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Conservation Scientists and Foresters - What They Do


Conservation scientists and foresters manage the use and development of forests, rangelands, and other natural resources. These lands supply wood products, livestock forage, minerals, and water. They serve as sites for recreational activities and provide habitats for wildlife. Some workers advise private landowners on the use and management of their land and may 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. Often, this means coming up with a plan 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 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. When the trees reach a certain size, foresters decide which trees should be harvested and sold to sawmills.

Procurement foresters make up a large share of foresters. Their job is to buy timber, typically for a sawmill or wood products manufacturer, by contacting local forest owners and negotiating a sale. This activity typically involves taking inventory of the type, amount, and location of all standing timber on the property, a process known as timber cruising. They then appraise the timber's worth, negotiate its purchase, and draw up a contract for purchase. Next, the forester subcontracts with loggers or pulpwood cutters for tree removal and to aid in laying out roads to access the timber. Throughout the process, foresters maintain close contact with the subcontractor and the landowner to ensure that the work meets the landowner's requirements and Federal, State, and local environmental regulations.

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. 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.

Conservation scientists manage, improve, and protect the country's natural resources. They work with landowners and Federal, State, and local governments to devise ways to use and improve the land while safeguarding the environment. Conservation scientists advise farmers, farm managers, and ranchers on how they can improve their land for agricultural purposes and to control erosion. A growing number of conservation scientists also are advising landowners and governments on recreational uses for the land.

Two of the more common conservation scientists are range managers and soil conservationists. Range managers, also called range conservationists, range ecologists, or range scientists, study, manage, improve, and protect rangelands to maximize their use without damaging the environment. Rangelands cover hundreds of millions of acres of the United States, mostly in western States and Alaska. They contain many natural resources, including grass and shrubs for animal grazing, wildlife habitats, water from vast watersheds, recreation facilities, and valuable mineral and energy resources. Range managers may inventory soils, plants, and animals; develop resource management plans; help to restore degraded ecosystems; or assist in managing a ranch. For example, they may help ranchers attain optimum livestock production by determining the number and kind of animals to graze, the grazing system to use, and the best season for grazing. At the same time, however, range managers maintain soil stability and vegetation for other uses, such as wildlife habitats and outdoor recreation. Like foresters, range managers work to prevent and mitigate wildfires and invasive animal species. They also plan and implement revegetation of disturbed sites.

Soil and water conservationists provide technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, forest managers, State and local agencies, and others concerned with the conservation of soil, water, and related natural resources. For private landowners, they develop programs designed to make the most productive use of land without damaging it. Soil conservationists also assist landowners by visiting areas with erosion problems, finding the source of the problem, and helping landowners and managers develop management practices to combat it. Water conservationists also assist private landowners and Federal, State, and local governments by advising on water quality, preserving water supplies, preventing groundwater contamination, and management and conservation of water resources.

Conservation scientists and foresters 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 geographic information systems (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, global positioning systems (GPS), and Internet-based applications are used extensively.

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.

Education & Training Required
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.

Conservation scientists generally have at least a bachelor's degree in a field such as natural resource management, rangeland management, agricultural science, or environmental science. A master's degree or Ph.D. usually is required for teaching and research positions.

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, 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 and business administration—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.

Range managers usually have a degree in range management or range science. Nine colleges and universities that are accredited by the Society of Range Management offer degrees in the subject. More than 40 other schools offer coursework in range science or in a closely related discipline. Range management courses combine plant, animal, and soil sciences with principles of ecology and resource management. Desirable electives include statistics, forestry, hydrology, agronomy, wildlife, animal husbandry, computer science, and recreation. Selection of a minor in range management, such as wildlife ecology, watershed management, animal science, or agricultural economics, can often enhance one’s qualifications for certain types of employment.

Very few colleges and universities offer degrees in soil conservation. Most soil conservationists have degrees in environmental studies, agronomy, general agriculture, hydrology, or crop or soil science; some have degrees in related fields such as wildlife biology, forestry, and range management. Programs of study usually include 30 semester hours in natural resources or agriculture, with at least 3 hours in soil science.

Certifications Needed (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 Skills Required (Other qualifications)
Foresters and conservation scientists 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 also is important. Foresters and conservation scientists must work well with people and have good communication skills.

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Academic Programs of Interest

Conservation Biology
Conservation biology is the science of analyzing and protecting Earth's biological diversity. Conservation biology draws from the biological, physical and social sciences, economics, and the practice of natural-resource management. The term "conservation biology" refers to the application of science ...more
Environmental Science
Environmental science is the study of interactions among physical, chemical, and biological components of the environment. It is an interdisciplinary science overlapping the categories in Natural sciences, Engineering sciences and Social sciences. In nature, Environmental science focuses on pollution ...more
Natural Resource Conservation
Conservation authorities are mandated to ensure the conservation, restoration and responsible management of water, land and natural habitats through programs that balance human, environmental and economic needs. Most management programs occur in parks known as conservation areas. ...more