In university, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the echo chamber of your own program. I found this to be quite true when I interviewed some students and professors in the forestry programI introduced myself, and then had to explain what this magazine was. Then they talked about courses like hydrology, entomology, and pathology, which I had no idea the university offered. I’m just as guilty of saturating my world in writing, magazines, and university news, and forgetting that there are people shooting for real careers beyond this campus.

The forestry program at VIU is a cohort program; their colleagues on the first day form the group they will graduate with two years later. Professor and department co-chair Andres Enrich said this of his students: “We’re all just earth muffins, really, and forestry is just a way of getting there. And once an earth muffin, always an earth muffin.” 

Kendall Stevens-Raymond, Shawn Crawford, and Ben Hargis are three of many enrolled in the forestry diploma program who are looking forward to varying, successful careers in their near future. 

“People don’t realize [that] there is so much more to forestry than harvesting trees. There are a million avenues that students can take when they graduate from this program,” said professor Stacy Cuzzocrea, who teaches a range of courses in the program.

Stevens-Raymond is graduating this year, but planning to return to do two years in the geography program to complete a Bachelor’s Degree. After the diploma, she’ll be a Registered Forest Technician (RFT) and with that additional education in geography, she’ll be eligible to be a Registered Professional Forester (RPF). 

Her cohort has only a handful of women, but she says the demographics are changing. “I popped my head into the first-year class when they started and it’s half girls! That made me so happy.” 

Stevens-Raymond started tree-planting in the Okanagan right out of high school and decided that if she was going to go to university, it would be for forestry. 

“Some of the best ballers are girls. The planters for Canada [are] a big group and they want gender equal crews. They want LGBTQ+ friendly crews. It’s important that women get in on this.”

The forestry programs aren’t restricted to just forestry students, either. “Last semester we had students from the geography program who took pathology with us. It’s great to have non-program people; they’re great resources for us,” Stevens-Raymond said. 

A figure in forestry gear stands in the lower right corner of the picture looking up at tall trees that surround them

North Island, Port McNeill
Credit: Darren Vandergrift

The second student I spoke to, Crawford, had a previous career as a kindergarten teacher and had studied English literature and history. 

“When I realized I spent most of my free time on logging roads, I knew it was time for a career change, and this is much more up my alley,” Crawford said. He’s most passionate about forest health issues and botany.

During his time as a summer student at Hundred Mile, Crawford noticed the silviculture (tree cultivation) industry is almost entirely women, and the engineering is almost all men. “It might just be an old remnant, but we need the other half of the population at the table in both areas,” Crawford said. 

He’s found his passion in pathology (the study of fungi) and entomology (the study of bugs). He’ll be going into silviculture once he graduates. 

Hargis is graduating this year as well. He came to VIU from Nashville, TN, with a degree in humanities. He spoke about the greatest shift he felt in the transfer from humanities to technical science. 

“They’re more concerned here with the array of skills you learn, not so much honing in on just one thing. Like, we talked about this 30 minutes ago, now let’s go outside and execute what you learned,” Hargis said. 

He’s aiming to get a job in forestry policy, which will provide him with a balance of office and boots-on-the-ground work. “We definitely learn a lot of the most current and relevant things that are going on in forestry so that we can be up to date when we enter the industry.”

Crawford said, “The topics we cover are often very amalgamous, and sometimes scary.” The forestry program dives into silviculture, harvesting, policy, spatial data, soils, ecology, resource management, pathology, and entomology. They’re taught to recognize flood plains and fish habitats to protect. They learn the importance of deadwood (woody debris on the ground) and how it becomes a part of the ecosystem. They’re exposed to a wide range of information and scenarios.

The engineering side gets them into road building and developing cut blocks; from there they can branch into administration, logistics, government, policy, silviculture, and geneticsthe latter focused on tree breeding to accommodate climate change. Hargis said, “In BC we are more concerned with volume and economy, whereas in Saskatchewan it’s more about wildlife and species protection because their growing rates are so much lower; they can’t harvest like we do.”

“Things have shifted from people being interested in logging to having people interested in conservation,” Crawford said. People would join the forestry program because they wanted to learn how to harvest rather than the importance of diverse planting. It’s important to have both, because the forest and the economy need both.

“We’ve been around for a long time, but we’re holding our first alumni event this year in February. I have no idea what the turnout will be like,” Enrich, the program co-chair, laughs. “Forestry is a unique culture.” 

“Yesterday, we were out in the pouring rain measuring trees,” he said. “That’s as good as it gets out here on the coast. It’s pounding down rain and you’re in these conditions where you’re very wet and learning how to estimate the height, take the diameter of a tree, and quantify with consistent accuracy. By the time they’re done my courses [the students] can identify in rain or shine.” 

A mountain scene with lots of coniferous trees and three mountain peaks in the background covered in trees with only small patches of snow

View of Woss Mountains
Credit: Darren Vandergrift

Bill Beese, a professor and legend in BC’s forestry history, has played vital roles in the evolution of forestry on Vancouver Island. “Back in the early ‘90s we had a lot of public backlash about clearcutting, so we started looking into alternatives to clearcutting. It spawned a number of big experiments around BC with different systems. From these experiments variable retention was born. Variable retention means we always leave something behind and leave something different everywhere.” The students going through the program now go into their careers with this mindset, but conservation and diverse species management wasn’t always the norm.

The program instills a good sense of forest sustainability for the boots on the ground. “These students are at the pointy end of the stick of the backlash [against] studying forestry on the coast. We get more backlash for forestry than anywhere else I know of in the country,” Beese said. The students learn to be hyper-sensitive because they have to be, and they take that out with them to jobs out of province. 

Cuzzocrea has been in forestry her entire working life. Her favourite job was being on a management team that helped create the policy to manage and protect the Great Bear Rainforest in 2016. At VIU she teaches forest policy, administration, forest soils, silviculture, silviculture surveys, and resource management and technology. 

“We train them to manage natural resources, not just forests. It’s a lot on their shoulders and we are always adapting,” Cuzzocrea said. “I want them to bring a whole forest perspective as opposed to just thinking of it as just roads or just harvesting or just planting. I want them to see the whole picture because everything is integrated. When you understand that, you can truly understand forestry.”

Enrich said, “When they get out in the field, sure it’s about trees, but it’s more about people and how you relate and work with people.” The professors all wear different hats and have years of experience in the industry. They all spoke to the evolution of forestry they’ve witnessed in their lifetime and where they’d like to see it go. It’s important to them that the industry continues to seek out students that graduate from VIU’s program. 

Beese said “They’re thoughtful and interested in doing a good job, they’re curious. The forests of the future are in good hands.”

Two foresters hugging a tree

Tree-hugging in Merritt
Credit: Darren Vandergrift