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Conservation Scientists and Foresters

Significant Points
  • About two thirds of salaried conservation scientists and foresters work for Federal, State, or local governments.
  • A bachelor’s degree in forestry, range management, or a related discipline is the minimum educational requirement.
  • Slower than average job growth is projected; most new jobs will be in State and local governments and in private sector forestry and conservation consulting.

Nature of the Work

Forests and rangelands supply wood products, livestock forage, minerals, and water; serve as sites for recreational activities; and provide habitats for wildlife.

Conservation scientists and foresters manage their use and development and help to protect these and other natural resources, and for this reason are becoming known as natural resource managers.

Foresters manage forested lands for a variety of purposes. Those working in private industry may manage company-owned forest land or procure timber from private landowners. Company forests usually are managed to produce a sustainable supply of wood for company mills. Procurement foresters contact local forest owners and gain permission to take inventory of the type, amount, and location of all standing timber on the property, a process known as timber cruising. These foresters then appraise the timber’s worth, negotiate its purchase, and draw up a contract for procurement. Next, they subcontract with loggers or pulpwood cutters for tree removal and aid in laying out roads to access the timber. Throughout the process, foresters maintain close contact with the subcontractor’s workers and the landowner to ensure that the work meets the landowner’s requirements, as well as Federal, State, and local environmental specifications. Forestry consultants often act as agents for forest owners, monitoring the growth of the timber on the owners’ property and negotiating timber sales with industrial procurement foresters.

Foresters, referred to as land management foresters, work for both government and private industry and manage and protect the forests and supervise harvests. These foresters supervise the planting and growing of new trees, called regeneration. They choose and direct the preparation of the site using controlled burning, bulldozers, or herbicides to clear weeds, brush, and logging debris. They advise on the type, number, and placement of trees to be planted. Foresters then monitor the seedlings to ensure healthy growth and to determine the best time for harvesting. If they detect signs of disease or harmful insects, they consult with specialists in forest pest management to decide on the best course of treatment. They may also design campgrounds and recreation areas on public lands.

Throughout the forest management and procurement processes, foresters consider the economics as well as the environmental impact on natural resources. To do this, they determine how to conserve wildlife habitats, creek beds, water quality, and soil stability, and how best to comply with environmental regulations. Foresters must balance the desire to conserve forested ecosystems for future generations with the need to use forest resources for recreational or economic purposes.

Foresters use a number of tools to perform their jobs. Clinometers measure the height of trees, diameter tapes measure the diameter, and increment borers and bark gauges measure the growth of trees so that timber volumes can be computed and growth rates estimated. Remote sensing (aerial photographs and other imagery taken from airplanes and satellites) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data often are used for mapping large forest areas and for detecting widespread trends of forest and land use. Once the map is generated, the data are digitized to create a computerized inventory of information required to manage the forest land and its resources. Moreover, hand-held computers, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and World Wide Web-based applications are used extensively.

Conservation scientists manage, improve, and protect the country’s natural resources. They work with the landowners and Federal, State, and local governments to devise ways to use and improve the land without damaging the environment. Although conservation scientists mainly advise farmers, farm managers, and ranchers on ways they can improve their land for agricultural purposes and to control erosion, a growing number are advising landowners and governments on recreational uses for the land.

Two of the more common conservation scientists are range managers and soil conservationists. Range managers, also called range conservationists, range ecologists, or range scientists, study, manage, improve, and protect rangelands to maximize their use without damaging the environment. Rangelands cover hundreds of millions of acres of the United States, mostly in Western States and Alaska. They contain many natural resources, including grass and shrubs for animal grazing, wildlife habitats, water from vast watersheds, recreation facilities, and valuable mineral and energy resources. Range managers may inventory soils, plants, and animals, develop resource management plans, help to restore degraded ecosystems, or assist in managing a ranch. For example, they may help ranchers attain optimum livestock production by determining the number and kind of animals to graze, the grazing system to use, and the best season for grazing. At the same time, however, range managers maintain soil stability and vegetation for other uses such as wildlife habitats and outdoor recreation. They also plan and implement revegetation of disturbed sites.

Soil and water conservationists provide technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, forest managers, State and local agencies, and others concerned with the conservation of soil, water, and related natural resources. They develop programs for private landowners designed to make the most productive use of land without damaging it. Soil conservationists also assist landowners by visiting areas with erosion problems, finding the source of the problem, and helping landowners and managers develop management practices to combat it. Water conservationists also assist private landowners and Federal, State, and local governments by advising on a broad range of natural resource topics—specifically, issues of water quality, preserving water supplies, groundwater contamination, and management and conservation of water resources.

Conservation scientists and foresters often specialize in one area, such as wildlife management, urban forestry, pest management, native species, or forest economics.

Working Conditions

Working conditions vary considerably. Although some of the work is solitary, foresters and conservation scientists also deal regularly with landowners, loggers, forestry technicians and aides, farmers, ranchers, government officials, special interest groups, and the public in general. Some foresters and conservation scientists work regular hours in offices or labs. Others may split their time between fieldwork and office work, while independent consultants and especially new, less experienced workers spend the majority of their time outdoors overseeing or participating in hands-on work.

The work can be physically demanding. Some conservation scientists and foresters work outdoors in all types of weather, sometimes in isolated areas, and consequently may need to walk long distances through densely wooded land to carry out their work. Foresters also may work long hours fighting fires. Conservation scientists often are called to prevent erosion after a forest fire, and they provide emergency help after floods, mudslides, and tropical storms.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

A bachelor’s degree in forestry, biology, natural resource management, environmental sciences, or a related discipline is the minimum educational requirement for careers in forestry or conservation science. In the Federal Government, a combination of experience and appropriate education occasionally may substitute for a 4-year forestry degree, but job competition makes this difficult. Foresters who wish to perform specialized research or teach should have an advanced degree, preferably a Ph.D.

Seventeen States have mandatory licensing and/or voluntary registration requirements that a forester must meet in order to acquire the title “professional forester” and practice forestry in the State. Of those 17 States, 9 have mandatory licensing; 8 have mandatory registration. Both licensing and registration requirements usually entail completing a 4-year degree in forestry and several years of forestry work experience. Candidates pursuing licensing also may be required to pass a comprehensive written exam.

Most land-grant colleges and universities offer a bachelor’s or higher degree in forestry. The Society of American Foresters accredits about 48 such programs throughout the country. Curriculums stress four components: Forest ecology and biology, measurement of forest resources, management of forest resources, and public policy. Students should balance general science courses such as ecology, biology, tree physiology, taxonomy, and soil formation with technical forestry courses, such as forest inventory or wildlife habitat assessment, remote sensing, land surveying, GPS technology, integrated forest resource management, silviculture, and forest protection. In addition mathematics, statistics, and computer science courses also are recommended. Many forestry curriculums include advanced computer applications such as GIS and resource assessment programs. Courses in resource policy and administration, specifically forest economics and business administration, supplement the student’s scientific and technical knowledge. Forestry curriculums increasingly include courses on best management practices, wetlands analysis, and sustainability and regulatory issues in response to the growing focus on protecting forested lands during timber harvesting operations. Prospective foresters should have a strong grasp of Federal, State, and local policy issues and of increasingly numerous and complex environmental regulations that affect many forestry-related activities. Many colleges require students to complete a field session either in a camp operated by the college or in a cooperative work-study program with a Federal or State agency or with private industry. All schools encourage students to take summer jobs that provide experience in forestry or conservation work.

Conservation scientists generally hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in fields such as: ecology, natural resource management, agriculture, biology, environmental science, or related field. A master’s or Ph.D. degree is usually required for teaching and research positions.

Range managers usually have a degree in range management or range science. Nine colleges and universities offer degrees in range management that are accredited by the Society of Range Management. More than forty other schools offer course work in range science or in a closely related discipline offering a range management or range science option. Specialized range management courses combine plant, animal, and soil sciences with principles of ecology and resource management. Desirable electives include economics, statistics, forestry, hydrology, agronomy, wildlife, animal husbandry, computer science, and recreation. Selection of a minor in range management, such as wildlife ecology, watershed management, animal science, or agricultural economics, can often enhance qualifications for certain types of employment.

The Society for Range Management offers two types of certification: one as a certified professional in rangeland management (CPRM) and another as a certified range management Consultant. Candidates seeking certification must have at least a bachelor’s degree in range science or a closely related field, have a minimum of 6 years of full-time work experience, and pass a comprehensive written exam.

The Society of American Foresters has a Certified Forester Program. To become certified through this program, a candidate must graduate with at least a bachelor’s degree from a forestry program accredited by the Society, or from a forestry program that, though not accredited by the Society, is substantially equivalent. In addition, the candidate must have five years of qualifying professional experience and pass an examination.

Additionally, a graduate with the proper coursework in college can seek certification as a wetland scientist through the Society of Wetland Scientists, and certification as a professional wildlife biologist through the Wildlife Society.

Very few colleges and universities offer degrees in soil conservation. Most soil conservationists have degrees in environmental studies, agronomy, general agriculture, hydrology, or crop or soil science; a few have degrees in related fields such as wildlife biology, forestry, and range management. Programs of study usually include 30 semester hours in natural resources or agriculture, including at least 3 hours in soil science.

In addition to meeting the demands of forestry and conservation research and analysis, foresters and conservation scientists generally must enjoy working outdoors, be able to tolerate extensive walking and other types of physical exertion, and be willing to move to where the jobs are. They also must work well with people and have good communication skills.

Recent forestry and conservation scientist graduates usually work under the supervision of experienced foresters or scientists. After gaining experience, they may advance to more responsible positions. In the Federal Government, most entry-level foresters work in forest resource management. An experienced Federal forester may supervise a ranger district, and may advance to forest supervisor, to regional forester, or to a top administrative position in the national headquarters. In private industry, foresters start by learning the practical and administrative aspects of the business and acquiring comprehensive technical training. They are then introduced to contract writing, timber harvesting, and decisionmaking. Some foresters work their way up to top managerial positions within their companies. Foresters in management usually leave the fieldwork behind, spending more of their time in an office, working with teams to develop management plans and supervising others. After gaining several years of experience, some foresters may become consulting foresters, working alone or with one or several partners. They contract with State or local governments, private landowners, private industry, or other forestry consulting groups.

Soil conservationists usually begin working within one county or conservation district and, with experience, may advance to the area, State, regional, or national level. Also, soil conservationists can transfer to related occupations, such as farm or ranch management advisor or land appraiser.


Conservation scientists and foresters held about 32,000 jobs in 2004. More than 1 in 3 workers were employed by the Federal Government, mostly in the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Interior. Foresters were concentrated in the USDA’s Forest Service; soil conservationists were employed primarily in the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. Most range managers worked in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, or the Forest Service. Another 21 percent of conservation scientists and foresters worked for State governments, and about 11 percent worked for local governments. The remainder worked in private industry, mainly in support activities for agriculture and forestry or in wood product manufacturing. Some were self-employed as consultants for private landowners, Federal and State governments, and forestry-related businesses.

Although Conservation scientists and foresters work in every State, employment of foresters is concentrated in the Western and Southeastern States, where many national and private forests and parks, and most of the lumber and pulpwood-producing forests, are located. Range managers work almost entirely in the Western States, where most of the rangeland is located. Soil conservationists, on the other hand, are employed in almost every county in the country. Besides the jobs described above, some foresters and conservation scientists held faculty positions in colleges and universities.

Job Outlook

Employment of conservation scientists and foresters is expected to increase more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. Growth should be strongest in private sector consulting firms. Demand will be spurred by a continuing emphasis on environmental protection, responsible land management, and water-related issues. Growing interest in developing private lands and forests for recreational purposes will generate additional jobs for foresters and conservation scientists. Fire prevention is another area of growth for these two occupations.

Job opportunities for conservation scientists will arise because government regulations, such as those regarding the management of storm water and coastlines, have created demand for persons knowledgeable about runoff and erosion on farms and in cities and suburbs. Soil and water quality experts will be needed as States design initiatives to improve water resources by preventing pollution by agricultural producers and industrial plants.

Overall employment of conservation scientists and foresters is expected to decline slightly in Federal Government, mostly because of budgetary constraints and the trend among all levels of government toward contracting these functions out to private consulting firms. Also, Federal land management agencies, such as the USDA Forest Service, have de-emphasized their timber programs and increasingly focused on wildlife, recreation, and sustaining ecosystems, thereby spurring demand for other life and social scientists rather than for foresters. However, departures of foresters who retire or leave the Government for other reasons will result in many job openings. Additionally, State governments are expected to increase their hiring of conservation scientists and foresters as their budgetary situations improve. A small number of new jobs will result from the need for range and soil conservationists to provide technical assistance to owners of grazing land through the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Foresters involved with timber harvesting will find good opportunities in the Southeast, where much forested land is privately owned. However, the recent opening of public lands, especially in the West, to commercial activity will also help the outlook for foresters. Salaried foresters working for private industry—such as paper companies, sawmills, and pulpwood mills—and consulting foresters will be needed to provide technical assistance and management plans to landowners.

Scientific research and development services have increased their hiring of conservation scientists and foresters in recent years in response to demand for professionals to prepare environmental impact statements and erosion and sediment control plans, monitor water quality near logging sites, and advise on tree harvesting practices required by Federal, State, or local regulations. Hiring in these firms should continue during the 2004-14 period.


Median annual earnings of conservation scientists in May 2004 were $52,480. The middle 50 percent earned between $39,660 and $65,550. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,740, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $78,470.

Median annual earnings of foresters in 2004 were $48,230. The middle 50 percent earned between $37,260 and $60,500. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,770, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $72,050.

In 2005, most bachelor’s degree graduates entering the Federal Government as foresters, range managers, or soil conservationists started at $24,677 or $30,567, depending on academic achievement. Those with a master’s degree could start at $37,390or $45,239. Holders of doctorates could start at $54,221. Beginning salaries were slightly higher in selected areas where the prevailing local pay level was higher. In 2005, the average Federal salary for foresters in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions was $63,492; for soil conservationists, $60,671; and for rangeland managers, $58,162.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, graduates with a bachelor’s degree in conservation and renewable natural resources received an average starting salary offer of $27,950 in 2005.

In private industry, starting salaries for students with a bachelor’s degree were comparable with starting salaries in the Federal Government, but starting salaries in State and local governments were usually lower.

Conservation scientists and foresters who work for Federal, State, and local governments and large private firms generally receive more generous benefits than do those working for smaller firms.

Related Occupations

Conservation scientists and foresters manage, develop, and protect natural resources. Other workers with similar responsibilities include environmental engineers; agricultural and food scientists; biological scientists; environmental scientists and geoscientists; and farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers.

Sources of Additional Information

For information about the forestry profession and lists of schools offering education in forestry, send a self-addressed, stamped business envelope to:

  • Society of American Foresters, 5400 Grosvenor Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814-2198. Internet: http://www.safnet.org/

Information about a career as a range manager, as well as a list of schools offering training, is available from:

For information on certification as a professional wildlife biologist, contact:

Information on obtaining a position as a conservation scientist or forester with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) through USAJOBS, the Federal Government’s official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov/ or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978)461-8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result.

  • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,

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