Geography and technology matter to foresters
Foresters and conservation scientists manage the use and development of forests, rangelands, and other natural resources. Among other things, these lands supply wood products. They serve as sites for recreational activities and provide habitats for wildlife and help sustain natural water systems. Some workers advise private landowners on the use and management of their land and many use geographic information system (GIS) technology to design and implement programs that make the land healthier and more productive. Others work to conserve or restore public or private lands. Conservation scientists and foresters often specialize in one of several areas, such as soil conservation, urban forestry, pest management, native species, or forest economics.
Foresters oversee our Nation's forests and direct activities on them for economic, recreational, conservational, and environmental purposes. Individual landowners, the public, and industry own most of the forested land in this country, and they require the expertise of foresters to keep the forests healthy and sustainable. GIS technology is used by 21st Century foresters in the development and implementation of healthy forest plans to keep the forests free from disease, harmful insects, and damaging wildfires by planning, for example, when and where to plant trees and vegetation and when to cut timber. It also may mean coming up with ways to make the land profitable but still protected for future generations.
Foresters have a wide range of duties, depending on whom they are working for. Some primary duties of foresters include drawing up plans by hand or with the aid of geospatial technology (GIS, GPS, and remote sensing) to regenerate forested lands, monitoring the progress of those lands, and supervising harvests. Land management foresters choose and direct the preparation of sites on which trees will be planted. They oversee controlled burning and the use of bulldozers or herbicides to clear weeds, brush, and logging debris. They advise on the type, number, and placement of trees to be planted. Foresters then monitor the seedlings to ensure healthy growth and to determine the best time for harvesting. If they detect signs of disease or harmful insects, they consult with specialists in forest pest management to decide on the best treatment. Foresters use a variety of data collection tools and geospatial technologies to help them more efficiently make decisions involving large forested acreages and thousands of plants and trees.
Throughout the forest management and procurement processes, foresters often are responsible for conserving wildlife habitats and creek beds within forests, maintaining water quality and soil stability, and complying with environmental regulations. Foresters must balance the desire to conserve forested ecosystems with the need to use forest resources for recreational or economic purposes. For example, foresters increasingly are working with landowners to find ways to generate money from forested lands, such as using them for hunting or other recreational activity, without cutting down trees. A major concern of foresters is the prevention of devastating wildfires. Using a variety of techniques, including the thinning of forests and controlled burns (to clear brush), foresters work with governments and private landowners to minimize the impact of fire on the forest. During a fire, they work with or supervise firefighters and plan ways to contain the fire.
Some foresters, mostly in the Federal Government, perform research on issues facing forests and related natural resources. They may study tree improvement and harvesting techniques; global climate change; protection of forests from pests, diseases, and fire; improving wildlife habitats; forest recreation; and other topics. Geospatial technology is used extensively in these research and modeling activities. State foresters may perform some research, but more often work with private landowners in developing forest management plans. Both Federal and State foresters enforce relevant environmental laws, including laws on water quality and fire suppression.
Relatively new fields in forestry are urban forestry and conservation education. Urban foresters live and work in larger cities and manage urban trees. They are concerned with quality-of-life issues, such as air quality, shade, beautification, storm water runoff, and property values. Conservation education foresters train teachers and students about sound forest stewardship.
Foresters and conservation scientists use a number of tools to perform their jobs. Clinometers measure the heights of trees, diameter tapes measure tree diameters, and increment borers and bark gauges measure the growth of trees so that timber volumes can be computed and growth rates estimated. Remote sensing (aerial photographs and other imagery taken from airplanes and satellites) and GIS data often are used for mapping large forest or range areas and for detecting widespread trends of forest and land use. Once a map is generated, data are digitized to create a computerized inventory of information required to manage the land and its resources. Hand-held computers, GPS receivers, and Internet-based applications are widely used.
Work environment. Working conditions vary considerably. Some foresters and conservation scientists work regular hours in offices or laboratories, but others may split their time between fieldwork and office work. Independent consultants and new, less experienced workers spend the majority of their time outdoors overseeing or participating in hands-on work. Fieldwork can involve long hours alone.
The work can be physically demanding. Some conservation scientists and foresters work outdoors in all types of weather, sometimes in isolated areas, and consequently may need to walk long distances through densely wooded land to carry out their work. Natural disasters may cause foresters and conservation scientists to work long hours during emergencies. For example, foresters often have to work long hours during fire season, and conservation scientists frequently are called to prevent erosion after a forest fire and to provide emergency help after floods, mud slides, and tropical storms.
Foresters employed by Federal and State governments usually work 40 hours a week, but not always on a standard schedule. In field positions, foresters often work for long blocks of time-10 days straight, followed by 4 days off, for example. Overtime may be necessary when working in firefighting, law enforcement, or natural-disaster response.
Geography and technology matter to foresters
The work of foresters is very much tied to the Earth and its geography. Knowing where things are and how they relate to one another is central to the work that foresters and forest researchers do. A definition brings this into focus: Geography is the study of the world and all that is in it: its peoples, its land, air, and water, its plants and animals, and all the connections and relationships among its various parts.
A forester's ability to explore these geographic components as they conduct their research is changing rapidly because of technology advancements. Recent improvements in field data collection, computers, information processing, and automated mapping allow scientists to juggle volumes of spatial data with increased speed and accuracy (essential in a wildfire situation). Geographic Information systems (GIS) technology, combined with remote sensing (RS) and global positioning systems (GPS) are yielding great advances in scientific research. While the basic scientific data collection and analysis techniques are unchanged, a new breed of foresters is emerging armed with advanced geospatial tools and processes.
Foresters and conservation scientists use GIS software to visualize and analyze interrelated layers of geospatial data (information about a place represented by points, lines, polygons, and images). They employ spatial thinking processes. Driving their work are geographic questions: How does thinning the forest affect local biodiversity? What's the connection between vegetative mutations and local water quality? Do plant and tree disease spread with some of geographic pattern? Why is there soil erosion here while that region of forest is stable?
Most forester jobs require a bachelor's degree. Research and teaching positions usually require a graduate degree.
Education and training. A bachelor's degree in forestry, biology, natural resource management, environmental sciences, or a related discipline is the minimum educational requirement for careers in forestry. In the Federal Government, a combination of experience and appropriate education may substitute for a bachelor's degree, but competition for jobs makes this route to a career in the occupation less common. Foresters who wish to do research or to teach usually need an advanced degree, preferably a Ph.D.
Most land-grant colleges and universities offer degrees in forestry. The Society of American Foresters accredits about 50 degree programs throughout the country. Curricula focus on four areas: forest ecology and biology, measurement of forest resources, management of forest resources, and public policy. Students should balance general science courses such as ecology, biology, tree physiology, taxonomy, and soil formation with technical forestry courses such as forest inventory, wildlife habitat assessment, remote sensing, land surveying, GIS, GPS technology, integrated forest resource management, forest protection, and silviculture (the care and cultivation of forest trees). In addition, mathematics, statistics, and computer science courses are recommended. Courses in resource policy and administration-specifically, forest economics-also are helpful. Forestry curricula increasingly are including courses on wetlands analysis and sustainability and regulatory issues because prospective foresters need a strong grasp of Federal, State, and local policy issues and an understanding of complex environmental regulations.
Many colleges require students to complete a field session either in a camp operated by the college or in a cooperative work-study program with a Federal or State agency or in private industry. All schools encourage students to take summer jobs that provide experience in forestry or conservation work.
Licensure. Sixteen States sponsor some type of credentialing process for foresters. Alabama, California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire have licensing statutes. Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina have mandatory registration statutes, and Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and West Virginia have voluntary registration statutes. Both licensing and registration requirements usually entail completing a 4-year degree in forestry and several years of forestry work experience. Candidates pursuing licensing also may be required to pass a comprehensive written exam.
Other qualifications. Foresters should enjoy working outdoors, be able to tolerate extensive walking and other types of physical exertion, and be willing to relocate to find work. The ability to use technology and quantitative tools, such as GIS, also is important. Foresters and conservation scientists must work well with people and have good communication skills.
Certification and advancement. Over time, many foresters advance to take on managerial duties. They also may conduct research or work on policy issues, often after gaining an advanced degree.
One option for advancement in these occupations is to become certified. The Society of American Foresters certifies foresters who have at least a bachelor's degree from one of the 50 forestry programs accredited by the Society or from a forestry program that, though not accredited by the Society, is substantially equivalent. In addition, the candidate must have 5 years of qualifying professional experience and pass an examination.
Recent forestry graduates usually work under the supervision of experienced foresters or scientists. After gaining experience, they may advance to positions with more responsibilities. In the Federal Government, most entry-level foresters work in forest resource management. Experienced Federal foresters may supervise a ranger district and may advance to forest supervisor, regional forester, or a top administrative position in the national headquarters, where they may work on issues related to forest policy.
In private industry, foresters start by learning the practical and administrative aspects of the business and by acquiring comprehensive technical training. Then they are introduced to contract writing, timber harvesting, and decision making. Some foresters work their way up to top managerial positions. Foresters in management usually leave fieldwork behind, spending more of their time in an office, working with teams to develop management plans and supervising others. After gaining several years of experience, some foresters may become consultants, working alone or with one or several partners. They contract with State or local governments, private landowners, private industry, or other forestry consulting groups.
Geographic visualization and analysis skills are more important to foresters than ever before. With various natural and human-made challenges facing forests, foresters need strong technical skills including information technology areas of database applications, modeling, geospatial technologies--Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, Remote Sensing (RS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS)-- and other tools. To see more clearly how these skills fit into forestry activities, investigate the Esri Forestry and Conservation websites.
Investigate a range of GIS and geospatial career and skill requirements at GIS.com's Career page.
Median annual wages of foresters in 2017 were $61,710. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $40,480, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $84,830. For Federal Government workers in forestry, the average annual salary was $65,020 in May 2017. Foresters who work for Federal, State, and local governments, and those who work for large private firms, generally receive more generous benefits than do those working for smaller firms. Government jobs usually have good pension, health, and leave plans as well.