Foresters get ready for Ball months after broke loose at UM
By Taylor W. Anderson
It was a cold and rainy game day morning, and 32 people stood outside the Forestry Building at the University of Montana.
Some in this group of early risers stayed out late the night before. One drank yesterday’s cold coffee from a thermos as someone asked for a gulp. The Carhartt- and Hickory-clad bunch had a job to do, and it wasn’t to win a beauty pageant.
It was the Pole Run, and the loggers had to saw 400 trees from UM’sLubrecht Experimental Forest to build the 96th annual Foresters’ Ball, and a bout of mid-October cold weather wasn’t going to impede the tradition, scheduled for March 22 and 23.
The fame of Foresters’ Ball has made the rankings of Playboy magazine’s list of the wildest college parties. For nearly a century, foresters have worked to put on a raucous ball in celebration of the forestry culture and camaraderie.
Then the headlines hit.
Reports of sexual assault on or near campus came to light in December 2011, and UM entered a period of turmoil.
The school hired former state Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to conduct an internal investigation on the University’s handling of sexual assault.
Barz submitted her report on Jan. 31, less than a week before last year’s ball. The report detailed, “A risk factor of alcohol has been involved in most reports.”
The high-profile investigation and results created a perfect storm that didn’t miss last year’s Foresters’ Ball.
More than 100 attendees were escorted or turned away because of drunkenness. A woman reported being grabbed on the dance floor. Students drank heavily before the event, as had become a norm among attendees, and the University reacted. Engstrom told the ball committee to change or he’d axe the event.
“If we cannot come to agreement on the plan by the end of spring semester, the ball will not happen next year,” Engstrom wrote in a letter last February.
The group came up with a plan that met Engstrom’s demands to make the ball more educational, family-friendly and promote itself as an alcohol-free event.
“You don’t make it 96 years without being willing to meet change,” said Dylan Brooks, the ball’s current publicity officer.
In early May the group submitted a plan to change the stigma surrounding the event, electing to shorten hours and beef up security. The group will promote an education-oriented, alcohol free event. Engstrom signed off on the event days later. And now the party’s on, with some major adjustments.
Cutting for tradition
The group’s mission on Saturday was fairly simple: cut, carry and pile the wood from Lubrecht forest east of Missoula that is needed to build the logging town within the Auxiliary Gyms in the Adams Center for this year’s ball.
About 97 percent of the trees harvested during Pole Run are dead. There were a few live lodge poles that construction officer Evan Neal said were too sweet to pass up, but a vast majority wear the mark of death echoed throughout the Northwest: a blue ring of fungus within the tree’s core, created and farmed by mountain pine beetles.
The beetles, which killed as much as 40 percent of UM’s forest, burrow inside lodge poles and farm a fungus for other beetles to eat. They then kill the trees by cutting off the supply to nutrients and water.
Saturday’s 32 loggers scattered through the dense groupings of trees on a hill 2,000 feet above the Potomac Valley floor. Larch trees burned a fluorescent gold through the forests so thick in areas that sight was limited to about 20 feet.
Women, who made up about a quarter of the group, wore layers of flannel or other dirty mountain garb, save for a few freshmen. Almost every man capable of growing facial hair kept it unshaven in either a thick or patchy trim.
Half of the students had felled trees before. About 12 Stihl chainsaws were unloaded from pickups that lined the logging road winding around the hill. Cold autumn winds bit ears and fingers while the smell of diesel exhaust, unleaded fuel and two-cycle engine oil swirled in the mid-mountain air.
Sawyers strapped on chaps, and everyone grabbed a helmet and earplugs. Safety first. (Had the thick chaps not been covering their legs, at least two freshmen would have learned the hard way about chainsaw safety.)
Seniors turned professional woodsmen (and woodswomen) point ed lines for new and learning sawyers to aim falling trees. The sawyers aimed their sights, face cut through a third of the tree and cut the backside above the hold. Lodge poles swayed and cracked, and with the helping hand of a logger, fell to the ground, bouncing with a lumbering thud.
Some of the sawyers cut limbs and counted. Others hauled the 40-foot-plus trees into piles. Three hours into the operation 200 trees were counted.
Five years ago Chris Shubert held an axe and saw with a similar group.
The 38-year-old participated in the 92nd Foresters’ Ball before he quit school and deployed to Iraq.
Shubert, equipped for the Pole Run with a professional-grade 440Stihl with 40-inch saw, enrolled this year in forestry. Last year he watched from his Idaho home as the school became entangled in the sexual assault allegations.
He said that while he thinks the ball was perhaps unfairly roped in with the flood of allegations, the University wasn’t out of line in its reaction after the ball.
“If it’s fair for one it’s gotta be fair for all,” he said.
Shubert is a link in the 96-year-old chain of students and alumni who are deeply attached to the Foresters’ Ball.
“This is a long tradition with the University, and as long as the University of Montana is here, it should be part of it,” he said.
Others say the outlandish behavior at last year’s ball came at a bad time for UM.
“I think a lot of that was, (Engstrom) had a lot on his plate,” construction officer Evan Neal said.
This year’s ball will include increased security from more public safety officers. Fewer than 1,200 tickets will be sold for each night, several hundred fewer than last year. The club will need to pay $13,104 more this year than in previous years due to increased security and gym rental fees.
The ball was historically held in the Schreiber Gym before moving to the larger — and much more expensive — Adams Center last year. The costs will eat into the proceeds, which are split into scholarships given to the students who helped put on the event.
Still, the group remains optimistic.
“We’re pretty good with our money. I think we’ll be fine,” Neal said. “There’ll be money, we’ll be all right. As long as people show up.”