Memorial tree planting honors two forestry professionals

By Kelsey Gobroski

Sun Star Reporter

Friends, family, and colleagues stood on the lawn of West Ridge Plaza on June 25 to watch a tree dedication honoring the lives of two men involved in Alaskan forestry. About thirty people watched as a Siberian fir and white spruce were dedicated to Les Viereck, who died in 2008, and a birch to Bob Wheeler, who died in 2009. The Campus Landscape and Outdoor Art Committee already planned the plaza to be a “learning habitat” of different types of birch, said university planner Deb Horner.

Although Viereck and Wheeler both worked closely with trees, each worked in a different area of Alaskan forestry.

David Klein, a former UAF wildlife ecology professor, spoke about his connection to Viereck, from his graduate studies in biology and wildlife onward. Klein said that while he focused on wildlife, Viereck was more interested in habitat, vegetation, and glaciers and had authored the field guide “Alaska Trees and Shrubs.” Klein motioned to a tall silver birch in front of the O’Neill building, which was grown by Viereck from seed in 1963. A larch in front of Irving was also originally one of Viereck’s seedlings.

After the dedication, Klein spoke further about Viereck’s life. Viereck originally came to Alaska while in the Army.  Viereck was climbing Mt. McKinley when his friend fatally fell into a crevasse, pulling everyone with him. Fellow climber George Argus broke his hip, and Viereck, with another party member, descended the mountain to get help, which led to a rescue.
Viereck had a rocky relationship with the University of Alaska after writing a report with Professor Bill Pruitt, Klein said. The university, through the U.S. government’s “Project Chariot”, wanted to conduct nuclear bomb tests and excavation in culturally and environmentally important Cape Thomson. When Pruitt and Viereck gave a negative report on the project, the university fired and blacklisted them in academia, according to Klein. After the university changed presidents the two men received awards and honorary degrees, Klein said.  Their story is written in detail in Dan O’Neill’s novel “The Firecracker Boys.”

Wheeler was a forestry specialist who worked closely with UAF after traveling internationally in affiliation with the University of Hawaii. He wrote the newsletters for Cooperative Extension, said Chris Maisch, a state forester in the Division of Forestry. He helped with university outreach by providing technical assistance. Once, just after a kidney transplant, Wheeler hiked for ten miles for his job. Wheeler was also involved with the “Fire Wise” program that teaches homeowners about wildfire safety, and worked with Kendra Calhoun in research at UAF’s experimental farm. Wheeler and Calhoun experimented with growing fruit trees in high tunnels.

Rich Seifert, an energy and housing specialist, also spoke at Wheeler’s memorial. The two men had offices across the hall from one another at the Cooperative Extension. Seifert and Wheeler often exchanged ideas, Seifert said, adding that, “it was a very stimulating relationship.”

At the memorial, the Yukon River Chapter of the Society of American Foresters presented the 2009 Forester of the Year award to Bob Wheeler’s widow, Beverly Wheeler.

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