A Partnership Grounded in Service

35th Anniversary, Tuskegee University Forestry and Natural Resources Program
Tuskegee, AL
— December 5, 2003

Thank you, Greg, for that kind introduction. I’m delighted to be here today to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Tuskegee University Forestry and Natural Resources Program. I’d like to start by thanking some of the people who made it possible for me to be here:

  • Dr. Benjamin F. Payton, President of Tuskegee University;
  • Dr. William L. Lester, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs;
  • Dr. Walter A. Hill, Dean of the College of Agricultural, Environmental, and Natural Sciences;
  • Mr. Louis Black, Jr., our USDA/1890 Agricultural Liaison Officer, who has the honor and privilege of working here at this great university; and
  • Ms. Tina Terrell, who literally ushered me here, complete with a personal history of Tuskegee, the people, and the programs. She’s not only fun to work with, but also an outstanding Forest Service professional.

Pioneering Program

The Tuskegee Forestry and Natural Resources Program has been a success by any measure. Since 1968, the program has graduated more than a hundred students—the “Fabulous 51-Plus”—who have gone on to fulfilling and distinguished careers in forestry and natural resources.

This program was the first of its kind. It was the first forestry program established at a historically black institution of higher learning, or HBCU. In fact, Tuskegee has always been a leader in opening new career opportunities for African-Americans. Tuskegee was the first HBCU to adopt a program for:

  • professional nurses, in 1892;
  • professional combat pilots, during World War II;
  • professional veterinarians, in 1945;
  • professional foresters, in 1968; and
  • professional aerospace engineers, in 1983.

Until the mid-1990s, Tuskegee University ranked first nationally in producing African-American graduates in forestry and related professions. Today, only two other institutions graduate more African-Americans in the natural resource professions. From the earliest days, the program has worked hard to recruit African-American students who might otherwise never have considered a career in natural resources.

The Forest Service, I’m proud to say, saw the potential of the program right from the start. As most of you probably remember, the 60s were a time of great unrest in America. It was a time for questioning old stereotypes.

One of those stereotypes was that women were somehow not cut out for forestry. Sure, we could be the wives of foresters, and some of us actually did a lot of the work on the ranger districts. But if we wore a Forest Service badge at all, it was a dinky little badge. Our uniforms were different because people thought we were different. People thought that a woman by nature couldn’t play as big a professional role as a man. Some of us who’ve been with the Forest Service for more than 25 years know forestry schools where you couldn’t even find a woman’s restroom in the main building.

Another stereotype was that African-Americans weren’t interested in forestry. Some people thought there was no point in opening a program for African-American foresters because you wouldn’t get any students. Never mind that African-Americans have strong ties to the land. Never mind that they have strong ties to family and strong ties to community. Never mind that young African-Americans have exactly what it takes for great careers in the natural resource professions. Some people thought they just wouldn’t be interested.

Well, the fact that I’m standing here today shows how far we’ve come. My uniform is the same as Greg’s, and those Fabulous 51-Plus graduates of this program—and many others here today—can tell you that having programs in forestry and other natural resource professions at great universities like Tuskegee makes a lot of sense.

But it didn’t just happen. People made it happen. And I’m proud to say that the Forest Service was involved. We went to Tuskegee in the 60s and we worked with the university to adopt what at the time was called the Forest Resources Program. Along with folks from already established programs at other universities, we sat down together and discussed the many possibilities—the many opportunities for African-Americans in the field of forestry.

Our first liaison officer was Dr. Brian R. Payne. He helped set up the program here at Tuskegee, beginning in November 1968. The first three students in the program were Mr. Mack Hogan, Mr. John Yancy, and Mr. Jerome Thomas. All three went on to distinguished careers in both the private sector and the public sector:

  • Mr. Hogan is now senior vice president for Weyerhaeuser.
  • Mr. Yancy is now associate regional director for the National Park Service.
  • Mr. Thomas is now supervisor of the Francis Marion and Sumter National Forests in South Carolina.

If that’s not a sign of this program’s success, I don’t know what is.

Evolving Program

At the Forest Service, we’ve always been strong supporters of the program here at Tuskegee University. Through our program liaisons, we’ve always stayed in touch. And we’ve always encouraged the program to evolve. We’ve encouraged the leaders to expand the program and broaden its focus to include all kinds of natural resource professionals, not just foresters. In the 1990s, we worked together to bring about today’s Forestry and Natural Resources Program.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last 20 or 30 years, it’s that managing forests is not just about trees. It’s about soils, waters, and wildlife. It’s about everything on the land and about everything that ties the land together—all the ecological processes that are critical for healthy ecosystems.

We need people who understand these things. We need people who understand the land in all of its parts and who understand how all the parts fit together to make the greater whole. That means we need ecologists, biologists, entomologists, hydrologists—the list goes on and on.

I’m proud that this program has risen to the challenge. We’ve seen the program evolve in a number of positive ways:

  • In the past, students were mostly in the field of forestry. Today, students are more evenly distributed across a range of fields, including forestry, wildlife, fisheries, and soil science.
  • In the past, graduates were mostly men. Today, they’re more evenly balanced—in fact, there are more women than men. That gets back to that other stereotype I was talking about—the one about women not being cut out for jobs in the natural resource professions.

I think that shows yet again that Tuskegee University is on the cutting edge. Tuskegee saw the need to expand the program’s focus, and it did. Tuskegee has also found other ways of strengthening the program. Let me just briefly mention a few:

  • The program today recruits students from several sources. That includes high school scholarship programs and Forest Service workforce initiatives like our Student Career Experience Program.
  • The program has engaged industry support through the Tuskegee University Forest Resources Council. The council plays an important role in recruiting and retaining students. The Forest Service is a member, along with four other federal agencies and 16 private companies. This partnership has really strengthened the program.
  • The program has also expanded its engagement with other universities. Tuskegee was the first HBCU to sign “matriculation and articulation agreements” with majority universities. These agreements encourage African-Americans to pursue advanced degrees in the natural resource professions. The number of students who go on to get advanced degrees is growing. That’s another sign of this program’s success.

Future Challenges

Where do we go from here? One challenge facing all of us is the need for more and better communication with the people we serve. Let me just talk about that for a minute.

I mentioned that we’ve learned that forests are more than just trees. We’ve learned that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away. Well, sustainable forestry means that, but it also means something more. It takes more than sound science and good technical skills to do a good job.

It also takes “people skills.” It takes understanding what people want from the land and how they interact with the land. It takes the ability to communicate with people—to make people understand how their own choices affect the land. It doesn’t matter how great we are as foresters or ecologists: If we can’t communicate with people, we fail.

As we look to the future and the issues surrounding our nation’s natural resources, our communication challenges will become even greater and more complex. It will be more and more important for us as natural resource professionals to inform the national debate on consumption choices, on invasive species, and on patterns of growth, urbanization, and loss of open space.

Think for a minute about the recent fires in southern California. Three-quarters of a million acres burned, thousands of homes were destroyed, and many more homes might be destroyed by the enormous debris flows that always follow these fires.

People do make choices. People are choosing more and more to live in fire-prone ecosystems. In southern California, it’s chaparral and ponderosa pine—and both ecosystems thrive on fire. For example, there’s nothing you can do to stop chaparral from burning every 20 to 40 years. If you choose to live in chaparral, you choose to live with that risk.

Now, there are some things we can do to better manage that risk, like burning back the chaparral in some places to restore more of a landscape mosaic. But that involves tradeoffs—more smoke from prescribed fires and possibly more invasive species.

Our job in the future will be to inform the choices people make—to make it clear to folks that managing fire-dependent ecosystems, for example, will always involve an element of risk, and that managing the risk involves tradeoffs. Knowing that, people can make more informed choices about where and how to live.

That’s where we need help from programs like this. We need people who can translate the risks and tradeoffs into ordinary language. We need people who understand how to communicate—how to engage local people in dialogue and how to involve local communities in our decision-making. I think programs like this have got to have a strong sociological component and a strong communications component to give us the skills we will need in the future.

Shared Commitment to Service

But Tuskegee has had so many “firsts” that I’d be surprised if it isn’t first in this area, too. In fact, engaging local people in dialogue using simple, straightforward language has long been a hallmark of this university.

Take Dr. George Washington Carver, for example. Dr. Carver embodied the idea of communicating with local people in his Jessup Wagon, which was a demonstration lab on wheels. Dr. Carver considered it one of his greatest inventions.

The Jessup Wagon was an innovative way of delivering service. It was a way of helping local people improve their lives, which is what service is all about. The name “Tuskegee University” has long been synonymous with technical excellence and pioneering opportunities for African-Americans. But behind these things has been a vision of service. Dr. Carver put it this way:

“It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank, that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.”

At the Forest Service, we share that vision of service. Our motto is, “Caring for the land and serving people.” That’s what makes our partnership with Tuskegee University so strong—a shared commitment to service.

That’s why we sat down together with Dr. B.D. Mayberry, Dean of the School of Agriculture back in 1968, and founded the Forest Resources Program. Today, through the Tuskegee University Forestry and Natural Resources Program, Dr. Payton, Dr. Lester, and Dr. Hill are fulfilling our shared vision of service. Over the years, visionary leaders like these have helped strengthen the program by taking it in new directions to better serve people.

Now we are at the beginning of a new century—at the Forest Service, we call it “A New Century of Service.” Strong partnerships will be more important than ever in caring for the land and serving people. The Forest Service’s partnership with Tuskegee is a model for the kind of relationships we will need for delivering service. Let’s continue to build on this program’s solid record of success. The land will benefit and so will we—and so will the people we serve.