing them that women in forestry aren’t a joke.”

That chip on her shoulder has served her well.

“I feel like the forestry industry for women has been a fight,” High stated. “I just don’t like that idea that it is abnormal to see a woman in the woods. I have had landowners call me to confirm their appointments because they are waiting on my boss and I pop up and they are like, 'No one told me that a little girl was coming to the woods.' And I am like 'But you got me, so now let’s walk your woods.' I usually don’t get too much backlash. You either take me seriously or I am going to make you take me seriously. Once they get to know me though, they know I'm not the little girl they thought I was at first glance.”

All of her experiences have led High to the Woods on Wheels project and she has high hopes for the exhibit.

“Woods on Wheels is a great starting point that I can show people to introduce them to what we are doing,” High said. “For an industry that is so big in Indiana, it is going to make an impact. Just having people see the Woods on Wheels trailer driving down the road is a pretty big statement piece. I want to take the information that I have been able to take in from everything I have seen, all these different sides of the industry, and just make people think about it. It is one of the largest industries in Indiana, I just feel like it should be shown off.
Woods on Wheels travel exhibit back of trailer.“I think my favorite part is being able to get people more involved in understanding by spreading the information around Indiana. The forestry industry has been my life, so I have been talking about it for a long time, but I enjoy sharing it with people. I can’t wait to show all of the people I grew up around and thousands of others the industry my family was involved in so they can understand, at least a little bit.”

For additional information on Woods on Wheels or to schedule the exhibit to visit your event, school or gathering, contact High at the Indiana DNR at 260-573-3328 or at shigh@dnr.IN.gov. To download the fillable PDF request form, Fillable PDF Request Form (PDF 414KB).

“Academia, the private sector and state government have cooperated on many projects to promote the sustainability and use of Indiana hardwoods,” said John R. Seifert, Director of the Indiana DNR Division of Forestry. “This latest such effort explains the science of forest management and why we should use more wood, the renewable resource. We expect thousands of Hoosiers over the next couple of years to interact with the exhibit and the educational opportunities it will provide.”

About Woods on Wheels
Woods on Wheels was made possible by the hard work and dedication of the Indiana Hardwoods Lumbermen’s Association (IHLA), the Purdue Department of Forestry & Natural Resources, and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, with the support of the state’s hardwoods industry. The Woods on Wheels truck and trailer were provided by IHLA with monetary/material support from Hollingsworth Lumber, C.C. Cook & Son Lumber, Tom & Ronda Derleth, Daniel Antes, Milton Cole Family, Joe Crone (Crone Lumber), Brett Franklin (Tri-State Timber), Frank Miller Lumber Company, Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company, Pike Lumber Company, Purdue University, U-C Coatings and Tim Uhrich (Tree Worx).

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