Farming Magazine - December, 2013


Degrees in Trees

Forestry schools provide knowledge, skills for a career in the woods
By Patrick White

Dr. Michael Bridgen of SUNY-ESF provides a lesson for students. The school offers two-year forestry technician degrees as well as four-year bachelor of science degrees in forestry.
Photos courtesy of SUNY-ESF.

Having a passion for the outdoors and a love of the woods is great, but if you want to get a forestry job that lets you work in the woods, chances are you're going to need a degree. In the Northeast, we are fortunate to have a number of large universities (see sidebar) that offer forestry degrees and a few smaller schools that specialize in forestry.

"Forest management is important, and that's not going away. So there is a need for trained professionals who can provide service to property owners in how to manage their forests," says David Newman, chair of the department of forest and natural resources management at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) in Syracuse, N.Y. "It's not for everybody, but for students with a passion for the woods and working outdoors, a degree in forestry is incredibly valuable."

SUNY-ESF ( offers two and four-year degrees in forestry. "Our two-year program takes place at The Ranger School in Wanakena, N.Y.," notes Newman. "We offer associate of applied science degrees in forest technology, land surveying technology, and environmental and natural resources conservation. The program is fairly unique in that students complete their first year either here at ESF or at a community college following a prescribed set of courses, and then they spend a full year up at The Ranger School learning the technical, hands-on skills." They also learn how to operate the tools and machinery used in these fields. For example, students take part in a harvesting operation and learn to safely use chain saws as well as larger equipment.

These degrees prepare students for careers as technicians working in the forest or with surveyors, etc. "A lot of our graduates from this program work for departments of environmental conservation or other agencies; they might work for consulting companies or tree care companies - any position that needs strong technical skills," says Newman. "Our technicians tend to be in fairly high demand because they've got good skills and we teach professionalism."

Upon completing the two-year program, many students decide to pursue a four-year forestry degree at the school, he notes. "That makes for a great combination, because they have excellent field skills as well as deeper management skills," adds Newman.

SUNY-ESF's bachelor of science degrees are available in forest resource management and forest ecosystems science. The latter is geared more toward students who want to go on to graduate school and become forest researchers and scientists. The former uses a core curriculum that's heavy on forest management skills, covering the fundamental skills of forestry such as silviculture, mensuration, biometrics and a lot of ecology, explains Newman.

Students in the bachelor's program complete a monthlong experience at SUNY-ESF's Ranger School between their sophomore and junior years to help give them a taste of hands-on forestry work. "And every fall, they will have at least two or three courses where most of their afternoons are spent out in the woods," Newman says.

In addition to the knowledge that's shared, an important part of forestry education at SUNY-ESF is ensuring that students are comfortable working in the woods. "Their [future] manager doesn't want to have to worry that they are going to get lost out there; a big part of being a forester is having that comfort out in the woods," he notes.

That's particularly important, because Newman says the profile of forestry students is changing, and not all students arrive with extensive experience in the woods. "It used to be that students who would come into a forestry program grew up in rural areas and their family may have someone working in the woods. But now we are getting more and more kids who grew up in the suburbs, but the idea of working outside is very appealing to them," says Newman.

With some of these students, the first step is simply to expose them to the variety of career possibilities within the forestry profession. "A lot of them just don't know what's out there," he states. "They learn about the field of forestry as they go along."

Jeff Walton, dean of forestry programs at Paul Smith's College ( in the Adirondacks, also sees incoming students from a variety of backgrounds.

"Having family members or friends who work in the woods makes it more likely that someone will recognize the career possibilities that forests hold. There are people who live in the Northern forest areas, from the Adirondacks all the way across to Maine, who likely know there are opportunities in the wood products industry and in managing forests," says Walton.

However, the school also attracts students from more southern parts of the Northeast, including farming regions, where it might not seem as natural to pursue a career in forestry.

Walton says it's not unheard-of for older individuals who may already have a degree in another field, or who have found their calling in some aspect of forest management and want to expand their knowledge base, to pursue at degree at Paul Smith's.

The college offers both associate and, since 1998, bachelor's degree options. About half of the students at the college are in natural resources fields (including biology, environmental science, fisheries and wildlife science, parks management, and natural resource management and policy), with about 110 dedicated to the study of forestry. Walton says there is a fair amount of overlap in classes early on with students in these different majors. Given that they are all science-intensive, there's some opportunity for students to move to a different field before the end of their sophomore year if desired, he notes.

The SUNY-ESF Ranger School campus provides students a chance to learn forestry skills in a real-world setting.

"Most of the programs start with basic English, math and science courses, as well as an introduction class, such as Introduction to Forestry, to whet the appetite of the students a bit and get them right into the field so they can see if that's what they want to do," explains Walton. He estimates that about half of the students already have a pretty good sense of what they want to do. "There's another half that have an idea that they want to do something in the environmental field, but they're still feeling out what exactly that is."

A big part of helping students make those choices is exposing them to the various career options within each field, says Walton. "Not everyone has a high awareness of what you actually do as a forester or environmental scientist, etc.," he observes.

The two-year associate degree in forestry incorporates what Walton calls "practical, basic skills of forestry," including tree measurement, tree identification, inventory skills and harvesting (chain saw safety/tree felling) and land surveying. "So the first two years are heavily skill-based."

Students who stay four years to earn a bachelor's degree can then choose from three different concentrations. Forest management is really the core of forestry, says Walton. Forest operations is "targeted at the person who's interested in the industrial steps of taking a group of trees and turning them into some type of forest product - the safety, the equipment involved and that sort of thing," he says. Forest biology is for the person who wants to use the forest as a laboratory, such as a scientist studying tree genetics or diseases and insects.

All of the different forestry options emphasize hands-on learning. Walton says, "Experiential education is important to us, and that's what employers like. They want someone who can get out there and do the work, solve the problems in the field and be independent. That's where we find students who come from dairy farm families or agricultural backgrounds - who are used to fixing things and making this work - really excel."

Photo by Andreas Krappweis/

Offering Degrees in Forestry

Large state universities in the Northeast offering degrees in forestry include:

Pennsylvania State University, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management:

University of Maine, School of Forest Resources:

University of Massachusetts:

University of New Hampshire:

University of Vermont, Rubenstein School:

Technology plays an important role in forestry today, so it's not surprising that it's a major component of forestry education. "We try to start very basic, with fail-safe tools like a map and compass. People have to feel comfortable out in the woods and know they can make it back to their car," says Walton. "But then we move into GIS classes, computer mapping, GPS equipment, aerial imagery, satellite imagery, laser range finders to measure the height of trees, computerized data collectors and so on."

While technology is vital, Walton says that time out in the woods is what students in the forestry program love the most. Paul Smith's owns roughly 14,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks, providing plenty of real-life outdoor classroom space for those in the forestry program. "Our land is really the laboratory where everything happens. You can walk out the door and across the street and you're in a spruce-fir forest or a birch-beech-maple forest right here adjacent to campus," he notes. Students also tour other woodlots to see harvesting operations and management practices up close, Walton adds.

As part of their studies, students are given opportunities to take part in "externships" with forestry companies that provide opportunities for students to work during the summer in forestry jobs in the Northeast. These help get students excited about their chosen career and give them a better understanding of the importance of the skills they're learning at school, Walton says.

When choosing a forestry school, he advises students to be sure the schools they are looking at are accredited by the Society of American Foresters. "Most of the schools in the Northeast are accredited. That's important, because it means that the program meets the basic professional industry standards," Walton explains. "It's an ongoing process, which means you have to show that you're evolving and changing with the technology and keeping up-to-date. That's very important in forestry today."

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.