Forestry Schools Trade Pat Equations for Critical Thought

From the outside, the forestry field may seem simple: cutting down trees (bad), preventing trees from being cut down (good) and planting more (also good).  But the reality of forestry professions, and the training for them, is far more complex.

Forestry students at Oregon State University (Debora Johnson)
Educational institutions have been promoting sustainable forestry since the 1970’s-it’s not a new concept in the field. Recently, however, the innovative edge of the industry has been shifting from a paradigm of following “rules to ensure biodiversity” to a critical thought approach. This new perspective focuses on preparing for an uncertain future, as climate change impacts forest ecosystems in ways that cannot always be predicted. Professors are moving away from the input/output approach of “harvest one, plant one” towards a much more sophisticated way of analyzing forests-an approach that includes a strong emphasis on investing in forests for the long-term.

Forests are important to climate change in several ways.  First, a forest acts as a carbon sink, as trees lock up excess atmospheric greenhouse gases. Human activities, however, have reduced the Earth’s forests by half. The 2007 UN Bali conference on climate change reported that activities to reduce deforestations are some of the most cost-effective ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to climate change researchers Brent Sohngen and Robert H. Beach, reasonable efforts to reduce global deforestation could result in the sequestration of 76 billion tons of carbon. To put that number in perspective, consider this: the average American contributes about 23 tons of carbon to the atmosphere in a calendar year. Although a successful long-term strategy involves lowering that number considerably, a 76 billion ton sequestration could offset all the current carbon emissions of America’s population of 306 million people–plus Canada thrown in for good measure.

Furthermore, the potential effects of deforestation on humans are considerable. Forests provide fuel, medicine, food and shelter, and protect human heath by their very existence: Because mosquitoes thrive in recently deforested areas, fatal tropical diseases such as malaria, hemorrhagic fever, and cholera often follow paths of deforestation. Finding new and effective ways to conduct forestry has never been more critical.

University of British Columbia professor John Innes teaches Sustainable Forest Management and International Forestry, with a focus on environmental conventions and the activities of the Commission on Sustainable Development. An expert in international forestry and a member of the Sustainable Forestry Board, he’s particularly invested in development of a national forest certification standard for China. According to Professor Innes, “The technical name for the technique here is ‘problem-based learning’. Essentially it’s a matter of posing the questions to the students, allowing them to find the answers themselves with varying degrees of guidance. From time to time we meet with the students and say, ‘Have you thought about this, have you thought about that, have you read such-and-such a paper?'”

Today’s cutting edge forestry programs don’t teach rules as much as they teach critical thought and evaluation skills to prepare forestry managers for a future that is difficult to predict. As Innes says, “What tree should I plant here today, given what the climate’s going to be like in a hundred years time? What we’re trying to teach students is that we don’t know the correct answers here. All of our answers could be wrong. And therefore they have to select strategies that have the greatest chance of being correct in the long term. Which different tree species should I plant in a mixture, in the hopes that one of them will survive? We don’t know what the climate is going to do at a particular site. We have the global model… … it’s going to get warmer, but it’s not going to get warmer everywhere. There will be changes in fire hazard, changes in wind hazard, issues with invasive species.”

At Oregon State University, students are developing their critical analysis skills through a course on climate change sceptics.  According to forestry graduate student Jenny Dauer, “We’ve been working through the climate change sceptics’ arguments against the commonly accepted science. We went back and looked at the original research articles to try and understand if there is actually a valid scientific gap in our knowledge, versus what the media says and some people pick up on. The class is useful in thinking about how people react to the whole idea of global climate change and what it means for them.”

Training at forestry schools includes courses on wildlife and ecosystem adaptation to climate change. (Debora Johnson)
Foresters’ critical thinking skills will be paramount as we move into an uncertain future. As the temperature of many forests increase–a process that has already begun in the boreal forests of northern British Columbia–it will be necessary to experiment with new planting techniques. Researchers at the University of British Columbia anticipate replacing harvested or insect-infested trees not with trees of the same species, as has been done in the past, but with a diversity of tree species that are particularly likely to survive increasing temperatures and related insect infestations. In order to not just maintain but increase the carbon capacity of forests, contemporary forestry research is working towards diverse seed mixes from tree species selected for rapid adaptation, high drought tolerance, and fire resistance. Overplanting seedlings is also part of the answer. As forest managers observe the direction of climate change in their region, they can then select for the already-planted species most likely to thrive through the coming changes.

Another up-and-coming trend in forestry is increased partnerships with private landowners to expand forestry areas and carbon sequestration-a venture that requires not only critical thinking skills, but creative people skills as foresters encounter members of the public who are sceptical about climate change.  One growing avenue of carbon sequestration is urban forestry, in which carbon emissions are partially sequestered through heavy increases in tree populations inside urban areas. Auburn University, a leader in urban forestry, is currently studying how to save energy through the use of shade trees, as well as how to select wind resilient trees that can weather the increased storm activity that is expected to accompany climate change.

The forestry students of today will be central players in tomorrow’s decisions about climate change. In addition to diversifying tree species and increasing the net acreage of forested land, students anticipate combating climate change in their careers by proactively preventing fires in forests; engineering advanced techniques for sequestering carbon; developing mill waste as a source of biobased energy; educating the public about forests and climate change; and promoting wood products in lieu of fossil-fuel-intensive materials such as steel or concrete. Across a wide span of specialties, they will share responsibility for keeping the wood industry healthy and productive, combating deforestation, and ensuring the permanence of forests.

See More:

MU Researchers Find that Submerged Oaks Store Carbon 2,000 Years Longer: ClimateEdu

New Recognition Program for Campus Trees: AASHE Campus Sustainability Perspectives

The Future of Public Lands in the United States: WorldChanging

Preserving Habitats on Campus: Campus Ecology blog


National Wildlife Federation, long a leader in conservation and forestation, has contributed to forest protection efforts by helping to create the Forest Stewardship Council, whose standards represent the world’s strongest system for guiding forest management toward sustainable outcomes.

NWF’s latest project, Forest Justice, is a campaign for college students that focuses on protecting forests and reducing emissions from deforestation, while also safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples who depend on those forests. Forest Justice is also sponsored by, Focus the Nation and SustainUS, and takes place this spring. To get involved on your campus, visit

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Published: March 17, 2009