A career path through the woods: Michigan's next generation of forestry talent

In Japan, people are encouraged to engage in the practice of Shinrin Yoku, or "forest bathing," to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Katherine Armstrong reaps all the benefits of spending time around trees as well, but she doesn't need a therapeutic getaway to the woods to experience them. She simply has to go to work every day.   

"Most people have to wait for a Saturday to go for a hike in the woods, and that's what I do all day, most days--walk in the woods," says the 38-year-old Michigan DNR forester who works in Kalkaska. "Hearing songbirds and seeing cool views over a river, you get to see a lot of neat places."

Armstrong is one of many young professionals in Michigan's forestry industry. Though she was raised near Baltimore, it's not unusual at all that she ended up working in the state that owns more forest land than any other besides Alaska.

"All of those acres is like a playground for someone like me," Armstrong says.

She's not alone. Armstrong says a fair number of young people are coming into the forest management field these days, and they're not your everyday forestry majors, adding a new perspective to the industry with a broad range of backgrounds. Here, we meet Armstrong and other young people in the forest industry who are taking their diverse talents to the trees.

Having Fun in the Forest (For a Living)

While Armstrong came to the DNR via degrees from Yale and Duke, John Bischoff, utility arborist for Great Lakes Energy in Northwest Michigan, blazed his own trail into forestry.

"I have always been fascinated by trees and spent most of my childhood climbing around in them," Bischoff says, "and when I learned I could get paid to climb them I applied for a job and started my career."

That career began with a utility line clearance company in Northern California and continued on to include work for a residential tree service in Elk Rapids and starting his own tree care company before taking a job with Great Lakes Energy. Though just 31, the certified arborist has already accumulated nearly 13 years in forestry.

Though Michigan State University forestry undergraduate Anna Boruszewski is just starting her journey, the college junior was attracted to the field for the exact same reasons Bischoff and Armstrong were.

"I love being outside, and forestry would allow me to earn a living while enjoying the great outdoors," she says. "It is also a hands-on, visual type of field which my brain understands well."

Working Toward a Better Future

While fun in the outdoors is a universal attraction to the field, another powerful motivator for this new generation of Michigan foresters is something much longer lasting.

"With our vast amount of trees and constant changes in the environment, the forest in Michigan is constantly changing," Bischoff says, "and we need people who love trees to make sure our forests stay healthy as possible."

That's not only true so forest lovers of the future can enjoy Michigan's natural resources, but also to keep the forest products industry a viable, sustainable part of the state economy.

"Everyone is very enthused about where their food comes from," Armstrong says. "I'd love to see, instead of just shop local and eat local, let's make it log local. Because we have so many regulations in place to make sure the wood generated in the U.S. and Michigan is generated sustainably."

That's a positive thing for thousands of families around the state, both today and for years to come.

"Foresters have a very long view of the world," says Armstrong. "I may make a prescription now to plant some trees, but I won't be around to see those trees reach maturity. You kind of have to have an optimistic view of the world to work in forestry."

The Future of Michigan's Forestry Talent

There are more ways for young people who love the outdoors and care about the future of forests to be a part of the industry than they may imagine, according to Boruszewski. "Becoming a park ranger," she says, "is not the only career you can achieve with a degree in forestry."

For her part, Boruszewki is interested in forestry subsections such as GIS modeling, wood products, timber management and even submerged log recovery in the Great Lakes. Another part of the forest products industry, says Armstrong, is in need of more young talent as many of the existing workers are nearing retirement: logging. From what she has gathered from industry discussions, kids spending less time outside and more time inside playing video games is one suspected cause.

"The irony is that so much of the logging industry is mechanized that being good at video games actually helps," she says.  

For their part, however, Bischoff, Armstrong and Boruszewki represent a cross-section of Michigan's next generation of forestry talent, and they suspect the appeal of the great outdoors will keep the talent pool filled for years to come.

"One reason I would give someone to pursue forestry is simple," says Bischoff. "They can get paid to play in trees--something they did for fun as a kid. Plus, having the forest as your office most of the day is pretty amazing too."

This story is a part of a statewide Forest Management Community Impact Series edited by Natalie Burg. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
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