Helping People Become Better Stewards of the Land

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 and enjoy his retirement. Instead, the Professor Emeritus has been very busy with two key missions — helping his students gain valuable international experience, and using research and education to help forest managers around the world ply their trade in a more sustainable fashion.

“I am continuing to teach classes, write grant proposals, and work on projects I’m interested in,” Wagner says. “We have a group forming now that is interested in natural resources in Indonesia, so I’m helping that group with some of their planning efforts. I’m still hoping to take a group of students to Africa for a summer course. It’s a regular study abroad course – a three-credit course – that I’ve done for over ten years now.

However, for Wagner, there is a larger picture at stake - spreading the message that forestry is as much about today’s trees as it is those that are gone.

"I show my students a picture where everything has been burned off — where just bare ground remains," Wagner says. "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."

Similarly, Wagner works hard to create other opportunities for students to gain the same horizon-expanding international experience that he had as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s.

"It is important that students have those kinds of international experiences," Wagner says. "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 was named a Regents' Professor in 1999, and a Professor Emeritus in 2012, but he didn't receive such high recognition solely because he is an excellent teacher. A highly-respected scientist, Wagner is still conducting groundbreaking research in the field of forestry. Although he cautions that “all science is ongoing,” he said a recent sustainable forest project has just been wrapped up.

Wagner theorized that planting mixed plantations – instead of pure plantations with only one plant species – would increase biodiversity. To test this hypothesis, Wagner and his group measured the variety of ant species within their planted forests, comparing it to the number of species from both natural forests and mono-culture plantations.

“If we compare the biodiversity of ants in a planted forest – as few as ten species, whereas a typical tropical forest will have a hundred species or more in a hectare – when we put in a planted forest with ten species, we capture 70 to 80 percent of the biodiversity,” he says. “The point is this: when we might think there is no hope, we can actually protect species by engaging in a planting activity. It doesn’t replace a pristine forest, but you really can do a lot by choosing native species and adding more species to the mix.”

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.

There’s also a much bigger picture at play - Wagner wants to put more emphasis on reforestation as a way of dealing the effects of global climate change. Just adding five percent to the world’s forests, he says, could offset humanity’s carbon production at the cost of $200 billion in one-time costs – the same amount spent annually by the world’s nations in dealing with environmental damages.

“One of the answers to global climate change is planting more forests,” Wagner says.

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."