Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What to Teach?

A former colleague of mine and professor at Virginia Tech, Dr. Stephen Prisley, dropped by over the weekend to say Hello and catch up on what has been happening over the last few years. As it always does, the subject eventually shifted to the changes that have occurred along with the nation's shifting timberland ownership. Steve's statements centered on the question "Are we at VPI teaching the right things to the new crop of foresters?"

For many years, Steve and I worked together as "industrial foresters". That term is almost an anachronism today! There are a few left at MWV, Weyerhaeuser is a holdout (for now at least) and some of the timber REITs do have minimal industrial holdings but, by and large, it appears that the day of teaching a crop of students for the industrial forestry market is over. In the area of industrial forest research, of the big three (International Paper, MeadWestvaco and Weyerhaeuser), only Weyerhaeuser remains. Most of my MWV forest research colleagues have returned to universities, gone somewhere in government, or in the case of one biometrician, went to work for HP where his skills were better rewarded financially.

But timberland must still be managed by someone so the questions are "Who" and "How does that affect how the new forestry students should be educated". The "who" part of the question is easily answered. TIMOs and the consulting foresters that serve them. Some of the TIMOs and TREITs mange the land themselves and some employ consultants to do the job for them. Either way, the basics of silviculture have not changed and they must still be taught. What has changed is the objectives of the landowner. The primary objective of growing a crop to supply mill furnish is generally not an objective of the new owner (even with fiber supply agreements). The new primary objective of TIMOs and TREITs is one of financial return which suggests that universities must strengthen efforts on teaching the tools that accomplish that objective. This includes not only a new emphasis on the traditional financial tools but on those, such as harvest scheduling, which are specific to timberland management. --Brian

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