CARBONDALE, Ill. — While enrollment at Southern Illinois
University has been dropping over the past few years, SIU’s College of
Agricultural Sciences is a success story. One reason for that is its prestigious
The department, which boasts more than 200 undergraduate
students, is one of the top forestry programs in the nation.
The university’s location borders the Shawnee National
Forest, Illinois’ only national forest. That provides a unique national
laboratory of sorts for students.
“The glacial plain stopped just south of Carbondale,” said
Jim Zaczek, department chairman. “We’re at this interesting confluence of what
they call physiographic regions, which adds to the diversity of landscapes with
lots of soils and water types and a fairly high tree species diversity.”
The region includes the Cache River Wetlands, the
northernmost cypress and tupelo swamp in the U.S.
“We’re at the southern end of the northern tree species and
the northern end of some of the southern tree species, like the bald cypress,”
Zaczek said. “We’ve got a lot of interesting diversity here. And it makes for a
good classroom to bring students out and do this. In some of our classes, half
the time we’re getting on a bus and going to see trees in their native
The nature of forestry lends itself to the big picture.
Foresters work on a much lengthier timeline than agronomists do.
“Foresters have been pioneers in conservation science. We
have to look at things at a very long-term basis,” Zaczek said. “You’re not
talking a year-to-year crop. You’re talking 50- to 100-year rotations. What
you’re doing now is going to affect the stand decades out.”
By total enrollment, SIU’s forestry department is among the
top 10 in the country and in the top five in undergraduate degrees. But students
don’t get lost on campus, according to Zaczek.
“One of the successes of our program is it doesn’t feel that
big,” he said. “Our faculty members are all very approachable with open-door
policies. We all advise students. We work together. We’re not stuffy old
professors. We’re very hands-on.”
As part of its accreditation the department did a survey in
2010, which showed that about 90 percent of alumni were working full-time in a
natural resource forestry job or in seasonal jobs in forestry and natural
Forestry students find employment in a number of areas. The
extent of the program’s diversity isn’t always appreciated, according to
“A main misconception is that we’re a narrow area. We’re
actually very broad area,” he said. “We’re really managing whole landscapes.
Some students are interested in producing timber, but that’s just a small amount
of what we do and what our students end up doing.
“We’re not just park rangers, though our students do that,
as well. There are all kinds of natural resources-related fields. They involve
wildlife, people and communities. We’re even in law enforcement a bit. We’re
multidimensional in the kinds of things we do.”
The department offers a number of specializations other than
recreation, including hydrology and resources management. Students also learn
about agroforestry and silvipasture, which entail farming around and between
rows of trees.
Wildlife habitat management conservation recently was added
to the core curriculum and has proved popular.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest in that,” Zaczek said.
“(Graduates) can apply to the Wildlife Society and get an associate wildlife
biologist certification. That track has all the traditional forestry core
classes that are scheduled in with zoology and some other biology courses that
are tailored to get this certification. A lot of our students are interested in
the habitat side of things. Habitat is one of — if not the — key things in
Foresters often are the source of misconceptions, Zaczek
believes. One is that they seek to protect trees at all costs.
Despite admonitions from Smokey Bear, forest fires are
sometimes essential for survival of tree species.
“Fire may not necessarily be a bad thing in all cases,”
Zaczek said. “Some (forests) really need fire periodically in order to maintain
their health. If they’re not disturbed from time to time they’ll lose the
species. They go away.
“Native Americans did a lot of burning. If we don’t do
disturbances like fire or harvesting, oaks and hickories go away after a time.
There are ecosystem processes that help develop the forests and maintain them.
That sometimes requires certain things like fire or selectively cutting
The department must work to maintain a balance between
interest groups with varying positions on what constitutes the best care for the
nation’s forested land.
“What our program does try to rely a lot on science, whether
the science of the biology side, or wildlife, or social science,” Zaczek said.
“We approach it as using solid science to help make decisions. When you’ve got
the science on your side, you teach your students to be sound conservationists.”