Lessons Learned: Joseph Bachman- Part 3

October 7, 2020

This is the final installment of Joseph Bachman’s Lessons Learned series for the October edition of The Forestry Source. While a departure from previous Lessons Learned, Bachman’s experience in the behind-the-scenes world of global forest investing provides a valuable perspective for everyone in the forestry profession. As he explains, education is at the heart of working in the forestry or natural resources profession and a systems approach, paired with on-the-job training, is invaluable to cultivating the next generation of leaders. 

Education: Sustain an Enduring Profession
By Joseph Bachman 

It has been a privilege this summer to not only reflect upon the lessons learned during my ongoing career, but also to hear from a number of you about similar formative and later contributing experiences that have led to careers of significance and influence, both local and global. Common to these has been our shared belief in the societal import of forest management; the richness of experiences along the way (and stories to boot); and the deep friendships cultivated through common purpose, thought, and appreciation of the resources we manage. The reflection reminds us that a career in forestry is a journey of lifelong education in the broadest sense and that comparing notes among ourselves is unifying as well as enriching. Forestry as a profession for succeeding generations really needs no better selling points than these.

Forestry has taken me from the north woods of Wisconsin to the mountains of western North Carolina and other far-flung corners of the world, and now back to school, where I teach at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. As related in the August column, “The School and the Farm,” each has its role in creating a foundation of competence and credibility in resource professionals. Yet those needs have evolved as globalization has recast challenge, opportunity, and the need for alignment along the global forest value chain. 

In my role as executive in residence in Natural Resource Finance, I have a unique perch as a practitioner in the court of academia. In this capacity, one of my responsibilities is student advising. Supporting future foresters and helping to guide their early career steps over the last past two-plus years has reinforced my belief that our profession is truly one of the most relevant and exciting today. Rich experience, relationships, and contributions of significance are at the heart of forestry. The ongoing cultivation and advancement of the forestry sector—and our individual and collective successes therein—continue to require new energy, diverse talent, and a curriculum calibrated to channeling these essential elements. Field-based education, a renewed focus on management, and challenging young people to develop as leaders are key in sustaining our growth as a sector and as individual foresters.

Rooting curriculum in a field-based education
Much has been written and said about today’s younger generation(s): the “Millennials” and “Zoomers.” Indeed, one reason I chose to return to Duke was the opportunity for direct interaction with these cohorts. As a member of Generation X (slackers, latch key, or grunge), I use the labels colloquially and not in the pejorative. Yes, everything one has heard is true and yet so untrue. While I am fascinated by the stereotypical generational differences, I encourage students not to buy into labels, but rather to heed the implicit insight they may provide. What I do know about my students is that they are highly intelligent, have a tremendous capacity to work hard, and are committed to bettering our world. These strengths outshine the occasional kernels of truth specific to this generation’s unique sense of self and technology-centric lifestyles. 

Yet educating today’s students is challenging. Variable attention spans; aversion to reading (versus video); a tendency to rely on untested web-based information rather than peer-reviewed research; and technological silver bullets over behavioral change as solutions to environmental problems are all real considerations. “Engagement” is a popular term in higher education these days, and commitment to a common purpose by both students and teachers is clearly essential to achieve educational outcomes. The better questions however are, what to teach and how exactly to deliver education most engagingly?

In an age where information may be commoditized as “content,” a forest management education based on a foundation of systems and process is more important than ever. Why? Because forestry, its practice, and its implications are now more global, and the importance is less the situational knowledge itself but more how professionals apply it across diverse landscapes. Although Duke is in the Southeast, its graduates will practice everywhere woody plants exist. And while the loblolly pine is a tremendous species in terms of its adaptability, manageability, and is a supremely studied educational vehicle, teaching from a systems-based approach founded upon local resources will allow graduates to adapt and extend their educations to the four corners of the globe. Ecological, economic, cultural, and financial systems are all relevant in the multifaceted world of forestry. Comparative experience across these disciplines, as well as across diverse systems, yields useful perspectives upon which to approach global challenge and change. The flexibility and adaptability of a systemic approach is irreplaceable.

Teaching the evolving science underlying forest systems is where forestry education should begin. Understanding the dynamics of natural systems is the rarest of expertise these days, and this knowledge helps distinguish foresters as clear voices in the context of pressing issues ranging from wildfire to climate change. Furthermore, a process-based ecological education provides a strong foundation in the cycle of scientific inquiry. The formulation and testing of hypotheses—followed by careful analysis and recalibration of understanding—is valuable not only in science, but also in the current sea of unregulated information. Specificity of scientific knowledge and disciplined thinking distinguishes foresters as grounded problem solvers.

Bridging the divide between “school” and “farm” is challenging. How do we help forest professionals become practical problem solvers? To start, we must instill values of fiscal restraint and commerciality, standards that bring pertinence and respect. These principles must be actively cultivated in a forestry curriculum that provides students immediate relevance in their early career steps. Leading curricula must discern between economics and finance, with an emphasis on the distinction between theory and practice. The reason for this is because at some point, forestry—both public and private—must be commercially viable endeavors. While economics and finance have critical differences—the role of markets versus the valuation and allocation of financial resources—they combine to facilitate the business imperative of value creation. As an integrative management practice, the ability to allocate scarce resources to satisfy both forest and financial demands is of tremendous value to employers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors of our profession.

So how do we deliver systems-based thinking and education with practical outcomes? By immersing students in the system. In forestry, field-based education is our secret weapon. Such experiential learning and purposeful connection to the natural world is what today’s students crave. For many, academic outdoor experiences are some of their first. In a field based curriculum, dendrology and forest measurements engage professional students, allowing them to embrace trees at DBH, to feel the bark, call them by Latin name, and to collaborate with their peers to make viable decisions in the face of real-world management challenges. This is incredibly empowering for students in their mid-twenties as they venture forth both personally and professionally. This semester, the Duke Forest–a 7,000-acre teaching and research laboratory directly adjoining campus–not only provides sanctuary from societal and academic pressures as the safest classroom possible, but also connects to the natural world absent the threats of virtual realities, social media, Zoom, and the hazards of blue light. Those of us teaching online this term are deeply envious of the opportunity to photosynthesize.

The imperative of management 
Field-based education engages students and provokes them to embrace complexity and the existential value of natural systems. In a multi-disciplinary academic setting with multiple lenses, the challenge is choreographing educational approaches by discipline to create an experience that bridges the distance between school and farm, theory and practice. By their nature, field experiences integrate perspectives and frequently spark realization that study must arrive at the point of decision, and thought must yield to action. Simply put, the imperative of management. The conventional classroom can facilitate knowledge transfer, provoke thought, and even teach students some skills that, over time, can evolve into expertise. What is difficult is preparing students to use these skills and knowledge in making those early decisions. Field-based education is a good start, but many of those lessons traditionally come through entry-level roles—ones that pay first-time foresters the life-long dividends of credibility from having “done the job.” 

I recall being assigned a large tract of land owned by Champion International in Haywood County, North Carolina, by two mentors, Kevin McElwee and Jim Runyan. They provided a length of rope, very few constraints, and sparing guidance, as well as a tremendous amount of support as I assumed responsibility for creating a management plan and then logging high-value stands. The fact that I was held accountable for those decisions was one of the best professional gifts I could have had in my twenties. Even better, these responsibilities were replicated across Champion’s operations in fifteen states for many other young people in similar boots. Through the 1990s, many of us across integrated companies and public management agencies had analogous early opportunities as nascent forest managers in both public and private forests. Unfortunately, given industry consolidation and wholesale changes in land management, in part driven by changing land tenure and varying management structure, such experience-yielding entry roles today are fewer and less diverse. In a recent conversation with one of the benefactors of my position at Duke, Scott Jones, former president of Forest Capital Partners and a director of Rayonier Inc., lamented that “There are no more minor leagues,” in a conversation about earlier years when young foresters actually had more abundant opportunity to discover the privilege of both taking risk and accepting responsibility to manage. 

Facilitating experience
The answer to this? Although it may be more challenging to garner on-the ground piecemeal experiences in a forest management career today, it can be done. Inventory experience may be gained over the summers; timber sale layout and logging supervision might be a separate experience in another organization; and land management might come from yet another. While this amalgamated approach is more difficult than working for a large integrated company—and the continuity of long-term stewardship may get lost along the way—it is still a feasible means of developing professional breadth and skill. Doing requires a much more intentional approach will necessitate established generations’ guidance, encouragement, and support.

Organizations able to sponsor hands-on experience via internships should do so with clear purpose. Such opportunities allow young professionals to experiment and get a taste of what might be in store for them in full-time positions. Internships must also allow some weeks of “the real thing” and not just chain young professionals to the virtual desktop reality of GIS or data analysis. While such decision-support roles may be natural entry-points, management organizations must recognize the risk of the desktop and actively develop employees more fully. Diversifying growth opportunities must be real and involve decision-making integral to an organization’s mission. Actively designing such experience increases the likelihood that the employment relationships, both short-term and open-ended, are successful.

Mentorship, the sharing of perspective
Setting mutual expectations clearly and collaboratively with all stakeholders not only mitigates the potential for employees to feel isolated or overwhelmed, but can also help them to build the confidence required to be accountable for their own decisions. Mentorship is the operative term and has become a more formal approach to employee development. Whatever the term used, it requires consideration and care. Embracing our roles as professional mentors means honing our listening skills to better understand what our succeeding generations seek and need and to open ourselves to reciprocal learning. Serving as an effective mentor is not a casual undertaking, nor is it easy, but any effort made is most always appreciated. Such intentional guidance delivered with the lightest touch of advice can only further the appeal of forestry and enduring success within and of the profession. Furthermore, mentorship is good management and represents an opportunity to learn a lot.

Communication, a perpetual focus
Finally, how can we improve the management effectiveness of graduate foresters both within the current curriculum and as they commence careers? Improving communication is a good place to start. Just as we cannot default to the stereotypes of Zoomers and Millennials, let us afford ourselves the same flexibility when foresters are faulted for not being strong communicators. Forestry is complex. Its realities are often counterintuitive and misunderstood. And good communication, the matching of intention with effect is, simply put, challenging. 

In the late 1990s, Carlton Owen, now CEO of the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities, related to me in a performance review that communication would always be an opportunity for improvement—for all of us, himself included. Since that day, this important reflection has reappeared unfailingly in both my self-appraisals and performance reviews delivered to others. As communication modes and tendencies change, its importance—both written and verbal—continues to grow. There is a real opportunity as colleagues to support one another, whether text-tethered Millennial or seasoned veteran, to ensure an ongoing focus on strategic, thoughtful, and persuasive communication. More than ever, this will be critical to the forest sector’s future success.

Leadership – the result of experiential education
As we consider the enduring effectiveness and relevance of our profession, leadership represents survival itself. Currently, forestry leadership is broadly under threat both in concept as well as demonstration. Can leadership be taught? That is a legitimate question. Although the jury is out on that, I am certain that it can be learned. How? Experience and the practice of forestry itself is the perfect crucible for doing so. What is required is that we develop our own vision, based on our values and professional beliefs, and to carry it forward through our actions. Young people—our future leaders—must not only be adept at self-reflection and critical thinking, but they also need role models to demonstrate confident leadership in any situation—whether working with peers in a field-based curriculum or in more formally designated leadership roles. 

My first formal leadership opportunity came when elected president of the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC, outdoors.dartmouth.edu) my senior year of college. As head of the largest student organization on campus, I discovered the isolating test that is formal leadership. I was challenged to be more than an outdoorsperson in my own right and to develop the right plan for the DOC’s broad mandate. The real test revealed itself to be the need to dismantle barriers that precluded full participation by the diverse Dartmouth community. First understanding, and then addressing distinctive needs equitably and effectively with finite resources, challenged me to listen, recalibrate a collective vision, and forge a constructive agenda through an inclusive process. While another story entirely, my year as president of the DOC was one of my best jobs in terms of challenge and reward. Less formally, young people need to be not only challenged in any given role, but also encouraged in their self-reliance to think, speak, and act consistently with their larger ideals. In this way, “stepping up” becomes less about behaving in someone else’s self-interest, but rather allows individuals to demonstrate acts of more common good that nobly move us all forward. Without doubt, experiential learning is meaningful and durable.

Parting thoughts
Forestry is a perfect substrate upon which to forge leadership, both situational and formal. It is the foundation of experience that allows it to be our broader classroom of lifelong education. Successful and sustainable forest management requires vision and strong managerial acumen and expertise. More specifically, forestry’s continued success in the 21st century will depend on three essential qualities that we must all embrace. First, critical thinking: discerning the truth through science and recognizing uncertainty where it exists—will build credibility to cut through the increasing obfuscation and special interests of today’s contextual landscape. Second, diversity: understanding that our profession will prosper only when we include and respond to broader perspectives voiced by all people of varied origin and experience. And finally, courage: to speak for the truth and to help others see the true path of understanding and management through action. Collectively, these attributes define the profession of forestry—and us as foresters—and will sustain the integrity developed over generations of past foresters to ensure a strong enduring future for generations to come. 

Joseph Bachman can be reached at joe.bachman@duke.edu.

Do you have lessons learned that you would like to share with fellow SAF members in a future issue? Please e-mail Andrea Watts, wattsa@safnet.org.

SAF members can read the full October 2020 edition of The Forestry Source here.