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A walk through land use, policy and forests

Degree program's new area of emphasis offers a path combining government and the outdoors

Who decides the future of a forest?

This is a basic question asked by students studying forest policy at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Whether it’s federal lands, tribal lands, state lands or privately owned forests, there are laws and policies that affect management in a variety of ways.

The expertise, said associate professor Jesse Abrams, comes in learning how to navigate them.

“For example, the Endangered Species Act applies nationwide, but only in cases where a listed species is present, so it affects a small proportion of landowners. Or, where is does federal authority end and state authority begin?” said Abrams, who recently published a book to complement his Forest Policy class taught at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The book covers policymaking through the lens of natural resources, offering students some background while delving into issues that specifically affect land and water management.

The textbook, “Forest Policy and Governance in the United States: An Introduction” (Routledge), is written for both students in environmental governance courses as well as policymakers and professionals working in forest conservation and the forest industry.

The book and Warnell’s classes on natural resource policy also explore the unknown, unsettled areas of the topic. Because, as it turns out, there are still boundaries and levels of control that have not yet been explored or explained. This is where law, politics and natural resources combine for careers at nonprofits, government agencies and even private companies.

“And some of these really key questions haven’t been fully resolved yet ... We’re still dealing with some pretty fundamental questions about tribal sovereignty and tribal authority,” Abrams added. “And then there’s essentially unseen forest users, which is all the things that aren’t necessarily captured by official data or research. There’s a lot of undocumented labor in the woods, or illicit cultivation on federal or tribal lands.”

The United States has a complicated system of federal, state and local governments, all of which may contribute in some way to land use and regulations. Forest policy cuts across all these levels, with some ideas grounded in practices from a century ago; others are more contemporary.

While private landowners may not ever deal with a federal law, such as the Endangered Species Act, they may run into state or local policies. But even then, local municipalities tend to rely on incentives for landowners rather than regulations.

Navigating these waters takes some skill. And this is where forest policy comes into play. Warnell recently launched an official area of emphasis for the Master of Science in Policy and Sustainability program. Efforts are underway to have the specialty officially recognized in the Master of Natural Resources and Ph.D. programs. Graduates in policy and sustainability often work for nongovernmental organizations, sometimes alongside lawmakers at the federal or state level. Others work for federal or state agencies to address policy changes in that area. A degree emphasis in policy and sustainability can also turn into consulting work, or a position with as private company that connects with forests, water or other land uses.

The program is a great way to connect a passion for land and the outdoors with the mechanisms that help them work for the greater good. It takes a love of place—and of the intricacies of policy.

“The metaphor I use to describe our forest policy infrastructure is like a house that’s been built over succeeding decades, and each time with a different sort of architectural style,” said Abrams. “It started as a cabin and then it turned into a midcentury modern and then, later, something else. And because there’s all these different paradigms and periods and ways of thinking about forest policy ... it’s complicated.”



Associate Professor, Natural Resource Policy and Sustainability

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