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Creating sound forest policies

Lauren Ward's path diverted from litigation when she realized the effect that empirical research could have


Personal: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

This classic quote from John Muir turned out to be true for my family. I live in Boone, North Carolina, with my husband John and our sons, Johnny (5) and Charles (2).


Lauren Ward

General counsel and director of regulatory affairs for the Forest Landowners Association


AB in English, Georgetown University

JD, University of Georgia School of Law

MNR., University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources

PhD, forest resources, University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources


Atlanta, Georgia

Tell us about your career path, from graduation to where you are now.

Like many of my fellow Warnellians, I have always loved spending time in the woods. One year after earning an English major at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., I returned to Georgia to pursue a law degree. While there, I became increasingly interested in environmental law and natural resources law. After practicing for a few years, I decided to go back to school to pursue a non-thesis master’s degree in natural resources, with the intent of becoming a natural resources litigator. However, during my time at Warnell I saw that I could have a greater impact on forest policy and management through teaching and research than I could in a courtroom, where bad facts have a tendency to make bad law. My career path took an unexpected turn, and I decided to stay at Warnell to pursue a Ph.D.

My Ph.D. research was a testament to the fact that empirical research can drive science-based forest policy: I studied the impact of the Endangered Species Act on private forest landowners across the United States. My research provided scientific evidence to support the idea that incentives are more effective than disincentives in conserving rare species on private lands. Forest Landowners Association was a partner in that research, ultimately selecting me as their inaugural Rob Olszewski Fellow in Forest Policy and Analysis. When I graduated with my doctorate, Forest Landowners Association hired me to continue my work in forest policy, with a particular focus on listed and at-risk species that depend on private forests for their habitat.


What’s a typical day like for you?

My role at Forest Landowners Association encompasses a wide variety of projects and duties. We represent over 3,000 private forest landowners across the United States and advocate for recognition of the economic and environmental contributions these landowners provide to society. What that work looks like on a day-to-day basis can vary greatly!

One day, I may be on Capitol Hill advocating for federal legislation to help forest landowners who host endangered species on their land, and the next day I may be trekking through the woods as I lead a field tour to demonstrate common forest management practices to officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I also serve in leadership roles across several collaborative initiatives, including the Longleaf Partnership Council, Conservation Without Conflict, and Keeping Forests as Forests. In addition to representing the forest landowner perspective in these coalitions, I also work at the grassroots level, facilitating the dialogue among landowners and various stakeholders to build trust and collaboration between regulatory agencies, conservation groups and private forest landowners. Conducting research and engaging diverse partners to develop game-changing solutions to the problems that private forest landowners face is at the center of my day-to-day duties.


Is there a particular project you’re working on right now that really excites you?

We are working with a broad array of stakeholders to help preclude the need to list the gopher tortoise (Gopherus Polyphemus) under the Endangered Species Act.

The gopher tortoise is currently a candidate to be listed under the act, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to make a final listing decision within the next three years. We are working now with the service, state wildlife agencies, other forestry associations and conservation groups to show that private landowners are already conserving this keystone species. For example, we are developing a multi-species Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances in South Carolina. This type of agreement puts conservation measures in place on the ground for species that may be listed under the Endangered Species Act in the future. In exchange, it provides forest landowners with regulatory assurances that deliver certainty and predictability for their forest management.

As I move forward in my career, I hope to develop more of these collaborative, voluntary, incentivized tools for forest landowners. Rewarding the stewards of our private forests for wildlife conservation yields better outcomes for landowners and for species.


How did you get drawn to your career?

When I first became interested in natural resources law, what struck me most about the field was the lack of integration between science and law. Blending these two fields in a powerful and meaningful way became the guiding principle of my career. Scientists and policymakers seem to speak different languages, with very little mutual understanding when they try to work together. What is needed is a new generation of leaders who can speak both languages fluently, translate and communicate messages effectively across audiences and advocate for applied research and science-based policies to help manage our natural resources.


How did your experience at Warnell prepare you for what you’re doing now?

My experience at Warnell not only prepared me for what I’m doing now, but it inspired me to dream of this unique career path in the first place. Instead of litigating natural resources conflicts in a courtroom, where one side wins and one side loses, I was inspired to conduct research that would drive better policies for all.

My professors at Warnell opened the doors for me to be creative and dream of new, science-based solutions to old, politically-entrenched problems. Under the guidance and mentorship of my major advisor Gary Green and my doctoral committee members Bob Warren and Bob Izlar, I was given the opportunity to conduct novel research, with results that continue to have a direct application to real-world problems for forest landowners.

I could not imagine a better academic environment, better leadership, or better support for the type of applied, interdisciplinary research project that we were able to achieve.


What advice would you give students who’ll soon be looking for jobs?

I teach a class at Appalachian State University once a year, and I also give guest lectures at Warnell from time to time. I tell my students to pursue what inspires them, to work hard and to do their very best even when they think no one is watching–because someone usually is. When you do good, honest, hard work, people will notice, and opportunities will always follow.

I also tell students not to worry too much if they don’t know what they want to be “when they grow up.” I use my own career path as an example. I encourage my students to think of their career as a journey, rather than a destination. Be a lifelong learner and develop new skills. Strive to learn from experience and use those experiences guide you as you make choices on your career journey.


How have you stayed connected to Warnell?

In my professional capacity, I collaborate with professors and students at forestry schools across the Southeast to enhance ongoing research and learning opportunities. I lead Forest Landowners Association’s Public Policy Institute, which offers forestry students the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., with our organization for a three-day, hands-on experience in the world of forest policy. I also work with the Forest Landowner Foundation, which provides the opportunity for scholarships, internships and fellowships for Warnell students.

As a volunteer, my passion for teaching and mentorship draws me back to campus on a regular basis to give guest lectures. I also continue to enjoy serving as a mentor for forestry and natural resources students who are interested in pursuing a career in advocacy, policy or law.

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