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Originally published Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Fewer students choosing forestry

Blame it on the lure of city life. The rise of environmentalism. The disconnect with nature. Whatever the reason, Washington students just...

Seattle Times higher education reporter

Blame it on the lure of city life. The rise of environmentalism. The disconnect with nature.

Whatever the reason, Washington students just don't seem interested in studying forestry anymore. The state may soon find itself without an accredited undergraduate program in forestry — despite being half-blanketed in trees and home to forest-product giant Weyerhaeuser, and its $16 billion-a-year business.

Washington State University appears likely to cut its only forestry program before next fall, because of declining demand. The University of Washington, meanwhile, graduated the last of its forestry engineers in 2007.

In the future, companies like Weyerhaeuser may look more to universities such as Yale, the University of California, Berkeley, and Oregon State for forestry managers and experts.

"It sounds almost impossible that this state would find itself in that position," said Bruce Bare, dean of the UW's College of Forest Resources. "For some reason, students today just don't view the woods as a place they can engage in a meaningful career ... we just don't get the enrollment interest from the day they are freshmen."

The UW forestry faculty this month voted 28-16 in favor of continuing talks with Provost Phyllis Wise that could result in the college being absorbed into a new UW environmental college, perhaps as soon as the fall.

The UW forestry college has struggled to survive in the modern era. Undergraduate numbers have fallen from about 800 in the early 1970s to just 175 last year, when the college celebrated its centennial.

Four years ago, the college stopped accepting new students into forestry engineering. As a result, its undergraduate program lost accreditation from the Society of American Foresters. The UW has retained a five-year master's program in forestry, which remains accredited. About a dozen students are taking that course.

To take the place of forestry, the college introduced a new major: environmental science and resource management. That has helped revive enrollment this year to 220 students.

Bare thinks just having the word "environmental" in the title helped. Students today are interested in a wide range of issues, from water production to habitat, he added.

But they aren't necessarily qualified to manage big forests, either for companies like Weyerhaeuser or even for conservation agencies such as the Cascade Land Conservancy.

"It's a different student today; there's no question about it," Bare said. "The irony is that if you are running a small forestry-consultancy business here in Seattle, you're having a hard time" finding graduates.

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At Washington State, enrollment in the forestry major has dropped from 50 students 10 years ago to 19 students now. WSU deans have recommended to Provost Robert Bates that the program be cut as part of cost-saving measures.

Keith Blatner, the chair of the WSU Department of Natural Resource Sciences, said he's opposed to closing the program but believes it will probably happen anyway. He added that students who have already started a forestry degree will be allowed to finish.

"Virtually every state that has any significant forest land has an undergraduate degree in forestry," Blatner said. "When Weyerhaeuser needs to hire a forester, they're going to increasingly have to look out of state to get one."

Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal said he was surprised to find out from an Associated Press reporter in the past few days that WSU was considering axing its program.

"We certainly think its an interesting field and a compelling field," Mendizabal said. "There's a lot of opportunity for people who are interested in the natural world, working outdoors, and in conservation."

Mendizabal said he hasn't yet had a chance to speak to Weyerhaeuser recruiters to see what effect the change might have. He added that the company will still likely look to local chemical engineers and others for employment on the production side.

He said Washington ranks among the top states for producing timber products, with Weyerhaeuser alone managing 1.2 million acres.

In what could be seen as ironic timing, UW President Mark Emmert this month accepted a position on Weyerhaeuser's board. Emmert will be paid $140,000 a year for the post — $70,000 in cash, and $70,000 in Weyerhaeuser stock, to be cashed in when he leaves the board. The board meets six times a year, for about a day and a half each time. Emmert's annual UW compensation is $905,000.

Bruce Amundson, another Weyerhaeuser spokesman, said Emmert is the first educator he can remember who has joined the board. The company looks broadly throughout the community for a range of expertise, he added.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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