Updated: Apr 3
Maybe foresters drive around in their truck all day, or perhaps we just go walking through the woods. Most people think that would be an effortless job, and for some foresters, there can be days that it certainly feels that is the job description. But from my experience as a recently graduated forester, there is a lack of understanding about my career field. I often use the description that foresters manage the trees and surrounding landscapes for the benefit of society, but it can be challenging to describe such a complex profession in a simple one-sentence answer. A troubling assumption that some have is that foresters just manage trees and that we become a forester not to have to deal with the public. But in most forestry careers, being a forester is just as much about managing people as it is about managing trees.
Forestry is a blanketing term that covers a variety different career paths. Considering a profession in forestry, the first distinction that is often made is whether a forester works for a private organization, the state or the federal government. On the government side, these foresters manage state or federal lands such as state or national forests and parks. While these foresters do many other jobs, for simplicity and the scope of this blog, I will leave that as the primary duty. When a forester works for a private organization, the jobs can vary wildly. They may be a procurement forester and buy timber for different mills to be made into products. They can be a silvicultural forester and manage a private company's trees and land. Another type of forester is a consultant forester, which manages the trees and land for private landowners. This article will look at three main concepts that create a forester and hopefully explain what we do.
Foresters are Scientists and Artists
Foresters Assist Landowners
Foresters Practice Forest Stewardship
Foresters are Scientists and Artists
Forestry is a science; it is a complicated field that requires a forester to have a strong background of knowledge other than information about trees. When managing a forest, a forester needs to understand the science of the tree, soil, geology, and climate of the site and area they are managing. A forester must consider all factors to determine how best to manage the trees in a given place. Each tree species has a set of conditions that they grow best in and a native range that they inhabit. A forester must consider where the area is geographically to determine if the species is suited to grow well there. They must also consider the soil and geologic conditions of the site. Some tree species grow in sandy, well-drained upland areas, while others grow best in a low swamp. Different trees also require different amounts of sunlight; where some species grow well in the shade, and others require full sun.
Forestry is also an art; it can take years of experience to become a good forester. Being able to have a vision and a good imagination is crucial because as foresters, we are planning the next forest, far in advance of the current one. We have to be able to "see" what that future forest will look like whether it we are managing a pine plantation or beginning a restoration project to convert a mixed-species forest into a beautiful longleaf pine savanna. Understanding the functions within a given area and ecosystem is also critical to the productivity of a forest. It is essential for a forester to understand what other species are present and will they compete with the species they are trying to manage? Consider a southern pine forest in Alabama; sweetgum trees can be very competitive with loblolly pine. The understanding that both species do well in similar site conditions would lead you to believe that the sweetgums should be controlled. The art of that example, though, is "it depends"...which was a response I always hated to get in college. What I mean by that is if the loblolly pines are fully grown and the sweetgums are seedlings, they wouldn’t need as much control because they are not competing with the pines. On the other hand, if both the sweetgums and the loblolly pine were similar in size, they would compete against each other, and the sweetgums would need to be controlled (since loblolly pine has traditionally been a more desirable species for managed forests). That brings up an excellent point though that foresters also need to be economists, which can be very difficult in the current market. Given the right site, sweetgum may be a more desirable species since hardwood pulp is currently more valuable than pine pulp. Being a forester and managing a forest takes not only the science but also the art of knowledge and experience.
Foresters Assist Landowners
Foresters work to meet landowners' objectives while also creating an economically viable, biologically possible, and socially acceptable forest. Foresters can apply this principle regardless of whether they manage land for a private landowner, a business, the state or the federal government. While not all foresters work with private landowners to provide management advice for their forest, that is a consulting foresters specialty, all of their clients are private landowners. Foresters use their knowledge and experience in managing forests to help landowners reach their objectives.
When establishing a forest, foresters can work with landowners to help them get a forest that will meet their objectives while also staying within their budget. Part of this is planning something to plant that is biologically able to grow on the site; the most expensive tree to put on a site is one that you have to replant. With a limited budget in mind, it can sometimes be better to let the forest regenerate naturally instead of planting the site back. Not planting is again, something determined using science and experience. Foresters must examine the area to determine if a desirable tree species is there to repopulate; if a species is not present, nothing will grow except weeds.
When doing management activities such as a harvesting operation, foresters can work with landowners to prepare the site for a harvest and conduct a forest inventory to help the landowners get the most value during harvest. Understandably, not all landowners are interested in having their trees harvested, whether it was a thinning or a clear cut. In those instances, a forester can provide landowners with many other management activities to improve their forest. Prescribed burning is another common forestry practice that some consulting foresters can provide to enhance a forest and help to reduce competition by removing undesirable species. Wildlife management is a topic that gets many landowners' attention, and there are many activities that a consultant can provide that will improve wildlife habitat. While it is unadvised, a landowner can attempt to perform some management activities by themselves. Still, a forester can apply the knowledge and experience to ensure a greater chance of success.
Foresters Practice Forest Stewardship
In the early days, long before forestry was what it is today, was a dark past surrounding forest management in North America. Trees were viewed as an endless resource that people could use and not worry about replenishing. Feeding into the use of forests was also this idea of taming the wild and that forests were these dark and mysterious places that people should be scared to go into. I disagree with forests being an endless resource, as do most foresters, but I can easily see why forests were viewed as scary; even today, forests can often be the setting for scary stories. Foresters, though, have worked very hard to correct the mistakes made by early settlers.
Forests began being viewed as a resource that needed to be protected towards the end of the 19th century. Around this time, parks began to be formed, and the U.S. Forest Service was created. During this time, the giants whose shoulders foresters stand on today created the modern-day ideas of forest management. The first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, who also founded the Society of American Foresters, believed in conservation which he defined as “the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” (U.S. Department of the interior, 2017) This is a fitting definition of conservation, even today.
Closely tied to conservation, stewardship is also a significant part of what a forester does. Stewardship is included in the Society of American Foresters Code of Ethics preamble. According to Coufal and Cornett (1993),
“Stewardship is a moral responsibility to care for and nurture the land through practices that maintain or enhance its integrity, value, and beauty for future generations.”
Everything that foresters do today revolves around sustainability; we have to consider the next generation’s good, not just our current selves. A common misconception regarding forestry and conservation is that we cut trees and that it must be bad for the environment. Even though we can see forests being harvested, it is much less common for landowners not to replant or have a plan in place for regeneration. In today’s age, we are regenerating roughly the number of acres harvested each year across the United States. In addition, it is essential to note that trees will naturally die, and by harvesting them before this, we are tying up elements such as carbon into products instead of just letting the tree deteriorate and decompose.
While forestry can be a blanketing term, I hope you have a better understanding of who a forester is and what they do after reading this article. Forestry is a gratifying career that I am thankful I was able to find, and it has allowed me to meet the people who have gotten me to where I am today. I also hope that after reading this article, it can paint a positive picture of foresters and the work they do. Regardless of the specific job that a forester has, they have the vital role of managing the trees and landscape that make this country what it is today and for what it can be tomorrow.
Coufal, J. E., & Cornett, Z. J. (1993). The ethics of forest stewardship. Journal of Forestry, 91(4), 13
U.S. Department of the Interior. (2017). Gifford Pinchot: A legacy of conservation. U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.doi.gov/blog/gifford-pinchot-legacy-conservation