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Forestry Notes Q&A: Terry Baker

Terry Baker joined the Society of American Foresters (SAF) as chief executive officer in September of 2018. Hailing from Marianna, Fla., he has worked in seven states for the U.S. Forest Service. Baker earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry from the University of Florida in 2004 and a master of forestry degree at Yale University in 2007. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural sciences from Florida A&M University. Terry and his wife, Jessica, reside in Washington, D.C. Recently, he shared time with NACD to discuss his work at SAF.


What is SAF doing to help America’s professional foresters adapt to COVID-19 and the conditions they’re faced with?

I break SAF’s response to COVID-19 into two categories: our direct actions and the efforts we are helping facilitate. There are many aspects of SAF’s programs that COVID-19 has impacted. Over the past couple of months, we have worked to anticipate member needs and adapt our programs to support our members in their work. In particular, we have taken several steps to support our certified foresters and candidate certified foresters through extended recertification periods and testing postponements. Through ForestEd.org, we are also offering easy opportunities for our members with licensing and registration requirements to continue getting the forestry education credits they need. ForestEd is a great place for members and nonmembers alike to build breadth and depth of knowledge during this extended period of time at home. We’ve also worked with our accredited programs to account for changes in teaching methods due to university and/or state mandates.

An important take-home lesson during COVID-19 has been that no one organization alone can carry the full workload. We all have a part to play in supporting each other. To capitalize on all of our strengths, I have been participating in bi-monthly calls with forestry association executives to share information, discuss policy issues, and strategize how to support the profession and professionals. Through these meetings, we have created a network of information and links to partner websites to help forestry professionals understand the benefits of small business loans, provide examples of essential worker letters, and list states that classified forestry as essential, just to name a few. We know that this information is important to various segments of our membership, and being a clearinghouse of information from partner organizations can be an important role for us during this time.

You are now a little more than a year into your role at SAF. Where have you invested your energy thus far to achieve the changes you felt necessary?

Leading an organization that’s been around for over 120 years comes with its own unique challenges and opportunities. I’ve learned so much over this first year. But what I’ve always known is that one of the best parts of this organization is our community of members, which is why I’ve focused much of my time on getting out to meet and engage them. I am a strong believer in showing up. In our busy lives, giving your time to be present somewhere shows commitment and provides for much more meaningful interactions. Being new to this role, I felt obligated to engage our community early in my tenure to better understand what challenges they were facing and what opportunities there were for SAF to support them. I have given remarks at over ten SAF state society meetings and attended numerous partner events emphasizing the importance of forest ownership, ecology, management, markets and diversity. I’ve also learned a great deal from my counterpart executives from across the sector.

Most importantly has been my opportunity to engage students. It has been an honor to travel to two of my alma maters to speak to students, faculty and staff. I’ve also visited Cal Poly, the University of Georgia, and have met students from schools across the country at various SAF meetings and partner events. The opportunity to share my experiences and thoughts with the next generation of forestry and natural resource professionals energizes and drives me to do more in my role as SAF CEO.

Continued conservation district assistance with landowner outreach, awareness and education is also vitally important to managing and retaining private forests.

Earlier you mentioned ForestEd.org. Tell us more about your new online learning platform.

There are many aspects of SAF’s work that excite me—the addition of ForestEd.org is very high on that list. SAF’s role in educating foresters and supporting their development is part of our core mission in supporting the profession. At a national and even international scale, ForestEd empowers professionals to take charge of their professional development and educational needs and interests. In my previous career with the Forest Service, I worked across multiple regions and landscapes throughout the country. I know first-hand the importance of being able to easily access educational information that covers a wide variety of topics and applications. One of the best parts of ForestEd is that users can access content anytime, anywhere and on any device. That may sound like old news to some, but for the forestry community, this is definitely an exciting step forward.

Since launching in January of 2019, ForestEd has attracted nearly 55,000 unique visitors. In addition to accessing perennial favorites like Journal of Forestry quizzes, visitors can also explore almost 200 presentations on everything from prescribed fire and climate adaptation to invasive species, diversity and inclusion models and landowner outreach. We also currently offer short courses in conjunction with Michigan State University and Project Learning Tree. Of course, SAF members get free access and special discounts, but much of our content is also open access for all.

Looking to the future, more partnerships and unique learning opportunities are in the works to meet the needs of forestry and natural resource professionals and even broader audiences. I am looking forward to ForestEd becoming not only a go-to resource for information on forestry and natural resource management, but also a platform to bring the forestry community together in new and unique ways.

Your annual convention each fall draws a large number of students looking to break into the forest sector. Talk about the programming SAF has designed to attract students and job recruiters to your event.

It’s an exciting time to be a forestry and natural resource professional, and the SAF National Convention offers unparalleled networking and educational opportunities for students of all experience levels and interests. Since 2016, we have averaged over 500 student attendees! The key is that our convention offers something for everyone. Whether you’re an undergraduate, graduate student or even a PhD candidate, you can attend meetups and networking activities geared toward your interests. Students can also visit the Career Fair, where national and local employers and universities flock to capitalize on the concentration of eager students and professionals looking for new opportunities.

One of the most popular and exciting events is our annual Student Quiz Bowl. This event is educational, competitive and just plain fun. Student teams from across the country test their knowledge on all things forestry, with the winning team hoisting a trophy at the end and earning bragging rights for a year. That spirit of friendly competition is also alive and well throughout the convention, including awards for the best student posters and presentations sponsored by the Kurt Gottschalk Science Fund, and recognition for the top three SAF student chapters in the country, which showcases our students’ service to the profession and their communities.

Continuing our efforts to create a more welcoming and inclusive culture within SAF and the broader forestry community, we have worked with our partner organizations like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to sponsor our Student Diversity Scholar Program. For over 15 years, this program has helped bring students from all walks of life to our convention and offered them opportunities for mentoring and leadership development. In fact, I was part of the program back in 2003 when I was a senior at the University of Florida. This opportunity gave me even great insight into being an SAF member and forestry professional. Many of the connections made that year have been integral to my professional growth, which has eventually led me to my current role as SAF CEO!

What factors do you believe are critical for forestry to achieve workforce needs over the next decade?

The major factors that I see impacting our ability to address workforce needs over the next decade are awareness, training and career pathways. With an example like the Trillion Trees Initiative, forestry and natural resources management are finally being more widely recognized as part of the solution to carbon and economic issues. As professionals in this area, we have long known this to be true, but we must be willing to adapt and engage the broader public and new audiences versus sitting back and seemingly touting, ‘We told you so!’

One way SAF is working to spark new interest in forestry careers is through a partnership with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative to help create and distribute a new Project Learning Tree course, “Green Jobs.” We felt this was a great way to increase awareness of our professions to students and teachers. The ability for students to see themselves solving natural resource issues and for teachers to see our professionals as part of the solution sets a great foundation in building our future workforce.

Simply put, the more voices we can bring to the table around an issue, the more weight it has to policymakers, landowners and the general public.

Many conservation districts compile a directory of local professional foresters available to share with private landowners. What are some other ways you envision local conservation districts and area foresters can work together to help manage forestlands?

First, I want to thank conservation districts for compiling and sharing forester directories with private landowners. The benefit of a landowner working with a professional forester in assessing their property and developing recommendations based on their objectives cannot be overstated – it’s what we as foresters train so diligently to do. But continued conservation district assistance with landowner outreach, awareness and education is also vitally important in managing and retaining private forests. An area for increased collaboration could be support for the use of credentialed foresters. These foresters have committed to continuing education and represent our growing knowledge of natural and economic systems.

As we see the impacts of further fragmentation of private forests, we both share the opportunity to educate and inform new forest landowners as well. I think our ability to highlight programs that provide additional support and benefits to landowners will be critical to their maintaining and benefitting from their ownership. Two great examples are the American Forest Foundation’s Family Forest Carbon Program and its Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program. These programs – in addition to our efforts with ForestEd.org and partnership with Project Learning Tree – assist in educating landowners, foresters and the general public about the importance of owning and managing forested landscapes.

SAF and NACD work together through a number of coalitions – the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition and Forests in the Farm Bill Coalition, to name a couple. Tell me why you believe multi-partner efforts like this are critical to addressing the needs of our nation’s forests.

Simply put, the more voices we can bring to the table around an issue, the more weight it has to policymakers, landowners and the general public. When you look across our sector, we are highly specialized. That specialization helps to meet the unique needs of our various constituencies, but it can also minimize our collective voice. Large and diverse group efforts like the Forest-Climate Working Group, the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition and the Forests in the Farm Bill Coalition help our community see the bigger picture and align on priority issues. While consensus-building through coalitions isn’t always easy or fast, the investment pays dividends when we can see beyond our differences and offer a unified voice on solutions to society’s most pressing issues.

Check out NACD’s Forestry Notes for more Q&As and stories like this.

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