What is the true mission of a forester? It seems appropriate to start by explaining that we haven’t met a forester who isn’t proud of the work they do. There have been many advances in the field of forestry in the last 30 years and the enhanced knowledge and technology is one of the many reasons we enjoy coming to work every day.
But we’re often asked what a forester does. Usually we try to turn that question around and ask “What do you think a forester does?” The responses usually involve something about logging, growing trees, or something about wildland firefighting. The true answer, like most complicated topics, is … it depends. It depends on who you work for and what the forest management objectives are. One thing is certain though — these days being a forester almost always has something to do with sustaining and promoting healthy forests.
The western United States is filled with people who love forests. Whether it’s to visit the woods to escape the city, harvest food, go skiing or sledding, float down a river, cut firewood, make memories, gather spiritual wellbeing … the list could go on for quite a while. If you enjoy indulging in any of these or the many other opportunities the forest has to offer, you can thank a forester.
Foresters today are tasked with guiding the condition and development of forest stands. Sometimes this does mean a commercial harvest of some type or a well-timed, non-commercial thinning or fuel reduction project to reduce tree densities to match what a particular site can sustain. And then other days we’re planting trees to get the next generation started. The work of a forester is literally never done.
In the past few years, however, there has been an increased urgency to much of the work we do. Megafires (a term often used to describe uncharacteristically large and severe wildfires) have created a new situation for forest managers. There hasn’t been a year in the last decade where a megafire somewhere in the country hasn’t made top headlines.
So how do we manage forests to mitigate the megafires we seem to be experiencing every summer? Fire suppression is a small piece of the puzzle and we would be negligent if we did not point out that fire isn’t all bad. In fact, the presence of wildland fire is desperately missing from our forests.
A little more than 100 years ago, we got really good at suppressing wildland fires and since that time we changed the game. Removing the disturbance of fire from fire-adapted and fire-dependent forests is not natural. Many of the forest ecosystems thrive and rely on fairly regular fire intervals to keep them healthy and robust. Many forest types in Eastern Oregon are not meant to have dense canopies and shaded undergrowth.
The lack of fire and a subsequent lack of forest management has set our dry forests up for failure. As foresters, it’s our job to ensure that we are mimicking natural processes as closely as current science and management techniques allow.
All forests require some kind of disturbance, with intensities and frequencies of the disturbance varying depending on forest type (example: ponderosa pine vs. mixed conifer forests). Since allowing forest fires to burn within the historic range of variability isn’t always practical, we have to do our best to work out other ways of mimicking fire. This is where the dynamic field of forestry comes into play.
There are many very talented foresters and scientists working together each day to make sure that we are applying the best known science in our management decisions.
We are constantly learning about how forest insects and diseases operate and ways tree densities affect this type of disturbance (especially with the extreme weather events we seem to be experiencing these days.) We are learning when the appropriate times for harvest in a particular stand is. We are learning new techniques to keep foresters safe in the field. We are learning more about the benefits of prescribed burning and timing our fires and smoke emissions to make less of an impact to sensitive populations.
Contrary to what it might sound like here, foresters don’t have all the answers. Foresters are, however, individuals that appreciate the environment and all the benefits it has to offer. Foresters believe in the sustainable use of forest resources while supporting our local economies. Foresters believe in constantly learning and adapting so that we can do our very best to preserve our forests for generations to come. And lastly, foresters love what they do.
So the next time you head to the woods to enjoy some of what the West has to offer, remember to thank a forester.
Richie Gardner and Jamie Knight are members of the Blue Mountain Chapter of The Society of American Foresters.