Conservation Scientists and Foresters

Career, Salary and Education Information

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What Conservation Scientists and Foresters Do[About this section] [To Top]

Conservation scientists and foresters manage the overall land quality of forests, parks, rangelands, and other natural resources.

Duties of Conservation Scientists and Foresters

Conservation scientists typically do the following:

  • Oversee forestry and conservation activities to ensure compliance with government regulations and habitat protection
  • Negotiate terms and conditions for forest harvesting and land-use contracts
  • Establish plans for managing forest lands and resources
  • Monitor forest-cleared lands to ensure that they are suitable for future use
  • Work with private landowners, governments, farmers, and others to improve land for forestry purposes, while at the same time protecting the environment

Foresters typically do the following:

  • Supervise activities of forest and conservation workers and technicians
  • Choose and prepare sites for new trees, using controlled burning, bulldozers, or herbicides to clear land
  • Monitor the regeneration of forests
  • Direct and participate in forest fire suppression
  • Determine ways to remove timber with minimum environmental damage

Conservation scientists manage, improve, and protect the country's natural resources. They work with private landowners and federal, state, and local governments to find ways to use and improve the land while safeguarding the environment. Conservation scientists advise farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers on how they can improve their land for agricultural purposes and to control erosion.

Foresters have a wide range of duties, and their responsibilities vary with their employer. Some primary duties of foresters are drawing up plans to regenerate forested lands, monitoring the progress of those lands, and supervising tree harvests. Another duty of a forester is devising plans to keep forests free from disease, harmful insects, and damaging wildfires. Many foresters supervise forest and conservation workers and technicians, directing their work and evaluating their progress.

Conservation scientists and foresters evaluate data on forest and soil quality, assessing damage to trees and forest lands caused by fires and logging activities. In addition, they lead activities, such as suppressing fires and planting seedlings. Fire suppression activities include measuring how quickly fires will spread and how successfully the planned suppression activities turn out.

Conservation scientists and foresters use their skills to determine a fire’s impact on a region’s environment. Communication with firefighters and other forest workers is an important component of fire suppression and controlled burn activities because the information that conservation scientists and foresters provide can determine how firefighters work.

Conservation scientists and foresters use a number of tools to perform their jobs. They use clinometers to measure the heights of trees, diameter tapes to measure a tree’s circumference, and increment borers and bark gauges to measure the growth of trees so that timber volumes can be computed and growth rates estimated.

In addition, conservation scientists and foresters often use remote sensing (aerial photographs and other imagery taken from airplanes and satellites) and geographic information systems (GIS) data to map large forest or range areas and to detect widespread trends of forest and land use. They make extensive use of handheld computers and global positioning systems (GPSs) to study these maps.

The following are examples of types of conservation scientists:

Conservation land managers work for land trusts or other conservation organizations to protect the wildlife habitat, biodiversity, scenic value, and other unique attributes of preserves and conservation lands.

Range managers, also called range conservationists, protect rangelands to maximize their use without damaging the environment. Rangelands contain many natural resources and cover hundreds of millions of acres in the United States, mainly in the western states and Alaska.

Range managers may inventory soils, plants, and animals; develop resource management plans; help to restore degraded ecosystems; or help manage a ranch. They also maintain soil stability and vegetation for uses such as wildlife habitats and outdoor recreation. Like foresters, they work to prevent and reduce wildfires and invasive animal species.

Soil and water conservationists give technical help to people who are concerned with the conservation of soil, water, and related natural resources. For private landowners, they develop programs to make the most productive use of land without damaging it. They also help landowners with issues such as dealing with erosion. They help private landowners and governments by advising on water quality, preserving water supplies, preventing groundwater contamination, and conserving water.

The following are examples of types of foresters:

Procurement foresters buy timber by contacting local forest owners and negotiating a sale. This activity typically involves taking inventory on the type, amount, and location of all standing timber on the property. Procurement foresters then appraise the timber’s worth, negotiate its purchase, and draw up a contract. The forester then subcontracts with loggers or pulpwood cutters to remove the trees and to help lay out roads to get to the timber.

Urban foresters live and work in larger cities and manage urban trees. They are concerned with quality-of-life issues, including air quality, shade, and storm water runoff.

Conservation education foresters train teachers and students about issues facing forest lands.

Work Environment for Conservation Scientists and Foresters[About this section] [To Top]

Conservation scientists and foresters hold about 36,500 jobs.

The industries that employ the most conservation scientists are as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service 34%
State government, excluding education and hospitals 24
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 17
Social advocacy organizations 10

The industries that employ the most foresters are as follows:

Support activities for agriculture and forestry 22%
State government, excluding education and hospitals 21
Forestry 14
Federal government, excluding postal service 9
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 9

Conservation scientists and foresters work for governments (federal, state, or local), on privately owned lands, or for social advocacy organizations. In the western and southwestern United States, they usually work for the federal government because of the number of national parks in that part of the country. In the eastern United States, they often work for private landowners. Social advocacy organizations employ foresters and conservation scientists in working with lawmakers on behalf of sustainable land use and other issues facing forest land. These organizations are concerned with the long-term impact of carbon emissions on forests worldwide.

Conservation scientists and foresters typically work in offices, in laboratories, and outdoors, sometimes doing fieldwork in remote locations. When visiting or working near logging operations or wood yards, they wear a hardhat and other protective gear.

The work can be physically demanding. Some conservation scientists and foresters work outdoors in all types of weather. They may need to walk long distances through dense woods and underbrush to carry out their work. Insect bites, poisonous plants, and other natural hazards present some risk.

In an isolated location, a forester or conservation scientist may work alone, measuring tree densities and regeneration or performing other outdoor activities. Other foresters work closely with the public, educating them about the forest or the proper use of recreational sites.

Fire suppression activities are an important aspect of their duties, which involve prevention as well as emergency responses. Therefore, their work has occasional risk.

Conservation Scientist and Forester Work Schedules

Most conservation scientists and foresters work full time and have a standard work schedule. Responding to emergencies or fires may require them to work more than 40 hours per week.

How to Become a Conservation Scientist or Forester[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Conservation Scientists and Foresters near you!

Conservation scientists and foresters typically need a bachelor’s degree in forestry or a related field. Employers seek applicants who have degrees from programs that are accredited by the Society of American Foresters or other organizations.

Conservation Scientist and Forester Education

Conservation scientists and foresters typically need a bachelor’s degree in forestry or a related field, such as agricultural science, rangeland management, or environmental science. Although graduate work is not generally required, some conservation scientists and foresters get a master’s degree or Ph.D.

Bachelor’s degree programs are designed to prepare conservation scientists and foresters for their career or a graduate degree. Alongside practical skills, theory and education are important parts of these programs.

Bachelor’s and advanced degree programs in forestry and related fields typically include courses in ecology, biology, and forest resource measurement. Scientists and foresters also typically have a background in a geographic information systems (GIS) technology, remote sensing, and other forms of computer modeling.

In 2015, there were nearly 50 bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in forestry, urban forestry, and natural resources and ecosystem management accredited by the Society of American Foresters.

Important Qualities for Conservation Scientists and Foresters

Analytical skills. Conservation scientists and foresters must evaluate the results of a variety of field tests and experiments, all of which require precision and accuracy. They use sophisticated computer modeling to prepare their analyses.

Critical-thinking skills. Conservation scientists and foresters reach conclusions through sound reasoning and judgment. They determine how to improve forest conditions, and they must react appropriately to fires.

Decisionmaking skills. Conservation scientists and foresters must use their expertise and experience to determine whether their findings will have an impact on soil, forest lands, and the spread of fires.

Management skills. Conservation scientists and foresters need to work well with the forest and conservation workers and technicians they supervise, so effective communication is critical.

Physical stamina. Conservation scientists and foresters often walk long distances in steep and wooded areas. They work in all kinds of weather, including extreme heat and cold.

Speaking skills. Conservation scientists and foresters must give clear instructions to forest and conservation workers and technicians, who typically do the labor necessary for proper forest maintenance. They also need to communicate clearly with landowners and, in some cases, the general public.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

As of 2015, 15 states have some type of credentialing process for foresters, typically required or voluntary registration. Conservation workers do not need a license.

Although it is not required, conservation scientists and foresters may choose to earn certification because it shows a high level of professional competency.

The Society of American Foresters (SAF) offers certification to foresters. Candidates must have at least a bachelor’s degree from an SAF-accredited program or from a forestry program that is substantially equivalent. The candidate also must have qualifying professional experience and pass an exam.

The Society for Range Management offers professional certification in rangeland management or as a range management consultant. To be certified, candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree in range management or a related field, have 5 years of full-time related work experience, and pass an exam.

Advancement for Conservation Scientists and Foresters

Many conservation scientists and foresters advance to take on managerial duties. They also may conduct research or work on policy issues, often after getting an advanced degree. Foresters in management usually leave fieldwork behind, spending more of their time in an office, working with teams to develop management plans and supervising others.

Soil conservationists usually begin working within one district and may advance to a state, regional, or national level. Soil conservationists also can transfer to occupations such as farm or ranch management advisor or land appraiser.

Conservation Scientist and Forester Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for conservation scientists is $61,110. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,380, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $91,830.

The median annual wage for foresters is $58,230. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,660, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $84,980.

Most conservation scientists and foresters work full time and have a standard work schedule. Responding to emergencies or fires may require them to work more than 40 hours per week.

Job Outlook for Conservation Scientists and Foresters[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of conservation scientists and foresters is projected to grow 7 percent through 2024, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Most employment growth is expected to be in state and local government-owned forest lands, particularly in the western United States. In recent years, the prevention and suppression of wildfires has become the primary concern for government agencies managing forests and rangelands. Governments are likely to hire more foresters as the number of forest fires increases and more people live on or near forest lands. Both the development of previously unused lands and changing weather conditions have contributed to increasingly devastating and costly fires.

In addition, heightened demand for American timber and wood pellets is likely to help increase the overall job prospects for conservation scientists and foresters. Jobs in private forests especially are likely grow alongside demand for timber and pellets.

Conservation Scientists and Foresters Job Prospects

Increases in funding and the need to replace retiring workers should create opportunities for foresters and range managers. Restoring lands affected by fires also will be a major task, particularly in the southwestern and western states, where fires are most common. Job prospects will likely be best for conservation scientists and foresters who have a strong understanding of geographic information systems (GIS) technology, remote sensing, and other software tools.

Employment projections data for Conservation Scientists and Foresters, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Conservation scientists and foresters 36,500 39,300 7 2,700
  Conservation scientists 21,100 22,500 7 1,400
  Foresters 15,500 16,800 8 1,300


*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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