Training Future Forest Resource Professionals

Training Future Forest Resource Professionals

Jordan Herrin can look back and see the forest for the trees.

Pine trees cut for timber being stacked by a loading arm against a blue sky.
A crane loads logs from a pine forest onto a truck. Timber has a $41.6 billion economic impact in Texas, including more than 172,000 jobs. (Stock photo)

Points in the development of Herrin’s career as a forester detail the path he chose. The path began as a forest resource student within the Texas A&M Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Herrin started as a student worker in the forest genetics lab as a freshman and worked seasonally at the Texas A&M Forest Service’s Bastrop County office. He graduated from Texas A&M University in 2010 and is now a regional forester with Texas A&M Forest Service and responsible for offices supporting 17 East Texas counties.

“I knew I wanted a job in forestry by high school, but I always knew I wanted a job related to the outdoors,” he said. “I didn’t know what a career in forestry meant when I reached college, but after taking fundamental and basic forestry classes, I saw a career path.”

Forest resource program balances student development

Jason West, Ph.D., associate professor and associate department head in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, said most students on the Forest Resource track feel a natural draw to the outdoors. They typically express conservation- and sustainable management-minded attitudes toward natural resources and the ecosystems surrounding them.

“Some commonalities among most forest resource students are that they enjoy nature and like the idea of spending time outdoors as a part of their job,” he said. “Working in a cubicle is not their idea of how they want to spend a career, and increasingly I think there is interest in having a career that contributes to effectively managing natural resources so future generations can access and enjoy them.”

Firefighter dragging a hose during a training fire.
Wildfire suppression is a big part of what foresters hired by state and federal agencies do. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Job opportunities run the gamut of private and public entities that prepare and plan short- and long-term management and actively manage forests and timber interests, West said.

The forest sector generates more than $41.6 billion in economic impact for the state of Texas, including more than 172,000 jobs.

The U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Texas A&M Forest Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife are some top destinations for graduates. West said municipalities are becoming increasingly aware that trees and green spaces make urban areas more attractive and healthier for residents.

Developers are more mindful of these trends as well, so opportunities with private firms are expanding beyond timber planning, consultation, management and production, he said.

West said the program is good at training students in the fundamentals of forest management and ecology with cutting-edge research methodology and technology that prepares them for a job or continuing their education. Foresters face challenges ranging from big picture trends related to climate change and carbon sequestration or regional concerns like disease and pest issues to management decisions for intensive timber production and non-intensive natural forests.

The forest resource program provides students with a balance of how forest ecosystems existed historically and evolved amid land-use changes, West said. Perspective, knowledge and techniques using both natural and technological tools prepare graduates  

“Some students take jobs with state and federal forest services or in management and planning services,” he said. “Some may continue their education and focus on the analytical side of timber regeneration or become silviculturists. Academia and the industry are aware of the challenges and the time it takes to grow tree crops or restore and maintain balanced native forests, and there are career paths within the spectrum where students can meet those challenges.”

Forestry presents unique work, challenges

Herrin’s student work in Bastrop exposed him to the ebb and flow of menial tasks and exciting assignments. The forestry program developed his forest management expertise, and the university shaped his character.  

He did not land the job he wanted upon graduation. Herrin worked part time until 2011, when a forester position at the Texas A&M Forest Service office in Huntsville opened. Since then, Herrin has been moving up the ranks.

Pine trees in Sam Houston National Park.
Planted pine trees in Sam Houston National Forest. Foresters manage trees in a wide range of settings from city parks to natural forests and timber production. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Courtney Sacco)

Being a forester has provided Herrin access to nature throughout Texas and from the Pacific Northwest to the Florida-Georgia line. There has been adventure and danger from time to time. There has been paperwork and projects and assignments that span the range of satisfying and challenging.

“Half the job is fire suppression,” Herrin said. “But as a forester there is a lot of state forest management, helping private landowners and industry, and partnering with federal agencies. So, I would say about 95% of the job is about working with people. It is a good mix, and each day can present a unique job.”

Forestry is about more than trees

Herrin said he has hired graduates from many forestry programs. But there are a few characteristics that set Texas A&M forestry graduates apart. The base knowledge is expected in all graduates considered for employment, but he said foresters from the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology have intangibles that equip them for leadership roles.

“One thing Texas A&M does right is that graduates typically have leadership qualities,” he said. “I don’t know why or how, but they come in and understand how to lead up and lead down. I think it might be the overall experience at Texas A&M that builds that. It’s a big place, so success depends on the work you put in, and nobody holds your hand through the process. Then there are all the opportunities the campus presents, and students are exposed to so much.”

Herrin met his wife, who is a procurement forester, while in the program. There is a stark contrast in the tasks they perform, but their careers parallel around the fact that being a forester is about more than trees.

The experience and exposure help graduates navigate uniquely different challenges being a forester or working in the forest industry can present, Herrin said, whether assisting landowners with one tree or a million trees, looking for pests like emerald ash borers, planting trees or bulldozing fire lanes.

The challenges of timber production or managing a healthy native forest are unique within Texas agriculture, Herrin said. No crop requires as much time and dedicated effort or faces as many threats and stresses over its life cycle that spans multiple decades.

Drought, disease, pests, fire and other natural disasters all must be managed, he said.

There are job opportunities in private and public sectors for newbies and experienced foresters, Herrin said. The industry continues to evolve with better tree breeding, scientific discovery and new monitoring technology that continue to propel the field.

Herrin said the future of forestry will be steered by research, sensing equipment, statistics and modeling, but the industry will continue to need well-rounded people to become foresters.

“The future of forestry is changing the career track and bringing in different disciplines that make us more efficient and effective,” he said. “We’re leveraging technology and skills to meet challenges and trends, but at the end of the day trees are the smallest part of the job, and people are the biggest part.”

Adam Russell is a communication specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife. Adam is responsible for writing news releases and feature articles focused on Texas A&M AgriLife Extension programs and science-based information generated by Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientists across the state. He also generates the weekly Texas Crop and Weather Report and handles public and media relations.