Four years after the U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905 and 18 years after the Forest Reserve Act cleared the way for today’s network of national forests, a fledgling forestry program took root at the University of Montana.
Edward Kirkwood was tapped to lead the newly named Department of Botany and Forestry, and a “short forestry course” was advertised in the Montana Kaimin. A ranger program was established, and a tree nursery opened on campus.
The upstart program at UM was off and running, one of the first in the nation. But it wasn’t until 1913 – three years after the Big Burn scorched 3 million acres across Montana, Idaho and Washington, killing 87 people – that the state authorized establishment of the School of Forestry, which named Dorr Skeels its first dean.
“They were beginning to teach ecology and the wood-product areas that were important to mining and railroads – those early uses of the forest,” said UM Provost Perry Brown, who served as forestry dean from 1994 to 2008. “We’d gone through these periods of fires, like the Big Burn, and there was a realization that we really needed to manage our forests and protect them.”
One hundred years later, the UM School of Forestry and Conservation, as it’s now known, continues to evolve with the times, meeting new congressional mandates, emerging social needs, the impacts of climate change and the fallout of prolonged fire suppression.
What began as a timber-based school in 1913 has grown to offer 17 degree programs ranging from wildlife biology to wildland restoration and cutting-edge fire science. And while resource management is still part of the program, conservation and collaborative management have become core principles within the curriculum.
“A lot of times, human demands are in excess of the environmental capacity to produce them,” said James Burchfield, current dean of the School of Forestry and Conservation. “We need natural resource professionals who know how to work with people, understand their interests and needs, and know how to meet those needs while sustaining ecological function.”