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Supply of Land Managers in Crisis?

This article was excerpted from Fair Chase-The Official Publication of the Boone and Crockett Club, Spring 2010, written by Robert D. Brown, Dean, College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University.

The 1960s were the boom years in the education and production of natural resource professionals. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), and the Endangered Species Act were passed and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed. College bound youth enrolled in natural resource curricula in droves. Funding for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the US Forest Service (USFS), the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service-NRCS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were good. Universities opened new academic programs and hired more faculty to deal with the influx of students. The profession of natural resource science and management prospered.

In recent years the 1960s generation (Baby Boomers) are reaching retirement age. By 2007, 61 percent of the program managers in the Department of Interior were eligible for retirement. That same year, half of the senior executive service members of the Interior, the USFS and the EPA could retire. The USFS anticipates losing 81 percent of its entomologists and nearly half of its foresters. The EPA is losing 45 percent of its toxicologists and 30 percent of its environmental specialists. An identical trend is happening in the state fish and game agencies, in private timber companies, and on ranches with wildlife managers.

This would not be a problem if the nation’s universities were churning out foresters, soil scientists, rangeland managers, and wildlife biologists with bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees that are needed. But they are not. Enrollment in natural resource fields at our nation’s colleges have been in steep decline since the late 1990s. Enrollments have dropped a full 33 percent since then. Professor Terry Sharik at Utah State University has tracked both national and regional data on these enrollments for the National Association of University Forest Resource Programs (NAUFRP). There have been declines in students studying forestry, range management, soil science, watershed management, wildlife and fisheries, and general natural resources. In natural resource programs, enrollments have increased in recreation, tourism, and park management.

Natural resource programs have responded by “sexing up” traditional degrees into ones called environmental soil science, restoration ecology, evolutionary biology and conservation biology. One of the problems with the shifting disciplines is that the new areas tend to be more general, more theoretical and less applied, and have fewer field experiences. The result of this says Maxine Levin of the NRCS, is that “environmental programs with no soil science, chemistry, math, or engineering have produced excellent future lawyers and activists, but not individuals who have the skill sets to do objective, science-based conservation planning with farmers, landowners, developers, engineers and regional and planners.”

Factors affecting student enrollment include low salary & lack of hiring over the past 10-20 years, impression that these fields are not “female friendly”, urbanized society – little connection with outdoors, and the fact that US middle and high schools are continuing to fall behind other countries in science and math; over a third of natural resource doctorates are awarded to foreign students.

Urban students are passionate about wildlife and the woods. They got their interest and attitudes about wildlife and the outdoors from the Discovery Channel. They are not from rural areas as in the past that spent time out of doors, hunting, driving tractors, cut timber or driving cattle.

Employers are saying today’s students need to know what the 60s students knew of the outdoors and also know statistics, GPS/GIS, computer modeling species regulations, conflict resolution, budgeting, personnel management.

In response to the natural resource manager crisis the Association of Fish & Wildlife has produced a “Conservation Education Agenda” for state agencies. Family-level nature clubs (Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc), hunting & conservation organizations (Boone & Crockett Club, Ducks Unlimited, Quail Unlimited, etc.) all have outdoor youth programs. State and Federal programs have poured funding into science and math programs into our schools with varying success. Universities have responded by increasing marketing and recruiting efforts. Oregon State University conducted surveys and focus groups with high school students. They produced a DVD on the outdoors and use of electronics gadgets and other colleges are putting up billboards with photos of students in the woods spending “another day at the office”. North Carolina State University has begun recruiting at Camp LeJeune and Fort Bragg.

Despite these efforts, we can expect a shortage of trained land managers for the next several years. Perhaps the market will drive up salaries to make natural resources a more attractive career. There will continue to be a particular shortage of people with specialty degrees-forest entomology, range hydrology, or water law. The shortage emphasize the importance of programs for youth and college age students as the Boone and Crockett Club professorship, fellowship and research programs that are at the University of Montana, Oregon State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Michigan and developing programs at Colorado State University and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The training of our future wildlife and natural resource professionals-in terms of numbers, quality, diversity, and applied skills-is paramount to the future of our nation’s landscape.

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