Open letter to forestry students: 6 changes to the forestry sector that impact your role as a forester today

6 changes to the forestry sector that impact your role as a forester todayLast Monday (October 13, 2013) I was part of a panel of speakers addressing a crowded room of forestry students at the University of Montana. The event was part of Montana Forest Products Week, which coincides with National Forest Products Week and begins the third Sunday in October each year.

Our panel was charged with addressing the issue of what it means to be a forester today. We did that by answering a few key questions to hopefully give our audience a better understanding of their role as future foresters.

While I’m not a forester or a forest manager, I’ve gained a lot of insight in my 30 years in the forest business and marketing segment of the industry that I certainly believe has value for foresters.

With that in mind, I addressed two of the panel questions and felt students might like to hear my thoughts on their future profession.

I’ll keep this short and sweet.

Question #1: How has your organization’s forest management activities changed in the past decade?

I took the liberty of modifying this question to address what I feel are the significant changes to forest businesses over the last 12 years or so.

1. The demise of the pulp and paper industry in North America. None of us saw this coming. We’ve lost over 100 large pulp and paper mills in the last 13 years and the outlook is not good. We’re going to see more permanent closures.

However, even with all these closures, you must keep in mind one thing: trees keep growing.

2. Consolidation and contraction of the sawmill industry. Just as an example, we only have eight sawmills left of any size in Montana. A decade or so ago we had closer to 20. You’re likely seeing significant losses like this in your own state.

Regardless, even though we’ve lost many, many sawmills, the trees keep growing still…

3. For over 50 years the U.S. Forest Service has suppressed fires and they’ve been damn good at it. But the trees have kept growing in a big way, so much so that for some time now we’ve had large, annual, catastrophic wildfires.

4. Then along came the mountain pine beetle epidemic, another significant event to challenge forest managers and forest business owners.

But even with catastrophic wild fires and insect epidemics, one thing remains constant (and I bet you can repeat this with me): the trees grow back.

5. The evolution of a global market for logs and forest products from North America is fast becoming a mainstream business. Who would have ever thought a stud mill in St. Regis, Montana, would be shipping product to China, Japan, Korea, and other parts of the world?

6. Permanent loss of forestland to commercial and residential real estate development. This is one significant event or trend that’s a huge concern, since in this case, the trees do not grow back.

What’s really interesting to me is that the six events I mentioned didn’t happen one at a time so business owners or forest managers could adjust, solve the problem, or figure out how to capitalize on opportunities. These and other events happened simultaneously and overlapped each other.

On to question #2…

What skills does a future forest manager most need to succeed?

First, let me say that you have a very bright future and tons of opportunity ahead of you as a forestry student. Why? Of the six events I just talked about, all but one have a common denominator: the trees keep growing!

Now on to answering the question. There are a few things you should consider to make you more competitive in the job market or to be a business owner, again from my perspective as a business and marketing guy.

  1. Versatility is key to being competitive in the job market and a necessity to run your own business.
  2. Given that we’re competing in a global economy and there’s a big need for markets for small diameter and underutilized timber, you may want to consider a second language, business management and/or marketing skills to add to your resume.
  3. Strong communication skills set you apart from those who don’t have them.

Let me leave you with one last thought.

The next time you read a newspaper article about how the timber industry is dying or dead, and you’re wondering why in the world you’re getting an education in forestry, remember one thing: trees keep growing.

Craig Rawlings

Craig Rawlings is the president & CEO of Forest Business Network and has 30 years experience in the forest products industry as an entrepreneur and technical consultant. He can be reached by calling 406.240.0300 or by using our contact form.


  1. Thank you for your comments. As always you’re right on target. As a state representative, and a person from a career in lumber marketing and sawmill sales, I really appreciated all of the panel and the info that was shared. Straight up, no spin, no lobbyiest, no agencies, just good infor right from the heart and from the industry level. Thank you very much for your candid and honest comments.

  2. Well stated! The trees DO still keep growing and the species mix broadens as the forest adapts to changing environmental and management practices. Students and the rest of us need to look at the forest not as pulp chips or 2x4s “on the hoof” but as the raw material for innovation and new ideas about products that can meet needs for bio-based materials, sustainable energy, improved quality of life in urban centers, and other new uses. You point out that the “old uses” of paper and some structural materials are declining, but new uses are up to us to invent and develop.

  3. Good seeing you Ed, the panel was a lot of fun and hope the students enjoyed it, Gary, Bob, Gordy, Jake, and Jim gave really great talks. Hope you get to take in more of the Forest Products Week activities.

  4. Thanks Jim and you’re spot on!