Conservation District Forester Spotlight: Ellie Johnson

In this Conservation District Forester Spotlight, meet Ellie Johnson, the forester for Benzie, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau Conservation Districts in Michigan. Ellie has been in her role for a year and answered questions about her experience so far.

Question: If you traced your interest back to its roots, what triggered your passion for forestry?

Answer: I can’t think of a specific moment; I just remember when I was little I named the giant red maples on the farmstead where I grew up. I had this gut feeling they needed me as much as I needed them. I still carry that feeling.

Q: What’s most rewarding about being a conservation district (CD) forester?

A: Connecting with so many types of people. Whether it’s the conversations I have with landowners, the speakers I work with on educational programs, the academics I learn from at workshops, or the coworkers and community members I collaborate with every day — each connection is its own reward.

Q: Other entities have forestry programs — what’s unique about a local CD offering forestry services?

A: CD foresters are the segue between private landowners and government agencies, private-sector tree care providers, academic researchers, and the nonprofit sector. We’re also the middle ground between all interest groups. I’m able to connect people with locally relevant expertise, success stories, funding sources, and community engagement.

Q: Outside your forestry training, what other skills have you found vital to your job?

A: I have a Bachelor’s in Science Education (shout-out to Clarion University of Pennsylvania!) in Secondary Biology Education, and that’s been extremely beneficial. I host educational programs, and being confident when communicating about forestry to any interest group or age — from preschooler to retiree — helps me be a better champion for the local environment and communities that live within it.

Q: What’s been your biggest success as a CD forester?

A: I’ve planted a lot of seeds (no pun intended) in arming landowners with knowledge on how to make the best management decisions for them and their woods. Folks call me with questions, trust my guidance, and allow me to go on these journeys with them to become better stewards for their forests — that’s success in itself.

Q: Who is one person who mentored you in your forestry/conservation career, and how did they influence you?

A: I have four: Dr. Suzanne Boyden and Dr. Bruce Smith of Clarion University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Althea Hagan and Dr. Patrick Hiesl of Clemson University. I could write a book on what they mean to me. They never gave up on me, and they always showed up with encouragement, motivation, ideas, and kindness.

Q: What advice would you give a CD forester who is new to the job?

A: Connect with and lean on the amazing folks around you — coworkers, government representatives, nonprofits, researchers, practitioners, and other community members and professionals. People are your greatest resource.

Q: Last but not least, what’s one of your favorite trees, and why?

A: Southern live oaks (Quercus virginiana). I think of those sweeping, southeastern trees almost daily — especially the Angel Oak tree outside of Charleston, SC.

Forestry Services in Benzie, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau CDs:

One district forester serves the tri-district area, over half of which is covered by forest. The three CDs offer several forestry services, but primary duties of the forester are:

1) Offering free, one-on-one site visits for forest landowners;
2) Developing events and educational programming;
3) Connecting landowners with relevant information and partners, and;
4) Introducing landowners to forestry programs.

In fiscal year 2022 alone, the CD forester conducted 219 site visits covering 5,691 acres of woodlands. Two Michigan-specific programs landowners may learn about from the forester are the Qualified Forestry Program (QFP) and the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP). Through QFP, landowners receive a tax exemption in exchange for managing their forests in a sustainable fashion. MAEAP offers landowners incentives and recognition for sustainable forestry. Looking to the future, the districts hope to expand forestry education and explore how to set up workshops to meet continuing education requirements for professionals.

To learn more, visit the Benzie, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau CD forestry web pages.

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