The future looks fabulous for new foresters if they can do one thing, Pyramid Mountain Lumber's Gordy Sanders told a roomful of forestry students Monday afternoon.
“I want somebody who can walk on water,” Sanders said during a Montana Forest Products Week symposium. Speaking Chinese, top-notch writing skills and marketing savvy also compete with basic silviculture training.
“It’s a little more complicated than 35 years ago when I stepped out of the pickup truck,” University of Montana Dean of Forestry and Conservation Jim Birchfield said at the gathering.
Gary Ellingson of Northwest Management Inc. noted he didn’t own a phone and nobody owned a computer when he got into the business. Now he can query landownership databases with satellite photos denoting wetlands and cultural sites without ever leaving the office.
But the work actually has moved much farther away from the desk. With most federal timber off the market, mills compete for scarce state and private log sales. That’s increased upfront expenses without adding any benefit to the contractor.
“The haul has gone from 50 to 200 miles a day,” Ellingson said. “If you own a ponderosa pine forest in Lewistown, and it's 250 miles to Plum Creek to sell, that’s an issue. You have no place to go with it.”
Recent UM forestry graduate Jake Watts added that breakdowns are much more a factor in the timber business today than in the past. When deployed on such distant worksites, a broken piece of heavy equipment hurts productivity much more than when the work was closer to home (and repair shops).
Forest Business Network marketing expert Craig Rawlings pointed to several big changes foresters should brace for.
The demise of the Pacific Northwest’s pulp-and-paper milling business fundamentally changed the economics of timber, because now there’s little payback for the small trees that make up most fuel-reduction and forest health projects. Fires and bug epidemics are hurting timber supplies at amazing rates, while global timber markets are demanding new products.
“If any of these things happened alone, we could adapt,” Rawlings said. “But they’re all happening simultaneously. And the trees keep growing. There’s tons of opportunity. You might consider learning a second language.”
Sanders recommended strong people skills when working in the woods.
“In private sales, we deal with doctors, lawyers, movie stars, cowboys, deeply conservative people and real liberals,” Sanders said. “You have to listen carefully and be interested in everything. Communication is key. Science types tend to use words that nobody else understands. Agency people put everything in acronyms. You have to connect with people.”
Sanders added the biggest challenge he sees coming is climate change. Regardless of what causes it or who’s responsible, forest owners will need creative people to deal with the changing conditions on their land.
And there’s a need for new blood as the current crew of woods-workers wear out. Ellingson said the average age of forest contractors is late 50s to early 60s. But the new hires must contend with an industry that’s become dependent on having million-dollar pieces of equipment shared by a team of two workers. That poses challenges for anyone trying to get bank financing in an industry with uncertain supply chains.
Montana State Forester Bob Harrington said new foresters face a public that wants many different things at the same time. People don’t tend to think of trees the same way they think of other farm crops, even though the management principles are similar. They dislike change in the forest, but want wood products. They want threatening fires put out, but support fire as an ecological management tool.
But the basic skills and knowledge of woodscraft remain valuable, Harrington reminded the audience of 100 mostly UM students.
“We need people who are good in the woods,” he said. “Someone we can send out to find section corners, survey roads and get back to the truck safely.”