Field Camp Leads to Park Service Careers | Agricultural Sciences

Southern Illinois University



Field Camp Leads to Park Service and Forestry Service Careers

April 26, 2016

For Logan Park, it was a five-month hike on the Appalachian Trail that set him on his career path. For A.J. Neilan, it was a summer of volunteer work – and Park’s forestry summer camp.

Park, associate professor of forestry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, leads SIU’s Park and Wildland Management Field Camp every summer. Students in the field camp travel to several national parks, national forests, wildlife areas and state parks where they learn management lessons such as dealing with border issues between public and private land, regulating multi-use trails and even marine recreation management.

“Each summer we head out on the field camp, and we run into our grads without fail,” Park said. “Forestry alumni are all over the country working with the National Park Service, and also with state park systems and the U.S. Forest Service. The agencies have hired our grads over time through a variety of job and career tracks.”

Park said many students enter the forestry program with the idea of being a park ranger or conservation police officer or related job.

“It’s with good reason. Park rangers in many cases have excellent jobs – not easy, per se, but excellent,” Park said.

The Department of Forestry helps students sort out their career goals in part by making field skills part of the curriculum. During the field camp, students meet and interview wilderness and backcountry rangers, law enforcement rangers, interpretive rangers and personnel in other related careers.

“It can be pretty eye-opening for some, but that’s the point,” Park said.

One area that needs clarification for many students is the different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes contrasting, missions of the park service and the forest service. The park service emphasizes preservation – of lands, cultural and archaeological sites – and providing quality recreation at these sites. The forest service, on the other hand, is conservation-minded, which is different from preservation in several important ways. Namely, the forest service sites are resources where resource extraction such as logging, and consumptive recreation such as hunting, are part of the management plan.

“From an education standpoint, our role as a program is to expose our family of students to these complex systems and help them begin to wrestle with and find ways through the ‘wicked problems’ involved,” Park said.

Neilan works for the forest service, at Deschutes National Forest in Oregon. He worked previously at Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky. He said he imagined himself with the park service, partly because he’s a people person. His job with the forest service, though, involves forest recreation, and he finds himself interacting with people quite a bit.

And sometimes forest fires.

“I never expected to fight wildfires, but I’m very proud to be able to call that work,” he said. “The amount of work and different types of work you are asked to do can be a challenge. You really do need to excel at multiple jobs and to be able to do them simultaneously while assisting the public with a smile on your face – even if you don’t feel like smiling at all.”

Neilan said SIU helped him prepare for these challenges simply by being SIU – by being a university where he learned to juggle work, school, sports and his personal life with friendly help from others in the college.

“My advice for students is simple,” he said. “Be outgoing and join clubs and make friends – you never know who might want to hire you some day. Volunteer for the forest service or the park service in the summer, be willing to travel anywhere for a job, and most importantly, have a good attitude and never stop learning.”

Park noted that the College of Agricultural Sciences does not have a formal internship requirement as part of the program, but it does stress volunteering, summer work and alumni connections from the get-go.

“So many of our students jump right into it – as they need to!” he said.

The Department of Forestry also employs some students in field research, including projects with park service or forest service sponsorship. Students in those projects, he said, get the dual benefit of learning research techniques and getting an inside look at the two agencies. Occasionally a student will decide they don’t like what they see, but many, Park said, take inspiration from the experience and generally do well after graduation.

“We help them sort out the hiring season, the timing and sequencing of job searching, and even the vocabulary specific to one forestry job or another,” Park said. “We also just listen to and talk with our students at length as they begin to grapple with big questions like, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ We place a lot of value on mentorship in the Department of Forestry.”

As for Park, when he was a youngster and dreaming about his future, he at first wanted to be an astronaut – until the tragedy with the space shuttle “Challenger.” Then he thought about biochemical research in oncology. After earning his chemistry degree, he hiked the Appalachian Trail and that turned him around to forestry. Neilan saw himself as a music teacher with summers clear for park service volunteering. Somewhere along the line, he said, he decided he’d rather play music than teach it and make the forest his full-time career.

The National Park Service observes its centennial anniversary this year. The College of Agricultural Sciences observed its 60th anniversary last fall.