Exploring this Job

One way to explore the field of forestry is to talk with someone already working as a forester or forestry technician. In some parts of the country, local chapters of the Society of American Foresters invite prospective forestry students to some of their meetings and field trips. School counselors may have literature and information on forestry careers. Also, colleges and universities that offer forestry degrees should have information packets for interested students or offer details on the field at their Web sites.

If you live near forested areas you might be able to find summer or part-time jobs in forestry. Unskilled workers are sometimes used for certain tasks, and this type of work could be a good introduction to the field by providing valuable experience and offering a view of what the job of a forester is really like.

The Job

Foresters do much of their work outdoors, especially during the early part of their careers. Beginning foresters perform many duties. They map areas of a forest and estimate the amounts of resources that they provide, such as timber, game shelter, and food, water, and forage for cattle and sheep. They also determine areas that need intervention, such as planting trees, controlling disease or insects, thinning dense forest stands, using controlled burns to reduce brush that may fuel dangerous wildfires, or pruning trees to produce better lumber or plywood. They monitor stands of trees to ensure healthy growth and determine the best time for harvesting. They lay out logging roads or roads to lakes and recreational facilities. Foresters supervise crews doing all these jobs and inspect their work after it is done.

Foresters select and mark trees to be cut and check on the cutting and removal of the logs and pulpwood. They may be in charge of the lookouts, patrols, and pilots who detect fires and may lead crews that fight fires. They also sometimes oversee the operation of recreational areas, collect fees, issue permits, give talks to groups of campers, find lost hikers, and rescue climbers and skiers.

Even for foresters in the early stages of their careers, however, the work is not all outdoors. They must record the work done in the forest on maps and in reports. They use hand-held computers, GPS systems, Internet-based applications, data-processing equipment, and aerial photography to assist in this process. Although most beginning foresters do most of their work outside, some do work primarily indoors, in the technical laboratories and factories of wood-using industries. They may work in sawmills, plywood and hardboard plants, pulp and paper mills, wood-preserving plants, and furniture factories. These foresters are specialists in wood technology or pulp and paper technology. Many forest scientists work in laboratories and greenhouses, as well as in the forests, to learn how trees and forests grow.

When used wisely, a forest offers many benefits and can be used for many purposes. To maximize these benefits, foresters must not only know a great deal about the forest resources, but also be able to explain technical information to people, and secure their cooperation. Foresters, from the very start of their careers, can expect to be called on to speak before various groups, from elementary school classes to service clubs and meetings of scientific societies. While not all foresters are in frequent contact with the public, they all eventually discover that their advancement depends on their ability to work with other people.

Much of the work that foresters do involves applying scientific knowledge and theory to actual practices in the field. Some foresters specialize in one or two of the basic sciences. In fact, some foresters are engaged in research that delves deeply into the fundamental physical and biological sciences. They work in laboratories with many modern techniques and devices.

The scientific knowledge of how forests live is the specialty of silviculturists, who practice the art of establishing or reproducing forests, regulating their makeup, and influencing their growth and development along predetermined lines. The art of silviculture and the principles of economics and finance are the foundations of forest preservation and management.

One branch of forestry, known as forest engineering or logging engineering, combines forestry and engineering. Work in this field includes the design and construction of roads, bridges, dams, and buildings in forest areas. The design, selection, and installation of equipment for moving logs and pulpwood out of the forest is the special field of the logging, or forest, engineer. Forest and logging engineers may be graduates of schools of forestry that offer courses in this specialty, or they may have been trained as civil, mechanical, or electrical engineers.

Procurement foresters purchase timber from local forest owners. They inventory the type, amount, and location of all standing timber on the property; appraise its value; negotiate a purchase price with its owner; and then hire loggers or pulpwood cutters to remove and process the trees. 

Another type of specialist, the forest ecologist, conducts research to find out how forests are affected by changes in environmental conditions, such as soil, light, climate, altitude, and animal populations.

Relatively new specialists are urban foresters and conservation education foresters. Urban foresters live and work in cities, managing the trees growing there. Their primary areas of interest are air quality, shade, beautification, storm water runoff, and property values. Conservation education foresters teach educators, students, and others about forest stewardship.

Increasingly, foresters are working with private landowners to help them find ways to generate revenue without cutting down trees. This might consist of allowing people to hunt, hike, or otherwise enjoy recreational activities on the land.

Foresters use a number of tools to perform their jobs: Clinometers measure the heights, diameter tapes measure the diameters, and increment borers and bark gauges measure the growth of trees. Photogrammetry and remote sensing (aerial photographs taken from airplanes and satellites) are often used to map large forest areas and detect forest growth and land use trends. Computers are used extensively, both in the office and in the field, to store, retrieve, and analyze the information required to manage the forestland and its resources.

In most forestry organizations and groups, a great deal of physical work in the woods needs to be done. This work is usually done by people with experience and aptitude but little formal education beyond high school or by forestry technicians who have graduated from one- or two-year programs in forestry technicians' institutes or ranger schools.