What Is a Professional Forester?

professional forester in front of logs

Humans are both part of the natural world and caretakers of it. We are tasked with living in it and using its resources in a responsible manner that ensures the vitality of the global environment for generations to come. Yet, the Earth is facing dire environmental threats, and the clock is ticking.

If you feel called to do your part to protect the natural environment, there are a number of conservation careers you might consider pursuing. One example is the role of a forester. What is a forester and what does a forester do? This detailed career guide explains.

What Is a Forester?

Forestry is the science and art of land and forest management. Its goal is to optimize the use of forest areas for commercial, industrial and recreational purposes while conserving the natural resources and protecting the environment for the future. In other words, a forester is an expert in land and forest management who walks a careful balance between planning the usage of forest lands and protecting them. In other words, a forester’s primary goal is sustainability.

Where Can a Forester Work?

Foresters usually work in a variety of settings, including offices, laboratories and, of course, the great outdoors. They sometimes need to travel to remote locations to perform field work in all types of weather. Foresters may also meet with members of the public in settings such as schools or community centers; there, they educate the public about conservation and responsible outdoor recreation.

The typical employers of foresters vary by region. In the eastern U.S., foresters most often work for private companies and landowners, such as lumber companies, as well as advocacy groups and public policy lobbyists. In the western U.S., a large percentage of foresters work for the federal government due to the large number of national parks in the region.

What Does a Forester Do?

The specific tasks of foresters vary by region and by employer. In general, however, a forester may do any of the following:

  • Develop and implement strategies to protect forests and their trees from wildfires, insect infestations (particularly invasive species) and disease
  • Develop and implement plans to regenerate forested lands that have been affected by wildfires and other problems
  • Compile and evaluate Geographic Information System (GIS) data and aerial photographs to identify trends in forest and land usage
  • Evaluate the health and growth of trees using tools such as clinometers and bark gauges to estimate timber volumes
  • Support and direct fire suppression activities
  • Create or approve timber harvest plans, mark trees for harvest and track yields

A forester may also supervise the work of forestry technicians and conservation workers. In addition, these professionals are often responsible for coordinating forestry activities with other experts, such as firefighters, and for reporting on trends and activities to other stakeholders.

Foresters who work for timber companies are primarily concerned with sustainable timber harvesting. In contrast, the foresters who work for state agencies or the federal government are primarily concerned with conservation and fire suppression. Urban foresters work in large cities, where they manage urban tree populations and tackle issues such as air quality, shade improvement and stormwater runoff.

Recommended Courses for Future Foresters

Now that you know the answers to the questions “What is a forester?” and “What does a forester do?” you may have decided that you’re interested in pursuing this career in the interests of supporting the stewardship of the Earth’s natural resources. The process of becoming a forester can start right now if you’re in high school.

Since forestry is a scientific field, it’s in your best interest to take as many courses in STEM fields as possible. Even if a particular STEM course doesn’t seem like it has much to do with forestry, such as physics, you’ll be building a solid foundation of scientific knowledge that will serve you well in your future endeavors.

If your high school offers them, courses such as horticulture, plant and soil science, natural resource management and forestry are ideal, as they are more specific to your career plans. You should also take courses in computer applications, as technology is vital for this profession.

Earning Your Biological Sciences Degree

There is no one universal type of bachelor’s degree that all foresters are required to have. However, most aspiring foresters do look for a program in forestry. It’s also possible to pursue this career path with a degree in biological sciences, agriculture, natural resources, rangeland management or a related field.

A degree in biological sciences can be appealing to many students, as this provides a broad foundation in the STEM fields. If you change your mind about your career plans, a degree in biological sciences can pave the way to a multitude of options. No matter which type of degree you choose, you should select a program from an accredited university; this indicates the curriculum has met certain standards.

The specific curriculum will vary from one school to the next. In general, however, if you choose a degree in biological sciences, you can expect to study topics such as the following:

  • Biological concepts at the molecular, cellular and organismal levels, including lifecycles of organisms and ecological principles
  • Mendelian and molecular genetics, with a look at patterns of inheritance and genetic relationships
  • Biological diversification throughout the history of the planet
  • Fundamentals of ecology, with an emphasis on flora and fauna in relation to the biological environment
  • Conservation biology, including the loss of biological diversity and the fundamentals of environmental conservation

You can expect a blend of classroom instruction and hands-on learning experiences in laboratory settings. You may be required to complete a capstone course in your senior year; this may involve the development of an extensive research project and a corresponding written report.

When you have the opportunity to take electives, consider taking courses in computer science and communication. Forestry professionals must often use complex computer programs to document their work. They must also be able to effectively communicate their findings to others.

Does a Forester Need a Graduate Degree?

A graduate degree is generally not a requirement to begin working as a professional forester. However, employers may either require or prefer that applicants have a master’s degree if their baccalaureate degree was in general biological sciences, rather than focused on forestry in particular. Even if you aren’t required to have a master’s degree, earning one can be a smart move for your long-term career plans. 

Forestry professionals with graduate education may be qualified for higher-level positions that command a more lucrative salary. In addition, a master’s degree in forestry can enable you to specialize in a particular niche, such as urban forestry, watershed health or tropical forestry.

Lastly, you may decide to pursue a graduate degree in forestry to open up your career possibilities. A graduate degree can prepare you to pursue a career in research or management, for instance. In addition, a master’s degree can enable you to pursue a teaching position at a community college, and a doctoral degree may allow you to become a professor of forestry at a four-year university.

Do You Need a License to Become a Forester?

Whether or not you need a license to become a forester depends on where you would like to work. Some states, such as California, Georgia and West Virginia, do require their foresters to be licensed and/or registered. After deciding where you would like to work, you’ll have to contact the appropriate state board to determine whether you’ll need a license or registration.

The process for securing a state license or registration varies from one jurisdiction to the next. In general, aspiring foresters who are required to secure licensure can expect to submit an application that includes proof of their education and experience. Then, they must generally sit for an exam before receiving a license. Note that some states may require periodic renewal of professional licenses.

Should Forestry Professionals Obtain Certification?

It isn’t mandatory for a forester or an aspiring forester to earn a certification in order to work. However, many choose to obtain a voluntary certification in order to demonstrate their expertise and skills. Certification may also pave the way toward promotions and a higher salary—although this is not guaranteed, and accrued work experience often leads to similar outcomes.

The main body in the U.S. that certifies professional foresters is the Society of American Foresters (SAF). To qualify to take the certification exam, you must have a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree from an academic institution that has been accredited by the SAF. If your degree was not from an SAF-accredited program, you may still qualify if you can demonstrate that the coursework meets SAF requirements.

The SAF also establishes experience requirements. You can qualify to become a Candidate Certified Forester if you have less than five years of professional forestry experience in one of the following experience areas:

  • Resource assessment
  • Management planning
  • Stakeholder analysis and relations
  • Execution of management plans

If you are further along in your career, then you may qualify to become a Certified Forester with five or more years of forestry experience in at least two of those experience areas listed above. Note that becoming certified requires passing the certification exam. Certified foresters must maintain their credential by completing a certain number of continuing education hours; this must be done either each year (Certified Forester) or every three years (Candidate Certified Forester).

Essential Skills and Characteristics of Effective Forestry Professionals

There are multiple skills and characteristics that are vital for professional foresters. Since foresters may work outdoors in remote locations, physical stamina is an essential trait. In addition, the following are quite helpful:

  • Management and supervision skills (which can be acquired through work experience)
  • Communication skills
  • Analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills
  • Informed decision-making skills

A commitment to lifelong education is also desirable, as foresters need to stay on top of the latest scientific research and trends in their field.

If you have a passion for the natural world, you can turn your curiosity into purpose by enrolling at Grand Canyon University. The College of Science, Engineering and Technology is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences degree program, which embraces an interdisciplinary curriculum that establishes a strong foundation for career success. The Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science degree with an emphasis in Environmental Chemistry blends classroom instruction and hands-on lab work to instill in students the fundamental principles of evidence-based scientific research. Learn more about earning your biological sciences degree at GCU by clicking on Request Info at the top of your screen. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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