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Helping People Become Better Stewards of the Land

Michael Wagner: PhD

Regents' Professor of Forestry

College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences

After a distinguished 30-year career as a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University, Michael Wagner could be forgiven for wanting to take a break. But rather than resting on his laurels, Wagner is actively engaged in two key missions—helping his students gain valuable international experience, and using research and teaching to help forest managers around the world ply their trade in a more sustainable fashion. In tackling the first mission, Wagner has already sent NAU students on research trips to Ghana, Nicaragua, Australia, and other places. In addressing the second mission, Wagner begins with a radical notion: forestry, he says, sometimes begins with an absence of trees.

"I show my students a picture where everything has been burned off—where just bare ground remains," he says. "And I say, 'This is where we start forestry.' Forestry is not just about putting a fence around an existing wild forest: it's about taking what's not there, and trying to put something there. So many people are out there protecting the remaining forests—that job is taken care of. Someone needs to think about the lands that have already been degraded."

The idea that forestry can begin without trees has resonance for a country that has been in the news a lot lately—Haiti. According to Wagner, Haiti is the most deforested country in the western hemisphere: in an effort to help ameliorate conditions there, Wagner is currently working to obtain funding that would allow forestry students to spend internships in Haiti doing forestry work. By combining education and volunteer work, says Wagner, it may be possible for more students to afford an international experience.

Similarly, Wagner works hard to create other opportunities for students to have the same sort of horizon-expanding international experience that he had as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s. The School of Forestry, for instance, has run several international field study courses in Africa and Latin America, has created an Australian Exchange Program, and has created a partnership with the Peace Corps.

"It is important when students have those kinds of international experiences," says Wagner. "They sort of get the travel bug. Once you've been abroad and have seen how interesting it can be, then you start thinking a little bit differently—where maybe experiences become a little more important than material things."

Wagner's commitment to his students was further strengthened after he was named a Regents' Professor in 1999. As one of the highest forms of academic recognition that the state of Arizona has to offer, the Regents' Professorship allowed Wagner to focus more intently on student success.

"(After being named a Regents' Professor), I have the opportunity—which is very unique in universities—to give back and create opportunities for students," says Wagner. "I've really kind of dedicated the last part of my career to helping students, trying to raise money to help them get international experiences."

But Wagner didn't receive such high recognition solely because he is an excellent teacher. Already a highly-respected scientist, Wagner is still conducting groundbreaking research in the field of forestry. Currently, he is finishing up a sustainable forest project that seeks to address a major global concern related to biodiversity, which is a beneficial "environmental service" similar to carbon storage and water protection.

"What we're interested in is basically taking a piece of land that's been degraded and putting it back into a forest that primarily contains native species," he says. "The techniques for doing that aren't really known. Creating a natural forest is more complicated—and takes more money—than creating a mono culture plantation (a common practice carried out by production forestry firms during the reforestation process). We think that a relatively modest change from pure plantations to mixed plantations can actually gain back a significant amount of the environmental services that you'd get in the natural forest."

Focusing on increasing biodiversity levels in degraded forests, says Wagner, can lead to large environmental gains: local ecosystems become stronger, and are better able to withstand the negative effects of pollution or climate change. In short, increased biodiversity helps make forests more sustainable, which can produce big benefits for populations living nearby.

Wagner doesn't limit his knowledge about sustainable forest management to the academy, however. He has spearheaded three seminars in international forest administration and management—hosted at NAU and offered as a partnership between the university and the U.S. Forest Service Office of International Programs—that offer forest managers from developing countries a chance to trade tips and learn about best practices. As always, though, Wagner is looking for ways to make the process more sustainable.

"Along with a colleague in west Africa, I have written two proposals in the last year to develop a Center of Excellence and Forestry in Africa, with the concept that it's a better value to bring in a few outside experts, capture local expertise, and put on training sessions (in developing countries)," says Wagner. "The proposal seeks to establish three regional centers in Africa and ultimately transition to a model where African forest managers are training other Africans."

In trying to affect change—both in students and in the way that forests are managed—Wagner continues to keep his eyes on the key issues.

"Our focus is on students, and on getting people out there doing things," he says. "Ultimately, we're trying to help address basic poverty, teach resource conservation, and help people be better stewards of the land."

Outstanding contributions to Forestry: Wagner and the Schlich Award

In 2008, Michael Wagner received the Sir William Schlich Memorial Award, which is awarded every two years by the Society of American Foresters for outstanding contributions to the field of forestry with emphasis on policy and national or international activities.

Wagner, who is only one of a handful of people to ever receive this prestigious award—Franklin Roosevelt was the first recipient in 1935—was honored for, among other things, his "substantial and lead role in the internationalization of the forestry curriculum at Northern Arizona University School of Forestry." He was also recognized for the depth of his academic work, having published well over 100 pieces of work and having given nearly 200 scientific presentations. The award committee also noted that Wagner taught five international courses on sustainable tropical forestry in Ghana, Honduras, and Panama.