Forestry Notes Q&A: George Geissler, NASF President and Oklahoma State Forester

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By Mike Beacom

George Geissler has been a forester for three decades. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in forestry from Louisiana State University and a Master of Business degree from Harvard University. Prior to joining Oklahoma Forestry Services, he was a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service and spent time working for a major forest products company.

Geissler has been the Oklahoma State Forester since February 2011 and this September accepted his new role as President of the National Association of State Foresters (NASF). He recently shared time with NACD Forestry Notes…

Forestry Notes: Earlier this fall, you were introduced as NASF president at the same time 13 new state foresters were welcomed to the association. What are your goals to help acclimate those members to NASF?

George Geissler: A new state forester brings with them their background and experience which can greatly inform and shape the direction we as NASF take. It is very important to me that they realize from the first moment they walked into their offices back home they are a “state forester” and have an equal voice in the association. There is no such thing as a “junior member!” We need them to ensure NASF remains focused on the needs of our nation’s forests and our agencies best serve our citizens through continued effective natural resource conservation and protection.

My goal for this year is to ensure these state foresters have and take the opportunity to lead and encourage them to take an active role, not only in their own state but regionally and nationally as well.

You joined Oklahoma State Forestry in 2006. What has been the biggest change you’ve experienced in your state, with regard to forest management, in the past decade?

Oklahoma is a state of contrasts with a forestry identity crisis. Approximately 28 percent of the state (12.5 million acres) is forested with the majority of that (93%) privately owned. But we are thought of primarily as a flat grassland. The eastern portion has commercial timberlands with everything from loblolly pine plantations to oak-hickory. This transitions as one travels west to woodlands known as Cross Timbers comprised of dense blackjack and post oak to the southern great plains where foresters work in the riparian corridors and aid in the establishment and care of shelterbelts and windbreaks.

In addition to this diverse forest landscape, we are seeing a major change in our landowner objectives for their forests. A recent survey we conducted confirmed what we suspected. Forest management for timber production is no longer the reason most Oklahoma forest landowners manage their property. Recreation and wildlife habitat are now their primary objectives with timber revenue being seen as a bonus.

This ecological and landowner diversity presents a unique challenge for forest management and puts an even greater emphasis on effective communication.

What are the common challenges facing state forestry offices across the country heading into 2018?

The 100-pound gorilla blocking our view is wildland fire but sitting in the corner is the 1,000-pound gorilla of overall reduction in forest health and productivity resulting from the lack of active forest management. State forestry agencies across the country are struggling with balancing the need for wildland fire management (most forestry agencies are the lead agency in their state for fire suppression) while maintaining forest health in both our timberlands and communities. It is being played out at the federal level with the U.S. Forest Service paying for wildfire suppression by having to borrow from management and state and private programs. State forestry agencies face the same decisions especially as budgets decrease.

Added to this is the overall shortage of professional foresters available. Across the country federal and state agencies struggle to find candidates to fill open positions at all levels of the organization created as our workforce ages. So, at a time when foresters are needed the most, there are not enough of us.

These issues manifest themselves in our individual offices as the number of available personnel and budgets shrink they are diverted from technical assistance and forest management to fire suppression. As a result, landowners (and state foresters) get frustrated by having to wait and opportunities are lost.

How are conservation districts able to assist those offices?

State forestry agencies need to look to our partners like conservation districts for ways to effectively integrate the skillsets and relationships of these partners with the technical forestry expertise of the agency. Together we need to find new ways to reach landowners, get forest management on the ground and educate the public.

NASF played a lead role in shaping a list of forestry priorities for the next Farm Bill. In your opinion, which items are most critical to achieve from those suggestions?

The 2014 Farm Bill had a number of forestry items which have proven to be successful. I am looking for us to build upon these successes. The continued support for forest conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), increasing use of Good Neighbor Authority, working to expand and diversify our forest products markets, and the elimination of administrative barriers such as the recognition that state approved Forest Stewardship Plans are equivalent to the requirements laid out in the NRCS CPA-52 evaluation form.

Good Neighbor Authority is one program that has grown since its expansion through the last Farm Bill. How do you see that program progressing in the coming years?

I see the program being utilized more as its effectiveness is proven. Working efficiently on the landscape demands it. Partnering agencies can maximize utilization of their personnel and resources to get good forest management on the ground which improves overall forest health and productivity while helping to mitigate the risks of catastrophic wildfires.

Fixing wildfire spending is a top priority for most forestry organizations. What does NASF plan to do to advance this discussion in 2018?

NASF has been a consistent vocal supporter of the development of a fix for how our nation funds wildland fire and eliminating the need for fire borrowing from programs such as State and Private Forestry. Not having an effective solution has resulted in loss of forest health and productivity and we are falling further and further behind.

NASF plans to continue leading on this issue and work with our partners to provide opportunities for this conversation. We have made a lot of progress in the past few years and there are a number of excellent potential solutions being discussed. Both policy and lawmakers are at the table, so it is critical that the opportunity we have now is not lost.

Your state hosted the 2018 Partners in Community Forestry Conference. What is something the general public does not understand yet about the importance of urban forestry and green space?

Interconnectivity.

The public hears about the health benefits, the aesthetics, the impacts to property value, etc. but does not make the connection of the tree in their backyard or along the city street to the forest as a whole. All of us live in a forest every day yet many think the forest is something “out there.” We are making strides in education but I believe that until all of us learn to communicate this effectively and the public internalizes this basic message there will be a disconnect, making both urban forestry and traditional forest management difficult to understand and support.

Finish the sentence: “For me, a successful year as NASF president _____________”

Further brings together our membership as a strong and effective voice which works with our partners for the conservation and protection of our nation’s forests.

To read more feature stories from Forestry Notes, follow Mike Beacom, NACD’s forestry specialist, here on NACD’s blog or subscribe to Forestry Notes by clicking here.

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