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Forestry for the people: A new degree program meets a growing need for community and urban tree professionals

Bob White knew he wanted to work in the field of urban forestry, and he knew he wanted to attend Warnell. Still, when he received his degree in forest resources, there were some gaps he had to fill in on his own.

“It’s night and day between what a forester will do,” and working in a community setting, says White (BSFR ’10, MS ’12). And so, when it came time for his master’s, White assembled a committee that included community forestry expert Kim Coder.

“At the time there was not a place where I could get a degree in urban forestry—that was 10 years ago,” he adds. “But, there’s definitely a need for it.”

To meet that need, Warnell has launched a new degree emphasis tailored for students who want to work with trees in urban and community settings. Called Community Forestry and Arboriculture, the program is now accepting undergraduate and graduate students who want to join this growing field of tree professionals. 

This opportunity will open doors for students who have a passion for the outdoors and want to contribute to improving their neighborhood or community.

“The world is changing. We are becoming more addicted to our concentrated infrastructures and hardscapes for survival,” said Coder, professor and Hill Fellow for Distinguished Public Service and Outreach. “But, it is greenscapes and trees that generate our quality of life beyond mere survival. Within the Warnell Community Forestry and Arboriculture program are the educational tools of change—for trees, communities and tree professionals. Trees are hope in a changing world.”

As the eighth most populated state in the country—and the 10th fastest growing—Georgia is a prime example of the need for community foresters, says Coder. As more people move into urban and suburban areas, the need for professional tree care and management grows more vital.

Before launching the degree-level program, community forestry training was available to students as a certificate. But the additional training in tree species and management, along with an internship that gets students hands-on training, will give Warnell students an edge when they enter the job market.

“The demand for qualified urban foresters is pretty good, and I’m always struck by how little employers are asking for, in terms of qualifications. I think that’s because there’s not a large number of folks with a degree,” says White, who is a master arborist with Bartlett Tree Experts in Santa Barbara, California. “So, I’d imagine that walking into that field with a degree in urban forestry is going to be a huge asset for our graduates.”

White enjoys the arboriculture side of the field. After graduation he got a job with Bartlett working in Cincinnati, where he had to learn about a whole new set of trees and their care. He does some work with municipalities to provide outside tree assessments, but the bulk of his customers are residential. 

His goals, he says, overlap peoples’ needs with the trees. With healthier trees, property values rise and liability costs go down. Professionals in the community forestry field also need to understand how policies and tree ordinances can help encourage better planning and decisions down the road, which also lowers costs.

“The driving force has to be about helping people,” he says. “It’s all about safety and education.”

Seth Hawkins (BSFR ’14) agrees. As a community forester for the Georgia Forestry Commission, Hawkins works with local municipalities to determine their tree goals. He also does trainings and outreach, such as a recent tree-planting project at Winterville Elementary School.

“I’ve been with the Commission for five years and I’ve seen a lot of growth in this area in communities,” he says. “They’re starting to see trees as an asset rather than a liability.”

Hawkins takes his tree expertise on the road a lot. On any given day, he might be speaking to children at a school, consulting with a local official or representing the Commission at a community event. 

The profession, as a whole, is a mixture of science and working with people. It’s understanding plant health and biology alongside public policy. Even, at times, settling disputes among property owners or explaining why a tree was cut.

As more people make the connection between healthy trees and healthy cities, says assistant professor Jason Gordon, the field will continue to expand.

“I’ve been doing this about eight years now, and I firmly believe that tree canopy management in an urbanizing context is going to be increasingly critical to people’s well-being,” says Gordon. “With community forestry—for those of us who have had experience with more traditional types of natural resource management—we talk about how dynamic it is. The issues are unique, and it always relates back to the human dimension.”

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