Dale Luthringer is the Environmental Education Specialist for Cook Forest State Park. Around the Park he’s got a reputation as a “quiet hero” – a man who makes a difference without necessarily making a big splash. Originally from the Erie area, Dale has quite a varied background. He was a farmer for 9 years, a Marine Corp seargant, and a furniture maker. After his 4 years with the Marines, he moved to the area to attend school. Dale earned an A.S. in Wildlife Technology from Penn State DuBois and a B.S. in Applied Ecology from Clarion University.
Whether he’s leading a group of curious school kids through the Forest Cathedral, studying ecology with scientists from Japan, or giving the grand tour to dignitaries from India, Dale treats each excursion as a fresh opportunity to discover something new. We’re grateful he could take a few moments out of his busy schedule to share some thoughts on what it’s like to be a teacher in the Forest.
Q: Why don’t you give us a rundown of the responsibilities of an Environmental Education Specialist? It sounds so official.
A: OK, here’s a list of just some of my job duties. I create and lead teacher workshops and environmental education programs, with about 18,000 attending each year. I conduct various forms of ecological research: acid mine reclamation, white-tailed deer populations, West Nile virus, old growth forest documentation, National Audubon Society SAP’s, Pennsylvania Herpetological Atlas, Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas, gypsy moth suppression, hemlock wooly adelgid, and so forth. I also develop various waysides and exhibits throughout the park, and assist in developing the park’s Resource Management Plan. I organize various community educational and volunteer events such as the Woodsy Owl Workday, the Cook Forest Big Tree Extravaganza, and the Cook Forest French & Indian War Encampment.
Q: Is this the sort of career you always wanted, or did you have a different “calling” growing up?
A: No, I always wanted to work in the outdoors. I remember telling my mom that someday I’d get paid to take a walk in the woods. This job is a dream come true. Not only do I get to spend many days in one of the Northeast’s finest old growth forests, but I get to take others along for the ride so that they can learn about this marvelous wonder as well.
Q: Getting paid to do what you love to do anyway – it’s something everybody dreams about, but not too many people ever achive…
A: Absolutely. I’ve been blessed abundantly by God in that I’ve been permitted to even have this job – it’s like getting paid to do a hobby. What a wonderful opportunity to take people out into the natural world and show them a part of His wonderful creation.
Q: I think it’s fair to say that the folks you teach feel richer for it. We “Googled” you to get some background for this piece, and came across this writing by a member of the Eastern Native Tree Society:
“I would like to take the time to thank Dale Luthringer for his tireless efforts to make the event a success. DCNR [Department of Conservation and Natural Resources] owes Dale a lot. I hope they appreciate their tireless trooper. I’m sure the trees do.”
A: Well, it’s certainly an honor and a privilege to do something that I’ve always enjoyed doing.
Q: You’ve been doing this a long time – you must run into all kinds of people from all walks of life. Do you ever get any really strange questions from your students?
A: I can’t think of any really unusual questions, but I can think of many questions that I’ve not been able to answer. Truth is, the more I learn about the natural environment, the more I realize I don’t know a thing at all. Every time we go out on an interpretive hike or conduct some type of educational program, it’s another opportunity to learn another aspect about the environment . . .
Q: And you just basically need to open your eyes and ears and all your senses to what’s going on around you…
A: Exactly! You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or have multiple PHD’s to teach someone. It’s amazing how much I’ve learned from those who have joined us for various programs. Yes, I’ve picked up an immeasurable amount of knowledge from the many forest ecologists and naturalists that I’ve worked with over the years. But often times it’s the children who will point out something that I’ve never seen before or have outright ignored. Someone might have a different outlook on a certain subject… another angle to contemplate.
Keeping an open mind is the key. Plumbers, mothers, and electricians have as much to say as does someone with 30 years of experience documenting old growth forests.
Q: If somebody wanted to get into the same field as you, what sort of educational background should they have? What advice would you have for those who’d like to do what you do?
A: The best advice I can give for those who are interested in entering this field is this: if you are really interested in pursuing it, stick with it. It’s often very hard to find full-time work in this field. Almost all entry positions are part-time. I finally got a full-time position after 8 years of part-time work. But it was worth it – it all goes back to what we said earlier, about how doing a job you enjoy regardless of the field is an incredible blessing. Not many people these days actually look forward to going to work in the morning, but I do. Persistence in achieving your goals does pay off, but just be sure it’s the direction you want to go.
In terms of the specific requirements, a bachelor’s degree in some sort of science is required for the EES (environmental education specialist) position. A bachelor’s in science education is probably preferred, but biology, parks and recreation, geology, etc. would work well also. The EIT (environmental interpretive technician) position doesn’t require a degree, but you’ll be going up against those that do.
Also, make the extra effort to increase your job skills by trying to attain a volunteer position at the place you wish to work. I served four years as a state park volunteer. This will help you decide if it’s a job, or a career. You’ll get some good job experience and show that you’re willing to go the extra mile.
Q: Lots of us who’ve lived in and around Cook Forest our whole lives often don’t see the forest for the trees – that pun was unavoidable, sorry! In other words, we “locals” often don’t get as excited about the Forest as visitors do.
A: I think many of us have a tendency to take for granted what we see everyday. Even I am guilty of that. Actually, I’m spoiled. I get to see ancient old growth forests almost every day. Record trees in girth and height are almost commonplace at Cook Forest. Old growth is so abundant here, that I sometimes think that it must exist in great abundance elsewhere in Pennsylvania. But obviously that’s not the case. There are very few remaining large tracts of old growth left in Pennsylvania, let alone the Eastern United States. All it takes is a simple drive along our interstates to see that these old growth forest areas, like Cook Forest, are very rare.
We all use trees and need to utilize our forest resources, from the books we read to the fancy wood furniture in our homes. The key is to use this resource responsibly. Pennsylvania’s old growth forests are unique, ecologically and scientifically. They give us a wealth of information for helping us to grow and better manage our younger forests – forests that we all depend on today. And our forests give us a window into the past. We get a glimpse of what things were like when our ancestors first gazed across the landscape.
–Mr. Luthringer is 36-years-old and lives in Cooksburg with his wife Linda.