As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I had a pretty romantic view of forests, mountains, park rangers and foresters. I was too young to recognize some of the depleted woodlands to the north, but I definitely saw burly, 30-foot Paul Bunyan statues proudly displayed in towns across the state, and I equated the life of a forester with being outdoors and being a conservationist. And why not? Some of the greatest minds in conservation were initially foresters, including Aldo Leopold and John Muir, who both have deep connections in Wisconsin and in forest management—even though today these icons of land conservation are rarely described as foresters.
Muir was born in Scotland but grew up in Wisconsin. After he completed degrees in botany at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he went to work as a forester and as a sawyer at a lumber mill in Indiana before heading west to ultimately promote land preservation. Leopold was born in Iowa but worked much of his life as a forester. He eventually joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, and through his observations in the woods created the notion of practical conservation and described the land ethic that lives on in many of us today.
So as I look out at our students in the halls this fall, I wonder about their connection to the land, and how they reflect on terms such as wilderness, conservation, forests, forestry and foresters. I wonder if they grew up in neighborhoods where they could escape to stroll through the woods and peacefully observe natural ecosystems at work. I also wonder, in this age of reality television and social media, if the concept of sustainable forest management can even compete with their screens—or if all that breaks through the stream of split-second updates are visions of clear-cutting, or an ESPN highlight of lumberjacks sawing for sport.
After all, our population in the United States is increasingly urban, with current estimates that 80 percent of us now live in or around cities. That figure is growing by 1.2 percent every year, and the burgeoning Greater Puget Sound area alone could absorb 60 percent growth in the next 50 years. With this increasing urbanization often comes a dwindling understanding of both natural and working landscapes, and the role these lands play in our overall wellbeing.
That’s why we have such an important responsibility with conservation and forestry education here in this urban setting of Seattle. We are uniquely positioned to strengthen environmental values our students bring with them, and to cultivate new ties to the land. As professors and researchers and mentors, our mission is to teach our students about the value of forests and forest products in creating a sustainable society. Most importantly, it’s our job to train a workforce that can effectively manage these lands in a manner that simultaneously protects biodiversity and clean water and delivers an enduring supply of renewable building materials and other alternative forest products.
During the next 10 years, I hope to see forestry once again broadly equated with conservation and a strong ethic for the land. Developing that relationship, of course, is a lifelong process, and we now have programs in place at Pack Forest and the UW Botanic Gardens with the specific goal of getting kids out into the woods, and to initiate a relationship with the natural world at an early age. I’m excited to see that education nourished from preschool through high school, and to capture those budding foresters and conservationists in our undergraduate and graduate programs. With each class we reach, I can’t help but feel optimistic about the future of forestry—and our role in making sure forests and forest products play in central role in building a sustainable future for generations to come.