Kentucky Forest Leadership Program: Teaching today for a bright tomorrow

By Jennifer Turner

Division of Forestry

Every June, select high school students completing their sophomore and junior years from across the Commonwealth, head to the University of Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland 4H Education Center to experience a weeklong adventure exploring Kentucky’s forests, wildlife and bugs.

five-lined skink friend on shoulder

The Kentucky Forest Leadership Program (KFLP) began over 50 years ago and has greatly evolved during that time. It is all made possible with the cooperation of the U.K. College of Agriculture, the Food and Environment Cooperative Extension Service, the Kentucky Division of Forestry and the Kentucky Division of Conservation.

“The first day of camp participants get introduced to one another, the subject they will be investigating for the week and then they learn the basic tools to gather some of the information for their investigation”, said Laurie Taylor Thomas, KLFP Coordinator and Extension Forester with the U.K. Department of Forestry.

“Consulting firms” made up of students from each track, or area of interest- forestry, wildlife and entomology- and are gently guided by a wide variety of natural resource professionals as they collect data and do investigations throughout the week. At the end of the week the students come back collectively with their firm and share their findings. From there, the students then create a management plan for the 80 acres of mixed forestland they have been assigned. This teaching experience allows the students to learn through peer teaching throughout the week instead of the usual student/teacher experience giving a definite more hands on experience and one many won’t forget.

Reminiscing on their adventures, the campers eyes widen and their voices practically bounce off one another as they finish each other’s sentences, stand up to tell stories and of course, laugh constantly. And though most campers agree that the camp left them with new skills, clearer priorities and enhanced confidence, they certainly did not forget to have fun.

“What could be more fun than learning new facts about trees and insects?” said camper Elijah Schultz who participated in 2016. “The things we learned were incorporated into fun team activities and competitions throughout the week. We did things like a scavenger hunt, Jeopardy-style trivia and a tree-planting race. There was hands-on learning as well. We gathered insects from nearby streams, wetlands, fields, forest and even a cave! And what we gathered, we actually used to make collections. On hikes, we learned to identify trees by actually seeing real specimens rather than just looking at pictures and reading about them in books. At each presentation, there was something interesting to watch or do, from skinning a beaver to even flying a drone.”

elijah 1

But the camp fun wasn’t only limited to the student campers. Forester Chris Oelschlager with the Kentucky Division of Forestry, has been involved with the program since 1997. When she began teaching at the camp, she wasn’t much older than the students and admits to having as much fun, if not more than the campers.

“KFLP is probably my favorite week of the work year, and I look forward to it each summer,” said Oelschlager. “I’m always impressed with how much they learn throughout the intensive, fast paced week.  On Monday afternoon we start them with basic tree identification and by Friday morning they are presenting detailed management plans for 80 acres of mixed forestland.  Until it ends on Friday, I don’t even think they realize how much they have done throughout the week.”

chris with nephew gabe to her left and elijah rt

For the adult professionals leading the activities, it’s also nice to get to spend so much time with the students and to see the forest through their eyes.

“It’s a neat perspective to be around teenagers for the week, and we are with them from around 7:30 in the morning until 11 each night,” said Oelschlager. “They never fail to impress us with how much they learn and how they see the world.”

ring-necked snake

The Kentucky Division of Forestry’s participation in the program is important because it not only exposes the students to what foresters do, but what the division does also. Many of them have parents and relatives who own woodlands. As the campers return to their homes, the division hopes they’ll share what they learned with their parents and communities.

“Even if they never pursue a career in forestry, they are our future forest landowners,” said Oelschlager. “They’ll have an awareness of what’s available to them and a knowledge of the concepts of forest management that will hopefully lead them to both seek the division’s assistance and make the best decisions for their land. We want to educate as many kids as possible because ultimately we are teaching for our own future.”

When asked what advice he would give to any first time campers, Schultz said, “Come prepared to learn.  We were introduced to a plethora of new and fascinating things. No matter what option you choose, you will also learn a lot about forestry and nature. It was a great program, full of practical knowledge, whether you plan to have a natural science career, want to learn about the world we live in or just love nature.”

This year’s camp begins June 4-9, 2017. For more information about the Kentucky Forest Leadership Program, go to For information about the Kentucky Division of Forestry and its many programs including landowner assistance, go to


Photos from top to bottom:
Austin Williamson smiles as he meets a friendly stink.
Elijah Schultz smiles for the camera.
Forester Chris Oelschlager, is pictured with her team of students on the last day of the camp.
A camper holds a ring-necked snake, one of the many opportunities the campers have to handle “critters” throughout the week.
Forest Ranger Kenny Pyles demonstrates how to plow a fire line with a bulldozer, and also demonstrates forestry Best Management Practices on a steep forest road.
Forest Ranger Susan Nightingale speaks to the students about wildland firefighting.
Ranger Susan Nightingale (in red hard hat) shows the campers how to fight wildfire by creating a “hand line” with fire rakes.
Elijah Schultz learns about water quality parameters and aquatic macroinvertebrates at a tributary to Lake Cumberland.
Elijah Schultz samples insects from a wetland on the property the students spent the week exploring.
Photos courtesy of KY Division of Forestry



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