BROWSE BY:     Title Number Subject Creator Digital Content

Interview with Daniel Robison, December 4, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

pdf icon Get PDF Version
Interview with Daniel Robison, December 4, 2002
December 4, 2002
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Robison, Daniel Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  12/4/2002 Series:  Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length  45 minutes


Warren: Daniel Robison here, a professor at North Carolina State University. I’m Harry Warren, recording Dan Robison. We’re going to talk about all sorts of things related to forestry and forestry schools.

Warren: But first Dan, give us your full name if you wouldn’t mind, and spelling it for us please.

Robison: Daniel Robison. R-o-b-i-s-o-n.

Warren: And where might you be from, Dan?

Robison: I grew up in New Jersey outside of New Brunswick.

Warren: And your education?

Robison: I went to school, my undergraduate degree in forestry is from the state university of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. I stayed there and got a Master’s degree in Silvaculture. After a couple years of work, I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison to do a Ph.D. in forest entomology and forestry.

Warren: How long have you been at NC State and what brought you down here?

Robison: I came to NC State in April of 1997. Just prior to that, I was on the faculty at the college of forestry in Syracuse. A position here was advertised. NC State has a terrific reputation and a wonderful program and it was a move in the right direction for me. I applied and lucky enough, I was able to get the job.

Warren: Why does NC State have such a good reputation? I hear that all the time.

Robison: For a lot of reasons. First off it’s one of the older forestry schools and so it has a long history. North Carolina has a vibrant forest economy and forestry sector and so there’s lots of things to be done here that are happening here. It’s a large forestry school with close to 50 faculty all together, which dwarfs many of the other forestry schools. Many of the other forestry schools are quite a bit smaller. It has a history, perhaps present company excluded, of attracting really good people both in terms of students and professionals and making a lot of positive contributions.

Warren: Let’s talk a little about the history of NC State’s forestry school and feel free, whatever you can rattle in about the history of forestry schools in general. Could you kind of just take that and run with it?

Robison: Okay, well I need to preface my comments by saying I’m not that well versed in the details of the history of forestry education in the United States, but I can provide a little context anyway. Even if my dates are off by a couple of years, they’ll be pretty close. This particular school of forestry at NC State was begun in 1929. It’s here I guess partly on purpose, partly by accident. There was a college of forestry in Pennsylvania at the Mont Alto campus in south central Pennsylvania. It had been there for some time and the director of that forestry school in Pennsylvania, a guy named Julius Hoffman, had petitioned the main campus, Penn State main campus at State College, to move the forestry department there so they could interact with the other professionals in the College of Agriculture and the other fields on the main campus.

Apparently he was rejected a number of times. Hoffman was apparently not one to take rejection lightly and he had done a whole lot of maneuvering and moving and shaking and eventually I guess threatened folks on the main campus at Penn State, that if they didn't allow him to move his forestry school to the main campus, he was going to take it somewhere else. They called his bluff but lost.

Warren: He wasn’t bluffing.

Robison: No he wasn’t. Sometime soon after the main campus at Penn State had turned him down, he up and moved the entire school, students, faculty, staff and everybody to NC State and that was in 1929. He clearly had made the arrangements beforehand so he knew what he was going to do. NC State at that time did not have a forestry school. I guess the government here felt like they needed one and they certainly did. So he plopped the school down here in 1929.

That same year there were already graduates because they had done their coursework up in Pennsylvania of course. It wasn’t called NC State at the time, but the state college here granted degrees that very first year.

Warren: So did he bring students with him from the University of Pennsylvania?

Robison: Yeah, undergraduates, I understand some graduate students as well.

Warren: He not only took the school, he brought the students too.

Robison: The whole thing and of course in the wake of that, Penn State did move the Department of Forestry to the main campus. In fact our current dean here at NC State, Larry Nielson, before coming here was the director of the forestry school at Penn State and knows that history well I’m sure. There continues to be a forestry technology program at the Mont Alto campus in Pennsylvania. So Pennsylvania didn't go along without a forestry school, but NC State got one along the way.

Warren: So NC State continues to poach from Penn State qualified people?

Robison: Apparently so, that’s right (laughter).

Warren: Is there a rivalry between these two forestry schools? It seems like there almost should be you know a natural rivalry because of the way NC State sort of sprang out of Pennsylvania.

Robison: There’s no rivalry that I’ve ever heard of. I suspect, you know to have a rivalry both places have to be involved in it and I don’t suspect this is often a story that is told at Penn State.

Warren: Now when it came here, this is a land grant college started in the 19th century. Seems like a lot of forestry schools are connected with land grant colleges. Is that true?

Robison: Yes, as far as I know every land grant university in the nation has something like a forestry school. Some have departments, some have programs in forestry and natural resources in various ways. But as part of the land grant mission, even in places with relatively few trees, like some of the Midwestern, Great Basin states, they have active forestry programs. Of course you don’t need lots of trees to be important. When they’re scarce, they’re even more valuable. So those places all have forestry schools.

Warren: What about the Syracuse school. It’s got an interesting history, doesn’t it?

Robison: Well yeah, it’s a place obviously, as I said before it’s where I went to school. They all have interesting histories and I guess if you want to talk about the very early formation of forestry education in the United States, you have to start in North Carolina even before we get to the Syracuse story.

Warren: Over in Brevard by what’s now called the cradle of forestry?

Robison: The cradle of forestry where the Biltmore forestry school is.

Warren: Tell us about that.

Robison: Well you have to go back to the time, which is the late 1800’s, the beginnings of the modern conservation movement, the beginnings of the modern environmental movement were stirring because the land throughout most of the United States, North America in general had really been greatly abused by the settlers, by the governing bodies, by the people who would come here from Europe. Perhaps they didn't really know what they were doing, but the timber barrens had cut themselves from the east coast to the west coast and ran out of trees and had to stop.

There were tremendous forest fires raging. I think in 1870 there was the great Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin that killed a couple thousand people in one night. In 1917 I believe there was a fire in the sandhills of North and South Carolina that burned 3 million acres and killed I think a couple dozen people.

Warren: This is in the 19th century when they were cutting everything.

Robison: That’s right, they had cut it all down.

Warren: But now you hear today the argument for the big forest fires out west is that they’re not cutting. What am I getting wrong here?

Robison: Well we’re on a tangent here, but nevertheless, the fire argument is a very interesting one and it’s both a current success and perhaps a bit of a current failure. After this enormous amount of timber cutting in ways that were not done in a semicultural sound manner back 100 years or so ago, there was really no thought given to regeneration, stocking issues of future stands, treatment of slash, insects, diseases and so on. There were enormous fires that swept all across the nation.

In fact 100 years ago on average we burned 30 to 40 million acres of forest every year. These are wildfires. Thirty to 40 million acres was a tremendous loss of land and property. As a consequence of that and this all happened at the same time that forestry education began in this country, people became very concerned about fires and what to do about them. The US Forest Service and other government agencies started working very hard to try to do things to limit the cause of fires, the spread of fires, to do what they could to control and contain fires that did occur.

Those efforts have been tremendously successful. A hundred years ago we burned on average 30-40 million acres. Today wildfires in the United States consume an average of 3 to 4 million acres which is a huge success. I mean we wouldn’t tolerate 30–40 million acres of fire at all. So 3-4 million acres annually is a tremendous success for a nation our size with the woodlands it has. When we have an exceptionally bad year, we might burn up to 10 million acres. That’s not a good thing, but it’s still a far cry from the 30-40 million acres.

As a consequence of our fire suppression and fire control efforts and our development practices and other things going on in the country, we have not done the best job managing the fuel loads in our forests some of which can be explained by the exclusion of fire, some of which can be explained by changes in timber harvest and practices, some of which can be explained by the fact that after the initial forests were cut down, the forests which emerged afterwards, the regenerated second growth forests and the fire exclusion that accompanied them changed the nature of those ecosystems such as fuel has developed.

Fuel ladders have developed, small trees that can lead fires from the ground up to the crowns of large trees. Today we have a situation where we have a tremendous amount of fuel available that could lead to increasing the catastrophic fires. So the solution is many fold. It’s not just about more timber harvesting, although that can be an effective solution in some areas. It’s not just about giving up on fire suppression control. It’s not just about government policy or development policy.

It’s about putting all those things together, understanding the ecological nature of fire ecosystems and making good decisions for the future. We’re never going to go without fire and we wouldn’t want to go without fire because we have ecosystems that depend on it. So it’s a very complex equation, but it’s significant.

Warren: Okay, now going back to the 19th century, that complex equation was just starting to be understood.

Robison: Right, so people were beginning to recognize that mistakes had been made on the landscape. There were threats either perceived or real of timber shortages because so much wood had been cut, wood cut for fencing, wood cut for clearing the land. Wood cut for railroad ties and railroad fuel. We cut for home fuel. All those kinds of things as well as lumber and more traditional uses of wood. It became clear that something had to change.

In the early 1890’s or so, industrialist George Vanderbilt for whatever reason picked the mountains of North Carolina to establish the Biltmore mansion, Biltmore estate, he did that and he bought with it a couple thousand acres of forest land. The forest land was in poor condition because of past practices of cutting. The story is and you can get the story in detail at the Cradle of Forestry, is that he brought down a fellow named Frederick Law Olmsted.

Olmsted is considered the father or the originator of modern landscape architecture. Olmsted designed for example Central Park in New York City and many of our other famous parks. Vanderbilt brought Olmsted down to the property and said, “Help me out, What do I do here with this land”. Olmsted said he was a landscape architect, not a forester. I guess I can help you with the shrubs and things around the mansion or the estate, but you need a forester to look after the woods here and that’s not me.

So they ended up hiring a guy named Gifford Pinchot who is considered the father or the originator of modern American forestry and Pinchot was from Pennsylvania. He had recently returned, from a family of some distinction by the way, and he had recently returned from studying forestry in France. Vanderbilt hired him and set him to work managing what became the Biltmore properties, the forest properties up there.

He did it for a number of years and I believe it’s like 1895 or something in that time frame, Theodore Roosevelt who was rising in prestige nationwide, he was governor of New York at the time, came down, talked to Pinchot and as Roosevelt moved up into the government circles, vice-president…

Warren: Roosevelt came down to North Carolina?

Robison: I believe that’s the story. He came down and he met with Vanderbilt and Pinchot. In any case, Pinchot is recruited away to Washington to lead what was first called the Bureau of Forestry and soon in 1905 became the US Forest Service. Pinchot was its first director. So when he left the Biltmore estate, Vanderbilt had to hire somebody else to do the job and he hired sight unseen a guy that had been recommended to him, Prussian, a German man named Carl Allen Schenck.

Schenck was trained in European forestry, came here sight unseen to North Carolina I suppose by steamship and then horse and buggy cart up the mountains to start working for Vanderbilt who by this time had amassed several tens of thousands of acres of forest land. Schenck continued Pinchot’s work managing it and by some mechanism convinced Vanderbilt to let him establish a forestry school which became known as the Biltmore Forest School.

That was in the late 1890’s. Schenck ran that Billmore forest school until about 1913 or so and graduated the first cadre of professional foresters in the U.S. It was a one year program, very intensive, a full six months outdoors doing very practical work and then during the wintertime, they had more indoor work. It’s really worth a visit up to the Cradle of Forestry to see that.

Schenck and Vanderbilt had a falling out for various reasons and Schenck was let go summarily I suppose. He went back to Germany Prussia, served in the German army in World War I. He was from a military family. The Biltmore Forest School was closed.

Well between the time the Biltmore Forest School started and was closed in about 1913, a couple of other forestry schools were merging in the U.S., one at Syracuse, the New York College of Forestry at Syracuse and its predecessor I think in 1903, the Department of Forestry at Cornell University. Then there was the Yale School of Forestry which dates to something like 1909, something of that sort and then a school in Michigan.

Each of these schools had its own distinct personality. Some were more focused on practical aspects, some more on theoretical aspects, some on biology, some on policy and so on. There were hot debates among the leaders of forestry at that time, guys named Fernow, Pinchot, Schenk and others, about how forestry should be properly taught.

Meanwhile North Carolina had lost its forestry school cause the Biltmore school was closed and NC State didn't have a school as I said until 1929 when the Penn State campus came here. All these schools are emerging for the same reasons and the cost of landscape, the forests were in terrible condition.

There are all kinds of ironies out there. The story you asked me to briefly tell of Syracuse is that the School of Forestry there was begun in 1903 at Cornell and they hired this guy Bernard Fernow who went to the Adirondack Mountains to look around and see what happened there.

Warren: Do you know how to spell his name?

Robison: F-e-r-n-o-w.

Warren: And for our transcriber can you spell Schenck and Pinchot for us also?

Robison: Schenck is spelled S-c-h-e-n-c-k and Pinchot is P-i-n-c-h-o-t.

One of the reasons why the New York State legislature at Cornell had established a forestry school in 1903 was that there were these large industrialists who owned land and great camps up in the Adirondacks, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, any number of these kinds of people, who looked around and they saw the Adirondacks were in a very bad state of repair. There were forest fires up there, terrible consequences and so they established the school of forestry.

Bernard Fernow who was trained as a scientific forester went up there and looked around and decided that in order to make these forests regenerate properly and to reduce some of the fire threat, they needed to do control burns to remove some of the fuel. They needed to finish the clear cutting job on some forests so they could regenerate well and not only regenerate with the poor quality specimens that were left behind.

So Fernow had his students up there starting prescribed burns and cutting down more trees and the people in the Adirondacks who petitioned for the forestry school, that’s not what they had imagined at all. So they petitioned the state government and with the stroke of a pen in 1907, that four year old college of forestry was abolished just like that.

A few years later in 1911 cooler heads prevailed and they said they we really do need a college of forestry. But this time for political reasons, they established it in Syracuse as distinct from being at Cornell so to this day the college of forestry in New York is in Syracuse, not at Cornell. Most of colleges of forestry are land grand schools which would be in the Cornell, New York State case. Some years later than forestry schools began to pop up in most states including North Carolina.

Warren: In 1929 when the State came around, do you estimate it was the 10th forestry school, the 4th, 5th?

Robison: I don’t really know. I’d say probably the 10th, somewhere in that vicinity, 10 or 15.

Warren: And it’s maintained a good reputation apparently from the get-go. I mean it’s always had good professors like yourself included there. Your specialty is silvaculture, is that right? Now I’m not a forester so please just pardon my stupid, ignorant questions. What’s silvaculture?

Robison: Silvaculture is the practice of conducting forestry. Some say it’s the art or the science of conducting forestry, but silvaculture you could say is akin to agronomy in agriculture. It’s the actual means by which you manage populations of trees. That’s distinct from say our arboriculture where you manage individual trees. Silvaculture you manage populations of trees, typically we do it in forest stands or at landscape levels sometimes. We manipulate species composition, stand structure and age, growth rates and so on to achieve whatever the landowner’s objectives are.

Warren: Have the sciences and practices of silvaculture changed over the years?

Robison: Oh there’s been tremendous evolution in how the practices have changed. The fundamental underpinnings really haven’t. It’s a plant science. You know some folks used to call these kinds of things economic botany. So silvaculture is in many ways applied ecology where you take ecological principles and you use them to manipulate in this case a forest ecosystem to achieve whatever your goals are.

We’ve become much more sophisticated and much more able to do it in terms of managing the soil resource, managing the water resources, consideration for wildlife, biodiversity, non-timber values as well as the timber values as well as increasing the productivity of our timber stands, increasing recreational uses, you know, responding to society in various ways. So it’s a moving target for us.

Forestry operates with what we call a social license, that the nation gives us permission to do our work and if we do it in such a way that antagonizes the nation, they’re going to restrict us whether it’s on public land or private land through various mechanisms all in the context of our government or economic system. So foresters, silvaculturalists need to respond to society’s needs and society’s demands and that’s what we do.

Silvaculture is not practiced the same way today as it was some years ago. Frankly, we do it better now because we’ve learned from our mistakes. We now anticipate mistakes where sometimes we didn't used to do that. As information on ecological sciences accumulates, it enables us to do a better job.

Warren: There’s a lot of stress in forestry these days from parties that are sort of alienated from each other. It sounds like the silvaculturist might be a mediator between these two parties. Is that true and why does such alienation exist to begin with?

Robison: Right, sounds like you’ve asked that question before. Yeah, there is alienation and in some ways it’s ironic because foresters were in the broad sense really the first conservationists. They were the people who wore the white hats, worked to protect the landscapes, restore forests and protect watershed values and do all those good things in the landscape that needed to be done 100 years ago, 80 years ago and still need to be done.

Somewhere along the way though, in my view, forestry as a profession became more insulated from the general public and that happened at the same time that the general public was becoming more urbanized and more separate from the landscapes that foresters were interested in. It happened at the same time that the modern environmental movement became energized and in the 1970’s very much reenergized.

As a consequence from where I sit, not the practice so much, but the rhetoric and in some cases the context of forestry and environmental movements, forestry and conservation movements, forestry and preservationist movements, the context and the framework of those kinds of things began to separate and divide. Certainly our rhetoric changed, the kinds of words we used to describe what we were doing.

So the modern environmental movement that we read about in the newspaper that many of us in society support in different ways really emerged in many ways devoid of the influence of silvaculturist, foresters, who really should be tremendous allies and supporters in conjunction with those who are interested in the environment. Unfortunately that’s not how it happened and there is a huge schism which we all talk about trying to heal. I don’t know how successful we are in broad terms there are lots of cases there has been successful bringing together of these parties and plenty of cases where it’s not.

I think it’s now a reflection as I said just a few moments ago that society changes. Society’s demands on the forest change and foresters, silvaculturalists need to respond to that. We are by tradition a fairly conservative group because we manage much like farmers, we manage plant systems in the natural world that are prone to all kinds of _____, biotic and abiotic changes that we can’t always anticipate. So in some cases we move rather slowly whereas environmental thinking, political thinking, policy changes can happen very quickly.

So we’re sort of playing a catch-up game. In fact if you look at how the U.S. Forest Service has changed and responded in 98 years of existence, you’ll see that it’s not the same organization it was five years ago or 25 years ago or 75 years ago, that it representing the nation’s interest has evolved and changed more so to be in tune with the needs of society than to be in tune with the needs of what foresters think is right.

So this kind of thing continues and you’re right when you say that silvaculturalists, foresters and the environmental movement should be working hand and hand, but sometimes it’s very difficult too because their language is different and there are those in the environmental movement who don’t want to talk about tree harvesting. Foresters oftentimes, most oftentimes naturally do. We don’t see a conflict there.

There are also those in the forestry community who really don’t want to talk to the environmentalists and who will say they don’t know what they’re doing. We’re the experts, leave it to us.

Warren: They both claim science is on their side.

Robison: Well they do. They both claim science is on their side. I would say you have to look at the credentials and the knowledge of the individuals who claim these kinds of things and what their agenda is. You know I hope that we end up in the middle somewhere were we need to be with reasonable accommodation of each other. In my own view, the real coming, it sounds a little bit _____ , but the real coming crisis is right now we have 300 million Americans in the U.S. and in 50 years all the expectations are we’ll have 400 million Americans.

Of course the world will go from six billion to nine billion. Well we’ve got to food, clothe, shelter, provide health care, education for all those people. The world is going to be much more densely populated and forest products, whether it’s timber, recreation or biodiversity or watershed values, are going to become increasingly important. So our decision base, the room that we as a society have to maneuver with what we do with our forests and landscapes and all of our other landscapes for that matter, is going to be shrinking because the demands and the pressures are going to be increasing.

So we will need to do a better job on all the acres that are available to us. We will need to accommodate and sometimes more conflicting sets of interests and so the future is I think a much more challenging place to be than the present or the past for that matter. We all have huge responsibilities there in terms of providing options, providing products, providing goods and services for our landscapes.

Warren: I’ve got to ask you this because you articulate so well so many divergent issues here. Why does an environmentalist protest outside a chip mill but doesn’t protest when they’re getting ready to put up another strip shopping center? I mean to me personally I see the latter as being worse than the former. To me there’s something lost there. What’s your opinion about that?

Robison: Well this is just one man’s opinion. Well obviously we all have disconnects in how we do the world. I have lots of opinions about health care for example because I’ve been to the doctor, but I don’t know anything about health care, but I have all kinds of opinions. So there are all kinds of people that have opinions about forests who don’t know anything about them really. Nevertheless they’re taxpayers, they’re citizens, they’re voters. They have a right to have a comment even if it’s not founded in fact, or full understandings.

I think there are lots of people, well-educated, well-meaning people, the vast majority of people in the environmental movement frankly are well-educated, well-meaning people, they’re affluent people for the most part and they really want to do good. They see pieces of land that have forests on them as things to be protected and preserved and conserved. Those are good things.

They are also realists or pragmatists who will say I live in a house and I need to go to the shopping center and where they’re building these shopping centers, even if I don’t like it particularly, are places that obviously people need to go and the environmentalists have jobs and they recognize that so there are some ironies. There are probably some personal conundrums that people struggle with. Like in a lot of things in life, people choose to ignore some of those ironies or personal conflicts.

They say well I’m going to protest at a forest products site because these are people doing things in the woods I don’t understand and don’t like, but I’m not going to protest at the next suburban development or the next strip mall that goes in because well I live in a suburban development and I understand that. I think the argument or the issue is really expanding. We see much more talk about issues of sprawl. You know in forestry we use best management practices to minimize cellular erosion and protect all kinds of the resource values out there and of course they use similar, even more severe management practices when they do urban development.

So I think in conjunction with increase population pressures, increase use of our landscape, I think there’s a coming together of some of these issues. I think people who are really motivated to protect the environment, the natural environment, will continue to protest forestry operations because they see it as an assault on spiritual values, aesthetic values, but spiritual values. Forests hold very spiritual values. Nobody protests when a farmer cuts a cornfield because that’s associated with it. If they assign a spiritual value to farmland, it’s the annual cycle of cropping.

Forests, however, the value they associate, myself included, is this thing that is a beautiful place to go. As foresters we recognize we can cut them down and grow them back and do this all in an ecologically viable manner and it needs to be done in an economical viable manner as well. The two are not exclusive of each other at all. If you can’t do it ecologically or economically sound, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

So people are going to go to further extremes when it comes to the natural world in terms of protesting than they will in my view than when they protest the urban, developed world and I’m not sure anybody can explain why and I’m not sure people have to explain why. That’s just sort of their right and I think we all do it in our own lives in different ways.

Warren: I know we’re going to be a little short on time because you’ve got a class coming, but I want to ask you a couple of things about your academic career here at State. You’ve been here about five or six years now. You’re pretty much in tune with the current crop if you will of forestry students. What’s a typical forestry student at NC State in 2002?

Robison: At the undergraduate level?

Warren: Undergraduate and graduate.

Robison: Well at the undergraduate level, the typical forestry student here first off is from North Carolina. These are people who love this state. I think statistics would show that by in large they’re not from major urban areas in the state even though this is now an urban state. Many of them, like myself, come to forestry because we love hunting, fishing, camping, walking in the woods, things to do with nature. Some of them come to forestry because it’s in their family blood, their father, grandfather, cousins, aunts, uncles whatever are loggers, foresters, mill workers and they have an attachment to the land in that fashion.

They are people, these are young people of course, who are emerging as young professionals, young adults and they’re typically very highly motivated. They want to learn. They want to do what’s right on the landscape. As in any major any academic discipline, they come with all kinds of preconceived notions about the nature of forests, the nature of forestry, about how things might be done, how they should be done, how they were done and of course we work with them over four years, some over five or six years, to try and develop a sense of professionalism where it’s not so much personal opinions that matter anymore, although they’re certainly entitled to them, but it’s forestry based upon science, facts and objectives and so on.

So they’re good people. They’re bright people and I think the future of forestry, the profession is in good hands. We’re always striving to increase the rigor of our programs. We’re striving to bring in better and higher quality students all the time. We recognize the need to attract more diversity in our student population.

Warren: I was going to ask you about the gender and ethnic diversity in forestry. Does it exist?

Robison: (Laughter) Yeah, the gender diversity we’re doing pretty well on. I’m going to guess that about 30% of our students at the undergraduate level are women. Of course that’s less than the percentage in society, but that’s pretty good.

Warren: Well I just talked to Chuck Davey and he said there was actually a rule against women entering forestry before 1970.

Robison: Oh yeah, it was very much a man’s profession, whether it was a rule or whether it was just some institutional bias against women, I’m not sure. I think it would have been a pretty hostile place for a woman. The early women who came through forestry programs deserve tremendous praise for having stuck it out with probably less than friendly male classmates. We’re doing pretty good on the gender side of things.

Now after graduation, people go different ways based upon their genders and I think there are some real issues as to how do you retain women in professional forestry careers and every rank and level of the field and the office after graduation.

In terms of other forms of diversity, you know, whether it’s socioeconomic or cultural or racial, what have you, we’ve got a long way to go. We have a very difficult time attracting minorities of any kind into forestry whether Hispanic or black or Native American.

Warren: Why is that?

Robison: I don’t know, but I have a sense and I have been involved in conversations that have struggled with this issue both here and in New York when I was at the college of forestry there and in Wisconsin, when I was at the university there, there’s a perception, I think we need a sociologist to bear this out for us, but there’s a perception that people from minority communities, minority ethnic group communities who are not well enrolled in universities anyway and are struggling for all kinds of various reasons to raise their standard of living, raise their educational levels and so on frankly don’t perceive working in the woods as forestry is perceived as a ticket to the better life.

So I don’t think those kinds of students are naturally attracted to forestry even if they’re rural people who love hunting and fishing and walking in the woods. If you’re going to go to college, why…I’m imagining this now, someone might think or be advised why take up a subject that represents your past. You should take up a subject that represents your future. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s a feeling I have.

Warren: But it’s a very employable profession still.

Robison: Well there are jobs. I think there will increasingly be jobs in a very diverse array of things we call forestry. I think we need to work hard in terms of our labeling. A forester should not be thought of as people who are interested in cutting timber, regenerating timber, but all the other things that forestry has to offer society and to its people working in the profession. We have to find a way to attract more urban and suburban people, young people into these fields.

All across the nation programs of environmental science are just exploding with people interested where forestry schools are struggling to maintain levels of interest and I think it has to do with this labeling issue. If we can not change who we are, but do a better job communicating who we are, we may attract more people from a broader array of groups. It’s something we have to work on. It’s clearly unfinished business.

Warren: Do you think that’s the biggest challenge facing forestry today or what is the biggest challenge facing forestry today?

Robison: The easy answer is attracting more and better human capital of all kinds from every sector. The profession is only as good as the people who are in it. What’s the challenge, I really think the challenge has to do with this population we have here worldwide. Things are becoming much more global in terms of trade, in terms of the meaning of pests, movement of wood products. They’re not making anymore land yet there’s more people who want a bigger piece of the pie.

The numbers can be deceiving. You know going from 300 to 400 million Americans or 6 billion to 9 billion people in the world, that’s the good news. There are population projections that are much greater than that and that’s bad news. There are population projections that will show populations leveling off very quickly and declining and that’s also bad news because that represents war, murder and mayhem. Those are things we don’t want even though around the world we have them.

So we have more people wanting more stuff and it’s not just a straight line increase in how much stuff to provide to more people, but you have to consider that probably 80% of the world’s population lives in abject poverty right now. Those people are not only going to increase in number, but those people want better lives which means they need more stuff. It’s unconscionable for us who have affluence to not want to help others also have it.

So it’s not just the population going worldwide from 6 billion to 9 billion, it’s from 6 billion to 9 billion hopefully with a greater share of those people consuming more stuff, being more affluent in health, education, welfare and opportunity. So forestry has an extremely important role to play in that and to me this is the biggest challenge and that is – how are we going define ourselves to provide all the various goods and services that people want of forests and landscapes, people who manage grasslands could say the same thing, people who are interested in deserts, the oceans or agricultural fields or urban areas.

They should all be asking themselves the same question – how are we over the course of the next 50 years, which is not very long, in forestry that’s one hardwood rotation, two pine plantation rotations in the U.S. south, how are we going to over the course of the next 50 years with the career span of our current undergraduates, how are we going to address this incredible increase in population in consumer demand for all those goods and services, recreational goods, biodiversity goods, carbon goods, lumber, paper, pulp and all those kinds of things. That’s the challenge, how to make it people for all those people and preserve and increase the quality of life.

Warren: Excellent. Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on? Any general comments, anything? You’re so good.

Robison: Oh please. Forestry is a wonderful and proud profession. Those of us who are in it love it.

Warren: People do love it. That’s one thing that I continually find at every level, people love it and I love what I do as a museum person and I respect that in anybody. So many people are so miserable. Just look around Raleigh. Just get out on the interstate (laughter). But they do love it.

Robison: People in forestry love it. Forestry is a club if you will or a sorority, fraternity kind of deal. If you’re a forester in some fashion of that word, you can go anywhere in the country, anywhere in the state, anywhere in the world and if you find other foresters or other people who do that kind of work, you will have an immediate bond with them in a way that I’m not sure other professions bond immediately with their counterparts worldwide.

I’ve had the fortune to be around this country quite a bit, gone a number of places around the world and the moment you meet either on purpose or by accident somebody else in the field of forestry, there’s this bond and people want to do things for you. They want to take you out in the woods and show you what their woods look like. They want to take you on a hiking trip or a fishing trip or show you the inside of their mill or just talk about trees and landscapes and meeting the needs of society and so on. So it’s a great profession. It has contributed a tremendous amount. I think it has tremendous contributions yet to make. So I guess that would be my closing comment.

Warren: Well Dan you speak many wisdoms as a man who must be much older than you look. When were you born?

Robison: I was born in 1960 when the population in the U.S. was half what it is today.

Warren: Your exact birth date?

Robison: September 20.

Warren: September 20, 1960, well thank you for a very excellent interview. We will conclude this so you can go onto your class.

Robison: Thanks Harry, appreciate it.

Warren: Thank you very much.

UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Found in:
Randall Library | UNCW Archives and Special Collections | Online Database | Contact Us | Admin Login
Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-1
Copyright ©2012 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign