Ecosystems Science and Management

Last week I mentioned the change going on in the wood industry. Well, change is happening in academia as well. For the past twenty years, in fact, forestry and wood science programs in the various North American universities have been changing focus to better reflect the concerns of society.

Here at Penn State, our School of Forest Resources was established in 1907 as the Department of Forestry at The Pennsylvania State College, four years after the start of the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy at Mont Alto. The Penn State program absorbed the State Forest Academy in 1929. A wood products undergraduate curriculum was added in 1941, and a wildlife and fisheries science curriculum was added in 1981. Today, the school proudly continues its three missions of resident education, research, and outreach in Forest Science, Wildlife and Fisheries Science, and Wood Products. And the Penn State School of Forest Resources is supported by the largest alumni group of any such school in the country.

But like the great company mentioned last week, the School of Forest Resources is being transformed into a unit more suitable to the interests and the resources of the times. The majority of the School is being combined with much of the acclaimed Soil Science faculty to form the new Department of Ecosystems Science and Management. The final wrinkles are just being worked out, and the formal announcements should be made shortly.

And while some may have concerns about the sciences of forestry, wood science, and wildlife in their own sphere, I think this transition is one that simply reflects our culture's maturing vision of natural resource management as a system science. More and more frequently, we here in the different academic disciplines are working together with our partners in the other, related disciplines to learn, teach, and transform society's use of the natural resource bounty we've been blessed with here in North America.

An especially revealing evidence of this maturity is the type of message being conveyed to the public by professionals in the forest resources industries. The following video is a great example of how we are collectively sharpening our understanding of the forces at work in the forest, and how we can intelligently care for and use the world's forest resources.

This video isn't just a hype piece created by an huge paper company trying to mislead environmentally concerned citizens. It truly displays, I believe, the way modern forest resource managers approach their jobs...with an eye to ensuring that the forest is maintained and in fact, improved, by any action they take. This is the essence of the ideal conveyed by our environmental prophets Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson...that we should leave the world a better place.

There hasn't been a forester, wildlife biologist, or soil scientist trained in the last fifty years who wasn't brought up on the visions of these three great people...and the fruits of all that collected education is beginning to result in the kind of environmental stewardship they envisioned...not a politically contrived prohibition on the use of the forest, but a holistic understanding of how to use it properly.

The twenty-first century may turn out to be a pretty nice place to live in, if we can continue to work together, to learn together, and to teach the masses. In there somewhere lies the vision of ecosystems science and management.

Tip Amount


PennwoodI3 said…
Great, Penn State will be providing degrees that the private sector will not value. I hope there will be lots of jobs in Government and Academia for Ecosystems Managers.

May Penn State's Forestry and Forest Products programs rest in peace.

Thanks for the update on the state of environmental education at PA's largest "land grant" institution.
Anonymous said…
So the Land Grant Univrsity of a State where over half the landscape is forested in Hardwoods and the very name of the state Penn SYLVANIA invokes forestry. The state where Gifford Pinchot grew up, and where the Forest Products Industry is a major economic engine and source of employment has seen fit to submerge over 100 years of academic history and excellence into some politically correct "ecosystem blah blah blah program (how stylish). No wonder there is such a disconnect between the real world and what is being thought & taught at Colleges and Universities. This is a stupid idea which will not help enrollment and certainly is not in the best intersts of the citizens of Pennsylvania who have to make a living and whose tax dollars support PSU. I can't believe that any alumni were considered or consulted about this decision before it was made because I suspect you have alienated many, especially those whose generosity made the new building a reality. Shame on you.
Chuck Ray said…
PW3 and Anon...

I understand your frustration, and I share similar feelings every time I hear of another wood industry plant shut down. Unfortunately, change has not been kind to the forest industry in general. Modern students are not flocking to forestry or wood products programs, partly because of a change in our culture away from the land (and dirt!), and partly because of the lure of high-tech. Seems like if you can't do it on a cellphone, it isn't worth doing these days.

However, land use policy will always be debated, and more so in the future. Foresters and the wood industry have to be in the conversation, and the only way to get a seat at the table is to demonstrate understanding of and appreciation for the "eco-system" in the positions we take. If we're perceived as natural resource exploiters, then the regulatory screws will continue to tighten us out of existence. Better to be in the game as ecosystem scientists and managers, than out of luck as a frustrated utilitarians.

I too, think it a shame that the School of Forest Resources has apparently become an unsustainable model. But we're at the point that unsustainable programs have to be re-conceptualized to meet the needs of society, or else they will cease to exist.
PennwoodI3 said…
I think "Forestry" will come back into Vogue someday. Most homes are still manufactured and furnished with wood materials and will be for most of my lifetime since the alternatives are derived from petroleum. Penn State will be the one that lost its seat at the table.

It is a shame that 106 years of tradition cannot be sustained just because we had one large housing bubble masterminded by the "masters of the universe".

Maybe the Penn State football program will have a similar fate given the current circumstances it finds itself in.

From a utilitarian perspective the forestry program had more value to society than a Big Ten football team ever did. Even from a "Green Perspective".
Anonymous said…
In my opinion, universities tend to respond to government funding and pressure, rather than the needs of the people. Governments, in turn, are supposed to be responsive and responsible to the people, but that often fails to happen. I don't know who's to blame here, but the apparent abandonment of forestry by PSU is certainly disappointing.
Chuck Ray said…
Anon, I have been assured, and I feel it to be true, that forestry is not being abandoned at Penn State. Rather, the science and practice of forestry is being sub-ordinated under a larger concept called Ecosystems Science and Management. The forestry degrees remains the same, the forestry faculty remains the same, the related University operations, such as management of the forestlands, remain the same.

Many of us trained in forestry have always thought of it as a science of understanding and managing the forest ecosystem. A rose by any other name...
jayo said…
Chuck & Anon, ... is still a rose, sure. But names do matter, especially to off campus constituents. Under previous leadership our land grant university forestry department changed its name from Forest Resources to Forest Ecology and Biogeosciences. Even though programs remained the same, the name change stirred up some ill will. New leadership changed the name to Forest, Rangeland, and Fires Sciences to better reflect traditions and the full scope of what faculty members do. I expect this name will stay for quite some time. BTW, University of Idaho.

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