Wageningen University & Research: Forests are essential to the planet, but foresters are lacking

Forests are linked to urgent issues such as climate change and biodiversity. However, while forest management is more critical than ever, finding professionals to do the job is increasingly difficult. On the occasion of the International Day of Forests (21 March), we interviewed professor Douglas Sheil and PhD student Marco Patacca on the importance of forest management.

‘We still underestimate the impact forests have’, says Douglas Sheil, professor of Forest Ecology and Forest Management. ‘They are fundamental to human life on the planet. To carbon sequestration and, thus, climate change, biodiversity, and the water cycle. And we all use wood and paper, which must come from somewhere.’

Waning interest
However, while the crucial role of forests is increasingly understood and acknowledged, the number of professionals is declining. Courses and programmes within this domain are offered at fewer universities. Sheil himself studied forest management at Oxford, but the programme has since been terminated. Therefore, he published a call to action in Nature with his Australian colleague J. Doland Nichols. They call for increased investment in human capital and careers in forest management.

According to the two professors, the waning interest is a matter of funding and prestige. Sheil also points to PR issues: ‘People who love forests, generally are not those that communicate with the public or with politicians. Moreover, there is quite some polarisation. While some see foresters as nature conservationists, others perceive them as lumberjacks, making this career less attractive.’

Wageningen students
Wageningen University & Research is one of the exceptions to a negative trend, says Sheil. Here, the number of students choosing forest management is on the rise. This is also the result of the declining number of other institutions offering this programme. WUR offers a bachelor programme in Dutch (Forest and Nature Management) and the master’s programme Forest and Nature Conservation.

One of these students in Wageningen is Marco Patacca, from Italy. He completed his master’s in Forest and Nature Conservation and is currently doing a PhD with the Forest Ecology and Forest Management group. He, too, sees that insufficient young people are working in his domain, at a time when their involvement is sorely needed: ‘We really need fresh ideas coming from new generations, because the new challenges the world is facing are better understood by young people.’

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Simultaneously, Patacca sees a shift. The crucial role forests play features more frequently on the agenda, particularly within the framework of climate change: the Paris agreement, wildfires in the Amazon, the Green Deal. ‘Forests and nature are now considered cooler among young people, and there is an increasing number of businesses, investors and possibilities. After all, 3 billion trees have to be planted.’

To combat the shortage of professionals, Douglas Sheil calls for rebranding. Forest Conservation or Forest Management should replace the term Forestry. This covers the essence better. Marco Patacca agrees: ‘Forest Management enables you to really have societal impact. And, you can travel to the most awesome places in the world; forests are inspiring and mystical.’

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