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Ranger Loney: Leech Lake’s valedictorian hopes to work at Chippewa National Forest

Leech Lake Tribal College’s valedictorian Austin Loney will graduate on Saturday with a forest ecology degree and plans to attend Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont., to pursue a four-year degree. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

LEECH LAKE—Austin Loney already wears a forest service shirt to Leech Lake Tribal College.

The 20-year-old class valedictorian is set to graduate from the tribal college today with a forest ecology degree. From there, it's on to Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont., for a four-year degree and, maybe one day, a district ranger post at the Chippewa National Forest near Walker, his hometown.

Loney said forestry appeals to him because he can be outside all day and see new places.

"Nothing's the same every day," he told the Pioneer. "You get paid to do what you like."

For now, though, Loney works for the tribal college, helping the forest service take and measure soil samples before a 200-acre controlled burn at an "experimental" forest near Sunken Lake. He's already interned for the national forest, taking campsite reservations, mowing, and so on. And Loney took a research trip to Costa Rica for a few weeks in December, where he used an app to measure trees' canopy density to track a pair of potentially invasive species.

Loney is a 2017 graduate from Walker-Hackensack-Akeley School District and the first member of his family to enroll at—let alone graduate from—a college. He said he chose the tribal college because it's close to home, relatively small, and offered a forestry degree. About 85 percent of the school's 180-plus students are American Indian, according to staff there, but Loney claims no American Indian heritage.

Staff at the tribal college said the soft-spoken Loney came out of his shell there. He's tutored other students, and worked in the student services office and learning center at the school. Loney still flashed a nervous smile when asked about his upcoming valedictorian speech.

The tribal college's graduation is Saturday. Loney is set to be one of 31 graduates.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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