In a state like Washington that's filled with forests and has long been synonymous with forestry, it's easy to imagine that students would line up to get their degrees in the high-demand field. But Washington State University's program, the only accredited undergraduate one of its kind in the state, has roughly 20 students who are majors, down from about 50 a decade ago.
Soon, it could face extinction, as the dean of Washington State's College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences recently recommended phasing out the undergraduate major in forestry. The university has gone through years of tight budgets, and academic heads across the university have been asked to evaluate their programs -- and in some cases make cuts.
Keith Blatner, chair of natural resource sciences, said nothing is definitive. He said it appears likely that even if the major gets axed, the university will continue to offer some forestry-related courses that count toward other degrees, and support some aspects of forestry research.
Blatner said he appreciates the university's interest in focusing more on research and graduate education, while also keeping in mind its mission as a land grant institution. He's urging university leaders to take a long view of the situation, as he said programs like his often go up and down in popularity.
"It's important to have an accredited program in the state," Blatner said. "I'm concerned with what will happen to students otherwise."
Of particular concern to Blatner are the community college transfer students who he estimates represent more than half of forestry majors at Washington State. Those students count on such a program to be geographically near them, and would face higher out-of-state fees were the program to no longer exist. The University of Washington offers a four-year program in forestry with a fifth year option to pursue a master's degree. The master's program is accredited by the Society of American Foresters, but the undergraduate program is not.
Blatner and Hal Salwasser, dean of Oregon State University's College of Forestry, said they both have noticed other natural resources disciplines across the country facing similar enrollment problems. Oregon State's program, which offers various courses of study relating to forest resources, has bucked that trend over the last five years, having grown 30 percent to roughly 600 undergraduates, according to Salwasser.
Blatner said low enrollments at many institutions could partly be a product of the increasing urbanization of students who aren't interested in a quintessentially non-urban field.
It's also a matter of perception. Students wanting a "green" field of study might view forestry as helping business raise trees to chop, for instance. Both Blatner and Salwasser said that shows a misunderstanding of the field.
"People often times say, 'You're a forester. You must be a park ranger or a logger," Blatner said. "Those are unfortunate connotations -- we're resource managers and forest managers."
Salwasser said the job market for forestry graduates is generally booming. He expects mass retirements from an aging workforce over the next five to 10 years, with "an inadequate number of students in the pipeline to meet the workforce needs." Those jobs, Salwasser added, require an understanding of technology and communication that students get from such forestry programs.
Blatner agreed that jobs are plentiful for his graduates, who often work in state agencies or as forestry consultants. In previous decades, though, there was a backlog of forestry graduates who weren't getting the plum jobs out of college, Blatner added. He fears that counselors are still advising students that their job prospects aren't great in the field.