Is Forestry a Good Career Path?

For those who love hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, and everything about the outdoors, it can be natural to seek a career path oriented toward the outdoors. There aren’t many career paths that fit the bill quite like forestry, but is it a good career path? Absolutely! Forestry is a great and viable career path for anyone with a passion for the outdoors. Not only are there numerous and varied, good paying jobs available in the field, but it truly is a field that puts you out in the great outdoors each and everyday.

I don’t just say this from second-hand internet research: I’ve lived it. I spent my twenties working for forest management companies in remote regions of the north Maine woods. Much of that time was spent working out of remote camps around the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. I know the industry and lifestyle of the job well, so here is a guide to the woods life if you are considering a career in forestry.

Me, Zach Lowry, as I started my career path in forestry.
Me as a young forester flying over the timberlands I worked in and managed.

What Careers Are Available in Forestry?

Forestry is a field, of course, not a job. Broadly speaking, forestry is the practice of managing forests and timberland. Within that definition, there are several categories of jobs. They are:

  • Forester
  • Logger
  • Wildland Fire Fighter
  • GIS specialist
  • Researcher/academic

forester is responsible for land management. Foresters look at a piece of land, take note of the health and species of trees, and create a plan to best harvest and sell mature or undesirable timber while allowing the remaining trees to regenerate the forest create a new, healthy, and valuable forest.

logger, operates machinery to harvest the trees marked by removal by the forester. While in the past, much of this work was done manually with a chainsaw, these days, it is largely done with high-tech modernized equipment that requires a fair amount of technical skill the maintain and operate.

wildland firefighter is just what it sounds like. These guys specialize in fire dynamics and suppression tactics and work to fight and mitigate forest fires. They are usually employed by government entities.

GIS specialist manages spatial databases and creates maps to be used by foresters and loggers. This is a more computer science oriented job.

researcher is a student or employee who works with a university or government agency (although occasionally private company) to measure, record, and observe forests and forest growth to refine the science of forestry and its relation to ecology and environmental science.

All these jobs vary wildly in their responsibilities, skills, and dynamics, but they all are part of the wider industry known as forestry, and so certain truths will be universal among them. Additionally, in any specialized field, there is a great deal of intersection in their skills and responsibilities. virtually all foresters must be proficient with GIS systems and undergo periodic training for wild fire preparedness. Likewise, those employed in wildfire suppression often work within regulatory agencies for logging operations and so must know the business and industry of forestry well.

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the job title of “forester,” as this job is the most common in forestry and encapsulates the skills, responsibilities, and realities of other job titles. The one exception to this is the job of a logger, but we have a separate article about becoming a logger here.

A career in wildfire suppression is a viable path in forestry.
Wildfire Suppression is a large segment of forestry

What Do Foresters Do on a Daily Basis?

Foresters spend much of their time out in the woods walking through parcels of woodland analyzing forest stands and planning potential timber harvests. They then design harvest operations by laying out boundaries, writing silvicultural prescriptions that best benefit the forest, and planning trails for logging equipment that will be least invasive to the sensitive ecosystems of the forest.

Once logging operations begin, foresters spend a great deal of time on the job managing the operation, ensuring the right trees are being cut and retained, and ensuring there isn’t an excessive amount of damage to the forest floor or residual stand.

It isn’t all outdoors work, however. The modern forester still does a great deal of work on a computer in the office. Much of this work revolves around GIS systems and using aerial imagery to map our forests and better prescribe and plan harvests.

The work of a forester is complex and varied. It is difficult to cover it all here. If you are interested, we wrote an entirely separate article on the work of a forester here.

What Is it Like to Work as a Forester?

The lifestyle of forester is one that you simply cannot get in any other industry. Everyday, you go out to remote parts of the forest and explore areas you have never seen before. You may ride ATVs and snowmobiles to do so. You will see amazing wildlife. You will certainly see and do some of the coolest things that few people ever get to see and do.

In my time as a forester, I have snowmobiled hundreds of miles, gone in more airplane and helicopter rides than I can count, seen more moose and found more moose antlers than most do in a lifetime, and stumbled across one-hundred-year-old abandoned steam engines–in the middle of nowhere! If you are adventurous and looking for a job that can bring you to amazing places while still being a realistic career, being a forester is for you.

A career as a forester will take you to remote places.
Foresters work in remote areas.

Is it Difficult to Get a Job as a Forester?

Like many industries, forestry is facing a broad shortage of workers. For a motivated individual serious about a career in forestry, getting a job as a forester right out of college is no problem at all. Personally, I was hired full-time before I even graduated, and many of my classmates did as well.

The trick to ensuring your job hunt is easy, however, is to be sure to work industry internships while you are in school. Because so much of forestry work is outdoors, there are always seasonal positions abound, so finding an internship is no problem. These jobs not only help students and prospective foresters build relationships in the industry, but they greatly build the much-needed job skills that you simply cannot learn in the classroom. A couple summers of summer forestry work under your belt make you extremely employable in the industry.

What Is the Outlook for a Career in Forestry?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of foresters and conservation scientists will grow 7% between 2020 and 2030. During this same time period, the overall workforce in the US is expected to grow by about the same amount, so employment prospects can be seen as stable.

These statistics, however, say nothing of aging demographics. Many forestry companies and organizations face an aging workforce, and as these baby boomers continue to retire, more job openings and opportunities will appear. Even if you finish school and enter the workforce after this has taken place, younger generations stay at jobs on average for far less time than older generations, so openings will always be popping up. In fact, I have personally observed that the companies with the youngest median age seem to have the highest rates of turnover and possibilities of advancements. Either way, now is a good time to be entering the industry.

Changing Technology

That isn’t to say there aren’t threats to employment in forestry, however. Like all industries, technology and automation have increased the productivity of the average worker. These days, foresters have access to aerial photos, infrared imagery, and LiDAR elevation models that provide more information than anyone could have dreamed of in the past, so it takes less foresters to do the same amount of work, and the work they do is of higher quality. That said, robots won’t be taking any forester’s job any day soon: The industry is still entirely reliant on physical boots on the ground.

LiDAR elevation modeling makes a forester’s job much easier.

What Skills and Qualifications Do You Need to Work in Forestry?

The vast majority of forestry positions will require a university degree, but in many cases, an associates will be sufficient. I personally only have an associates in forestry, and it did not hamper my career whatsoever. Whether you choose to go for a four-year bachelor or a two-year associates, it is important you choose a forestry school with a Society of American Foresters accreditation. You can find a list of SAF accredited schools here.

Apart from formal education requirements, most forestry positions require a broad mix of skills, both hard and soft. They include:

  • The ability to work alone in harsh, outdoor conditions
  • GPS/GIS technical knowledge
  • Creative problem solving
  • A deep understanding of the science and biology, and ecology of trees and forests
  • Strong people skills
  • Communication and community outreach
  • A strong grasp of business, economics, and finance fundamentals

To be successful, a forester needs more than just these skills, and of course virtually any skill can bring something to the table of a good team, but these are perhaps the most important skills to have.

What Do Foresters Get Paid?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, foresters get paid a mean wage of $66,000 per year. For starting salaries, however, one can expect to make closer to $50,000 per year. Foresters also often get other non-monetary benefits unique to the industry, such as company vehicles.

While the pay isn’t terrible, you won’t get rich as forester. As an old-timer I once worked with used to say, “you don’t work in the woods to make money. You do it because you love it.”

What Are the Downsides of Working as a Forester?

A career in forestry isn’t always fun and games, however. Working outdoors comes with some serious challenges, hardships, and risks that you should be aware of.

Working in Harsh Conditions

It is pretty common to hear forestry students say something along the lines of “I don’t want an office job.” I get it, trust me. Who wants to be stuck in a stuffy cubicle when it is nice and sunny outside? But what about when it is pouring rain? What about during a blizzard? When the thermometer drops below zero or surges above one hundred? Foresters work during the harshest conditions, and that can be taxing after years on the job.

As foresters become more advanced in their careers, they may have more opportunity to pick and choose the days they venture outdoors, but this won’t always be possible. Even with the best planning, you will still find yourself periodically stuck outside in pouring rains, and if you live up north, you will always have to deal with the snow.

My least favorite part of being a forester in Maine was the snow. There is simply nothing more exhausting than walking through fresh powder all day. Just ask my dog:

Doing the Dirty Work

Just as foresters never fully graduate past working in inclement weather, they will find themselves always doing the dirty work. Whereas many industries habitually hand off the grunt work to the lowest on the totem pole, the often solitary work of a forester means that even senior workers will be getting down in the mud (often literally) to get the job done. This is not to say there is no career advancement in the field–there is, but even upper management will find themselves hauling around culverts and changing tires from time to time.

Of course, the benefit of this is that the industry is incredibly welcoming to younger workers, as they don’t get stuck with all the grunt work. Even so, it might be an attribute that is less advantageous as you age.

It Is a Dangerous Job

The woods is a dangerous place, and anything can go wrong. Logging alone is the single most dangerous job in the US, but being a forester has its own set of threats. Cold weather and rain brings the risk of hypothermia, and rocks and cliff faces can leave you marooned with broken bones. Vehicle troubles can leave you stranded with no way to contact peers, and private dirt roads full of log trucks can be treacherous (I personally found myself in a collision that could have been much worse).

Wildlife brings additional threats of attacks and disease. The specific threats will vary from region to region, but bears, snakes, spiders, and ticks can create constant threats that foresters must be aware of. Even a single tick bite can have lifelong consequences.

Why You Should Consider a Career in Forestry

All that said, would I still say forestry is a good career path? a thousand times yes. Forestry is not just a career. It is a lifestyle. It is an adventure. Forestry took me to places I never would have dreamed were possible. The experiences I had as a forester were indescribable and changed my life. If you love the outdoors and are considering a career in forestry, go for it. You won’t be sorry.

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