The faculty is going through a revival at the University of British Columbia, drawing a new wave of urban students like Robert Smidstra, who see not just a profession, but also a way to bring about social change
The 23-year-old Langley student is one of 778 undergraduates registered in the faculty of forestry this year, many of them like himself, young people from the Lower Mainland who are motivated by concerns about global warming, carbon emissions and sustainability. Only when he graduates, Smidstra expects to be in a position where he can actually do something about it. Forestry has become cool.
“One of the reasons I chose forestry is that I want to somehow change society in a positive way. In engineering there are always opportunities to improve systems efficiency and make society better but you can also do that in forestry. Global warming is such a big issue; how we see carbon, how we use carbon, and how we offset it. In forestry, you can actually control that in some manner.”
Smidstra is typical of the new generation of students who are turning forestry as a way to fulfill their desire to bring about social change.
In a sense, they are going back to forestry’s beginnings in North America, said John Innes, dean of the UBC Faculty of Forestry.
“Essentially what we are trying to do is go back to the roots for forestry to a certain extent, which is much more of a conservation, management and sustainable utilization approach,” he said in an interview.
A decade ago, British Columbia was still immersed in the War in the Woods, with eco-activists fighting loggers over black-and-white issues, jobs versus the environment. Forestry was viewed by the young as a destroyer of the environment and enrolment at the UBC faculty reflected its low esteem in the eyes of students. In 2003, there were only 450 undergraduates compared to this year’s 778.
Smidstra said he still runs into contemporaries with little understanding of forests and forestry.
“They really don’t think about it as a career, or they think that you have to go into the middle of nowhere to do your job. That’s not true, there’s thousands of jobs, different unique jobs. Sure, there’s forest operations which is about harvesting and replanting, but there are a lot of jobs in growing seeds, genetics. There’s silviculture, operations planning, finance. Chain of custody is important too”.
Smidstra’s particular interest is in urban forestry, a new and growing discipline in North America, which stresses the carbon-sequestering and oxygen-producing properties of forests to improve urban landscapes. Harvesting is part of the overall picture, but it is not reduced to the jobs-versus-the-environment simplicity. A healthy human environment includes employment and a healthy forest includes a harvesting component.
“The economy is important, but there is a way to balance that. What we learn in our courses are different methods to manage certain objectives.”
He has, he said, changed opinions among his contemporaries.
Innes said it’s only logical that the turnaround in perceptions about forestry should come out of UBC. It’s the country’s largest forestry faculty and you have to pass through a forest, Pacific Spirit Park, to get to the university, creating an awareness of wood and its role in our lives.
“We are in a centre of wood, people know about wood, we celebrate wood, people see trees all about them and we are in a nice environment. We market that,” Innes said.
His appreciation of wood is even reflected on his desk in the dean’s office, where he works using a bamboo keyboard and mouse, the colours warm and the grain beautiful.
The green side of forestry is attractive, but forestry in the end, is about the economy. The department is very economically focussed, Innes said. Four undergraduate degrees are offered:
- Forestry with a major in forest resources management.
- Wood products processing with a minor in commerce.
- Forest sciences.
- Natural resources conservation.
The faculty is returning to the forestry’s conservation roots, he said, but it is also moving forward in terms of technology and research. From new wood products to new building system utilizing wood.
All of the programs include an option of co-op employment – working with an employer in the student’s chosen field.
Looking to the future, Innes said he is pushing for new courses that would cover issues of importance to B.C., such as an undergraduate course on the emerging bio-economy and a Master’s degree in resources trade, with emphasis on issues like trade with Asia.
“We would have courses in international trade law, things like the World Trade Organization and how it works; how to identify potential problems like dumping and quotas; we would be looking at the economics, at marketing aspects of it, marketing in different cultures. You know B.C. spent a lot of time trying to sell large, wood-frame houses in China without really thinking ‘what is the demand for these?’ Now they are looking at wood trusses, which has far more potential –basically taking the big square buildings and putting a pitched roof on them because the flat roofs leaked.”
Students, he said, like the lifestyle, they like the greenness of what they are doing, and they like the fact that when they get their degree, they are going to get a well-paying job out of it.
Employment is virtually 100 per cent for grads, he said, who, after five years, earn an average of $78,000 a year.
And with the North American economy rebounding, the forest industry, where many of the grads will find employment, is vibrant and full of potential, he said.
“In forestry, we are still going to be exporting wood when the LNG has been exhausted.
“Our trees will be growing 100 years, 200 years and 300 years from now. We will still be able to grow trees as well as anyone, even with climate change.”
Gordon Hamilton is an award-winning writer and freelance journalist specializing in the resources sector. Much of his career was spent at The Vancouver Sun, where, from 1993 to 2013, he was the forestry reporter, writing about the politics, environmental clashes and social issues surrounding resource use. He tells his stories through the people whose lives are touched by our resource economy.