Kicking off our series on Woodland Workers, we chat to Volker Schiller about his international forestry career. Volker has worked across the world, from Germany to Papa New Guinea, Namibia and Rwanda to Costa Rica and Mexico, over the the course of 4 decades. Now just 18 months from retirement, he shares some of his experience with us.
Name: Volker Schiller
Organisation: Bavarian Forest Service
Volker: I am currently Forest Area Manager for five communities in North-West of Bavaria. This involves annual planning, financially too, suggesting plans to community-assemblies, getting their approval. Then marking trees for felling, getting contractors in, establishing quantities and qualities, preparing bulk-sales for communities to industry. Supervising contractors in all possible fields, like gravel-road maintenance, planting, fencing, safety along roads, etc. Secondly, I work in consultation for small-holder forest owners in all woodland-related fields. Thirdly, in all subjects of nature protecting laws, forest officials are Peace Officers.
How did you get into the job?
I always loved horses, so I started helping local farmers with their stables and fields. Later I discovered my love for forests and horse logging, even to go hunting. Office jobs never attracted my interest, I loved nature with the cold, the wet, the four seasons, openness, the great outdoors; adventure. Combining horses, outdoors, conservation work, a decent income and freedom with the longest possible distance to paper pushing, automatically lead me to the University for Applied Science, where I took my first degree in Forestry Engineering. Once I had my first forest area to manage, I started searching again. Fine, I had the job of my dreams, but never did I stop dreaming. So I signed up to Development Work and for some years worked in Rwanda and Papua New Guinea. In 2002 I took a degree in Ecotourism, returned back to forests in Bavaria, with yet another interruption of some years of international engagement. That was in Land Use Planning in Namibia. Now it is only 18 more months until retirement, but life in the bush still is what suits me the most. After retirement I will continue my engagement in conservation and sustainable tourism in Africa. My application with Senior Expert Service is already sent.
Why is what you do important?
The natural environment is our all basis. Modern, urbanized life takes us further away from nature. At the same time, modern science gives humankind more facts and insights then we as individuals can possibly comprehend. There are many specialists around who only see their own subject. And there are very many different subjects! Be it in economy, biology, dendrology, urban planning, medicine, psychology, chemistry, what have you. All those experts inundate people with their detailed wisdom. Well, so, what can one do? In Forest Area Management, one is the link between very many fields of expertise. One deals with people of all walks of life, town administrations, recreation related activities in the forest, school activities, health-and-safety issues. tourists, motorists, contractors, timber trade, nature protection law, conservation-NGOs, pressure on forest land-resources for housing and industrial parks, politicians, town councils and mayors. One wants to extract cheap firewood, another one wants to protect dead trees, the next one suggests to convert the forest into a kind of Disney-Wood for tourism. Hunters like plenty of roe deer, conservationists fear for the diversity in the natural regrowth due to overgrazing. Timber processing industry needs supply from local forests for local job-creation, the town administrations need the income generated through timber sales. All valid claims. What counts is sustainability. Sustainability works in many ways. Starting with nature itself, one must not take more from the forest than what is re-growing. But how much is actually growing there? Well, foresters can pretty much work that one out. But what about the existing tree stands, is the mixture of species right? What about climate change and its influence on certain tree species? Is there a quick-fix in simply planting species from overseas to replace forests suffering from climate change? Foresters are linking to science specialists of a huge number of fields, trying to optimize development in the forests. At the same time, foresters seek contact with the whole range of stake holders for awareness, thus having a real lot to do with people. With friendly people, demanding people, stubborn people, selfish and rude people, know-it-alls, developers, polluters. Not every day is joyful. But it is worth fighting for the cause of sustainability. And being able to spend most of my work time in the woods is just rewarding.
What is the most important thing you have learned during your career?
Patience with people. Still working on that one… And that those that love you will always accept your filthy and smelly car.
Would you recommend this job? What advice do you have for others interested in this career?
Yes, very much so! Not to couch potatoes, not to people who can’t enjoy solitude, not to greedy ones. It is a life for blue collar people. Or green collar, respectively. You get dirty, wet and cold, sweaty, but you can observe real life. With an open mind and a little bit of luck, you may find contractors being fanatic conservationists, green town administrations funding all your substantial ideas. If you love nature management, like the outdoors, it may be the right choice. But be aware, it is definitely not a wood-gnome’s business. Foresters have to be self-motivated since normally there is no supervisor around, but other times it has a lot to do with sometimes difficult people. Respect for humans is essential for success. Sometimes you have to address quite an audience, and be calm in discussions. You have to be firm but polite when it comes to law enforcement and accurate when it comes to financial procedures in timber sales or checking invoices from your contractors. A forester has to cover so many sectors that one can’t possibly be an expert in all of them. Rather a generalist.