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Arkansas State Forester Kyle Cunningham on Recruitment & Climate Change

4 min read

Kyle Cunningham became state forester in June, directing the Arkansas Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division. He previously was an associate professor at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

He has a bachelor’s and a master’s in forestry management from Mississippi State, and a doctorate in applied science from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

What important issues face the state Forestry Division?

One of the most important issues is recruitment and retention. We are in a job market where foresters are highly sought after graduation by industry, agencies and others. We must be competitive in the job market and provide opportunities for the growth and development of existing staff. Next, we are working to increase efficiency by using current and developing technologies that are changing the way forestry is done. These technologies could include drone use for forest health, fire detection and monitoring, or GIS mapping technology to improve our logistical efficiency. Thirdly, we are addressing the diversity that exists in forestry needs today. We continue to expand our urban forestry efforts in rapidly developing communities and cities. We also work to provide useful information and support to our underserved forest landowners in the state. These issues provide opportunities for us to protect the health of Arkansas’ forests and the people who use them.

How is climate change affecting Arkansas’ forests?

We are seeing more impact from variations or oscillations between weather patterns from one end of the spectrum to the other on a seasonal basis these days. For example, in recent years we have experienced wet springs with cooler temperatures followed by an extended period of drought and extreme heat in late growing season and early fall. These patterns are reducing the overall health of some individual trees and forest stands in the state.

What is demand like for the forest products industry?

Overall, the demand for wood products is good, but there are areas for improvement. Because we grow millions of tons more wood across all forest types than we harvest each year, there is room for expansion in milling across the state, especially for smaller pulpwood-size trees. New wood-use technologies are helping address the supply and demand concerns for small and large trees. These new areas include pellet mills that use small trees to produce wood pellets for renewable resource energy and heating in a global market. New technologies  also include mill production of cross-laminated timber  for structural wood beams. The ability to focus harvests to trees of various sizes is essential to proper forest management that increases forest health and resiliency.

How is increasing urbanization affecting the state’s forests?

While not significantly impacting the overall size of our forest, urbanization and land use change are having tremendous impacts on forests across the state. Forest fragmentation and loss of forestland are the primary impacts. When forests become fragmented, there are disconnects for management, wildlife habitat, timber harvesting and other areas. Smart urban planning to include connectivity of green spaces is critical from a forest management and ecological standpoint. Our urban forestry programs at the state and county level, along with partners, are working to increase awareness and have a notable impact on how development occurs in urban and rural interface areas.

How is the Forestry Division responding to climate change?

The Forestry Division works diligently to monitor and evaluate forest health concerns across the state. Our forest health specialist and county foresters conduct evaluations from the air and ground to identify potential factors having a negative impact on our forests. Oak defoliation occurring in the Ouachita region along Lake Maumelle this year due to variable oakleaf caterpillar and pine health concerns in southeast Arkansas are two of the more significant forest health issues we have worked on recently with industry partners. Climate variability is likely a contributing factor to these forest health issues. Our best defenses against the negative impacts of climate change are to manage our forests properly for pine and hardwoods by planting the proper tree species on the proper site, planting the correct number of trees per acre, and thinning at appropriate times. To achieve this, a viable wood products industry is necessary and includes available timber markets to receive our products from the woods, logging operators to handle harvests of varying sizes and intensities, and professional foresters to assist with management planning and operations. When good forest health is achieved, resilience to factors such as climate change is improved. The Forestry Division also promotes cost-share programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and other cost-share programs available to improve forest health while reducing the financial burden on forest managers. Other programs include the strategic use of carbon credit programs available to reward forest landowners for sequestering carbon from the air and storing it long term.

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