Three Questions for the Big Stage: A Conversation with Panelists Tom Fox, James “Jamie” Lewis, and Linda Nagel

By Amy Juliana

The plenaries at SAF National Convention excite and re-ignite attendees’ spirits about being forestry and natural resource professionals—jolting us to learn, grow, inform, and influence as a professional community. This year’s plenary speakers will fulfill attendees’ diverse learning preferences and enrich the continuing education experience of convention. In this three-part blog series, you will read first-hand accounts from our plenary speakers about the plans for their presentations and thoughts on the sector. 

 New this year, we are hosting our first plenary, “What is a Forester?” before our Opening Reception. This year the first plenary will take place on Wednesday, October 24, at 4 p.m. Panelists Tom Fox, PhD, Rayonier; James Lewis, PhD, Forest History Society; and Linda Nagel, PhD, Utah State University, will tackle the question, “What is a forester,” and delve into how education, experience, and expectations have evolved over time, and how they continue to evolve to meet the challenges and opportunities of global change.

1. SAF: "How did you get into the industry/field and why do you stay?"

Fox: The picture to the right probably shows how I became interested in forestry. As a little kid I watched the Lassie TV show. At some point in the series in the early 1960s Lassie left Timmy Martin and went to live with Corey Stuart who was a forest ranger. They had a lot of adventures in the forests in the west and I was enamored with the life of Corey the forest ranger and all the good things he got to do. The foresters were the good guys helping to protect nature. I guess it stuck with me because when I went to college, I decided to study forestry. I stick with it because I love all aspects of forestry...from field work to data analysis to policy and administration.

Lewis: First, let me be clear: I’m a historian, not a forester. But I’m sure the story of how I got into my field will sound familiar nevertheless. Like many who’ve entered forestry, interest in my chosen field dates to childhood. I’ve always loved reading history and biography. To me, truth really is more exciting than fiction.

As for how I got into forest history in particular, while working on my master’s degree in history, I was introduced to Gifford Pinchot, who in addition to establishing SAF was the first chief of the US Forest Service. In need of a research topic for a course term paper, the Pinchot–Ballinger controversy, which resulted in Pinchot being fired by President Taft in 1910, caught my attention. Who was this Pinchot fellow? Why and how did the dismissal of a bureau chief become a national cause célèbre and contribute to the electoral defeat of a sitting president two years later? At that point my work became forever connected to him. I wrote my master’s thesis about Pinchot’s evolution from forester to politician.

My doctoral dissertation was about the establishment of professional forestry education in the United States. I focused on the graduate school Pinchot and his family founded at Yale, Carl Schenck and his Biltmore Forest School in western North Carolina, and Bernhard Fernow and the short-lived New York State College of Forestry at Cornell University. Then in 2016, I got the chance to turn a couple of dissertation chapters into a PBS documentary film America’s First Forest: Carl Schenck and the Asheville Experiment. That film has taught more people about what foresters do than all my books and articles put together.

When I finished my PhD in 2001, I knew teaching wasn’t the career for me. However, I had my passion for history, the skills of a historian, and a naïve faith that I’d figure something out (and a patient, loving spouse willing to support us while I did). I spent the next two years writing for encyclopedias (remember those?) and conducting research for others at the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Looking for more work, I contacted the president of the Forest History Society in Durham, NC, where I had conducted some of my dissertation research. He said they were creating a new visiting scholar position, and would I be interested in that instead? Yes, please! After two years there and the publication of my first book, The Forest Service and The Greatest Good, I became the fulltime staff historian.

On July 1 of this year, I celebrated my twentieth anniversary at FHS. I’ve stayed at the Society and in this field because I love researching and writing. However, as part of my job at FHS, I give presentations and lectures to student and adult groups. What’s most fulfilling is speaking to foresters and helping them understand that not only is the history of their chosen profession a rich and eventful one, but that the work they’re doing now—whether in the woods or in a classroom or an office—is adding to that history. Long story short, my job enables me to help people understand and appreciate history and its value. That’s why I’ve stayed in this position.

Nagel: I grew up on a small farm in rural South Dakota, essentially living my childhood outdoors. I was always curious about nature, and that led me to study biology in college. That’s where I discovered, while on my first camping trip to the Black Hills, that there was a profession called “forestry” where you could learn about trees, how they grow, and how to manage them. What a discovery – a paying job to spend time in the forest! It turns out that a love of trees and curiosity for nature pairs well with my passion for teaching, and that led me down a career path in education, research, and outreach.

Although being a woman in forestry can be challenging at times, I have benefited enormously over the years from strong mentors, and I can see how the roles I’ve played as a leader have helped inspire and build confidence in others, especially among women who aspire to study forest science or be a forester. I never dreamed my path would lead me where it has, working with amazing mentors, foresters, students, and colleagues who are integral to my work, and who I continue being inspired by. For me forestry has become as much about working with great people as it is about working in forests – it is an incredible community to be part of.

2. SAF: "For the students and young professionals in the audience, what advice would you have for those who want to set off in a similar direction as you?"

Fox: Pick your own direction. What is right for me may not be right for you. But know that throughout your career you will have opportunities in forestry if you are dedicated and work hard. This includes opportunities in school and in your working life. Take advantage of as many as you can even if it is hard or perhaps takes you out of your comfort zone. You never know where they will lead you and your career. I've been able to work all around the US and all around the world in my career. I never thought

that was possible or planned for it. However, things worked out well for me and I think they can for anyone in our profession. I have been lucky to be able to do some really interesting and fun things as a forester, often in a beautiful location with nice people. Not everything works out exactly as you might hope. But good people who are dedicated and work hard seem to make their own good luck and end up being successful.

Lewis: As you may have gathered, I chose an unorthodox path and have a unique job, even for the history field. When talking with students and young professionals, no matter what field they’re in or career path they’re on, my advice to them is:

1) Learn how to communicate clearly, both in writing and when speaking. Good communication skills are essential to doing any job well. If you aren’t good at it or comfortable doing it, then work at it, and don’t be afraid to ask for help to improve. (Even those of us who write for a living need an editor.) Foresters communicate with different audiences—coworkers, clients, or the public. Ensuring that others understand you can only help matters.

2) Build a network of contacts. But approach networking not with the goal of benefitting yourself but for the greater good of all. For thirty-plus years, I’ve been cultivating professional relationships in the history and forestry fields with those more experienced than me so I could learn from them, with my peers so I could collaborate with them, and those less experienced so I could offer counsel to them. But I’ve also learned from, collaborated with, and counseled (and took advice from) people in all three of those groups. I also connect people to one another through my network because I believe that the free exchange of ideas benefits everyone. It makes us better historians or better stewards of the land, and just better people in general, if we start by asking the question, “How can I help this person?” instead of “What’s in it for me?” Plus, helping others makes you feel better.

3) Add new skills any chance you get, even when they’re not obviously related to your job. For example, I’ve taught myself video editing and graphic design, and I’ve taken a short course in copyediting—skills not offered when I was studying history. Adding new skills has made me more valuable to my employer. Accepting such opportunities and being open to the outcomes has greatly contributed to my job satisfaction.

Nagel: I encourage everyone to be open to opportunities and be willing to take chances. Get involved in organizations and engage with other students, faculty, professionals, clubs, committees, etc. as these can open doors you didn’t know existed. Don’t be afraid to think big, take on challenges, and stretch yourself – sometimes you’ll discover new things about yourself, including strengths you didn’t know you had, and that can lead you down different paths you hadn’t thought about. Learn how to work effectively across a diversity of people and perspectives, as that will likely be a part of the work you lead in the future. Believe in what you do, align your choices with your values, and finally, don’t forget to take good care of yourself by spending time in nature whenever you can.

3. SAF: "What do you want the audience to walk away with after your presentation?" 

Forestry is a great career. We need a diversity of people in forestry to handle all the different roles that exist. You can find something that is right for you and that you love to do in our profession.

I hope attendees come away from our plenary session having learned two things: First, that forestry—as a profession and as it is practiced—is dynamic and ever evolving. And just like a forest adapts to changing conditions to thrive, so should its stewards. Stay engaged with what’s happening and keep learning. It’ll make you a better professional.

Second, as lofty as it sounds, no matter your job or where you are in your career, by being in forestry you are contributing to the betterment of our planet and humanity. You are part of a centuries-long tradition of people working for the greater good of all, part of what I call “the Long Green Line.”

At the US Military Academy at West Point, the students and graduates speak of being part of “The Long Gray Line.” The cadets wear gray uniforms, and it is said that all who do are part of a continuum, bound through common desire to all the others who have come before and all those who will come after to serve their nation. Foresters, with their green attire, are part of their own continuum, bound to those who came before and those who will follow through their shared desire to steward the world’s natural resources for all. That’s “the Long Green Line.”

Forestry is changing, and what a forester looks like, thinks, and does is also evolving. There is such a connectedness across disciplines, approaches, and philosophies, bringing together incredible diversity of thought, experiences, perspectives… we need all of this to anticipate the needs of forests, foresters, and society in a changing world, not just an excellent education from an SAF accredited program. I want people to see that there is a place for everyone who wants to be part of this profession.

Save the date for our "What is a Forester?" panel discussion at the 2023 SAF National Convention on Wednesday, October 25, from 4–5 p.m.

For more details, visit our plenary webpage

About the Panelists

Dr. Tom Fox, Rayonier 

Tom Fox, PhD, is Vice President at Rayonier and leads the Research, Productivity, Sustainability Team. He currently lives in Yulee, Florida, and coordinates Rayonier’s research and technology transfer in silviculture and tree improvement and oversees the ecosystem services and forest certification programs. Prior to joining Rayonier, Fox was the Honorable Garland Gray Distinguished Professor of Forestry at Virginia Tech. He was also the Co-Director of the Forest Productivity Cooperative and the Site Director for the NSF Center for Advanced Forestry Systems. Fox was a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at Pontificia Universdad Catolica de Chile in Santiago, Chile.

Fox received his BS in Forestry and Wood Products and a Certificate of Advanced Study in Pulp and Paper Science from the University of Maine, an MS in Forest Soils from Virginia Tech, and a PhD in Soil Science from the University of Florida. He is a Registered Professional Forester in Maine and Georgia, an SAF Certified Forester (CF) and an SSSA Certified Professional Soil Scientist. He received the Stephen Spurr Award for Research and the Barrington Moore Award for Research in Biological Sciences from the Society of American Foresters. He currently serves on the SAF Board of Directors and chairs the Finance Committee. He is a Fellow in both the Soil Science Society of America and the Society of American Foresters. 

Dr. James Lewis, Forest History Society

James Lewis, PhD, has been the staff historian at the Forest History Society since 2003. He is the author of two books on the USDA Forest Service and published numerous articles on different aspects of forest history. For the last fifteen years, he has served as the editor of the Society’s magazine Forest History Today and its blog "Peeling Back the Bark." He is one of the executive producers and a co-writer of the Emmy Award-winning film about Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School called America’s First Forest. His next book will be a history of the Yale School of the Environment. He is the recipient of SAF’s 2023 W. D. Hagenstein Communicator Award.


Dr. Linda Nagel, Utah State University

Linda Nagel, PhD, has over 23 years of experience as a professor of silviculture. She has a long record of directing, teaching, and facilitating professional training courses and workshops, including the National Advanced Silviculture Program for the USDA Forest Service. Nagel co-leads the Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change (ASCC) Network aimed at bringing together practitioners and scientists to co-develop adaptive forest management practices in the face of climate change. This high-impact research and outreach project is translating climate adaptation theory into practice, with 14 research sites across North America, and includes over 100 partners.

Nagel has served on the faculty at Michigan Technological University, the University of Minnesota where she also served as Director of Operations of the Cloquet Forestry Center and the Hubachek Wilderness Research Center, and Colorado State University where she was Department Head. She is now Dean of the S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University. Nagel has received awards and recognition for teaching excellence, efforts toward diversity and inclusion in natural resources, outreach and service to forestry professionals, and the Barrington Moore Memorial Award in Biological Science from SAF.
Amy Juliana is the Science and Technology Manager at SAF. For more information about the science and technical program, email [email protected]

Lassie Photo Courtesy: National Museum of Forest Service History