Lessons Learned: Brian Kleinhenz

May 6, 2020

This month The Forestry Source features Brian Kleinhenz, a consulting forester with Terra Verde Inc., a forest and natural resources management consulting firm. A member of the Juneau, Alaska SAF chapter, he joined SAF in 2009 and has served in a variety of leadership roles, including being the current chair of the Juneau chapter and former chair of Alaska SAF

In his own words, Kleinhenz shares the benefits of talking with foresters from other countries and the value of applied research. 

Lessons Learned from a Career in Forestry 
By Brian Kleinhenz 

I attended Ohio Northern University, where I studied environmental studies. They didn’t have a forestry program, but I became interested in trees. During my junior year, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Finland at the University of Eastern Finland. Then, as now, the university had a serious forestry school. I took every forestry class and loved it. 

When I decided to look for a job after graduation, options were very limited. Many in my graduating class were taking jobs cleaning up toxic waste sites, which didn’t sound good to me. I looked for master’s programs in forestry, and the faculty at the University of Eastern Finland asked me to come back. It was pretty cool, because at the time there weren’t many international students in Finnish universities and very few Americans. As a foreign student, I didn’t receive a government stipend like Finnish students, so I had to find a job to cover my expenses. I received a good applied forestry education, because I worked at every forestry research station that would hire me and ran all over the country during the summers.

I returned to the States at a time when jobs were hard to come by. With my spanking new forestry degree, I started fixing bicycles, because people imply weren’t hiring. I fought my way back into the industry by doing GIS work, until I caught a break by being hired by the Sealaska Timber Company, a for-profit Alaska Native corporation based in Ketchikan, Alaska. 

About five years ago, I shifted into consulting forestry by joining Terra Verde Inc. as a principal. 

Forestry is more than managing natural resources  

Many villages in Alaska experience very high unemployment. I would go to a town of 120 and bring a project, such as logging, thinning, tree planting, or road maintenance that employs 15 people. This essentially means three young families can stay in the village next to their extended family, whereas they might have to move to Anchorage or Juneau if the jobs weren’t there. My friends in eastern Oregon have the same experiences; in these resource-dependent communities, a forestry project can have a big economic impact. 

At the public meetings, it was the dads, moms, aunts, uncles, and grandmas who were asking why we were bringing out-of-town labor when local people could do the work. I heard that often enough and it stuck, so we started working on that. How do we build skill sets? How do we prepare people from rural communities to perform jobs in the US Forest Service, for example? 

I got together with folks in the Forest Service, nongovernmental organizations, and private industry, and we started to develop career paths that would build economic activity and fill needs. How do we train people to be loggers? How do you teach them to think about this job as a career path rather than just a gig? At my company, much of what we do is basic natural resources surveying, which is a very appealing career choice for people in these rural communities. It is a technician job for which the cost of entry is reasonable; all they need is a couple pieces of equipment and outdoor clothing, and we can essentially train the other skills. We train crews to do fish surveys, timber cruising, and road surveys. Even though two-thirds of the people wash out, every win is an important win. It feels very good to help someone find a career. 

How to talk to elected officials and the public 

Foresters love to talk about the science because we’re all science nerds at heart, but a public official’s reasons for being interested in forestry aren’t always academic in nature. It’s not that elected public officials aren’t interested in the science—they are—but they are typically trying to find a balance among their constituents. 

What I learned is that when you talk to communities, they’re worried about people, and you have to put management decisions into context. How do these balancing uses apply on the landscape in regard to human needs? How do people use the landscape? Who is a real stakeholder? Who is an interested third party who doesn’t have as much skin in the game in terms of what happens with the management? 

During public meetings, you have to get right to the results people are interested in. For example, you might prepare to share how many acres have been planted and these cool treatments you’ve done. Yet what the public wants to know is if the 1020 road is going to be closed, because they saw an excavator out there and they’re worried you’re going to cut off access to a favorite hunting spot. You have to back way up and realize our touch on the landscape affects a lot of people. 

I’ve never been an enthusiastic communicator, but you have to become one. You have to develop that skill set. Even if what you’re interested in is being a resource professional, you have to be able to do public relations work. A lot of people are interested in what you do, and you must assure them that you’re trying to consider their needs. 

The importance of ethics 

What I always work on, more than I work on marketing or sales, is protecting the integrity of our company and our profession. It’s important to make sure people know that you’re an honest broker of information. That’s the case with every single person you work with. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big client or a small client—you have to make sure that your integrity is intact. 

What I have always appreciated about SAF is that we have a very forward-facing set of ethical guidelines that are important to this vocation. This code of ethics is extremely helpful to both explain how we interact with each other and also to guide our own work. When I was a young forester, older SAF members gently instilled in me the importance of integrity. 

Why learn leadership in SAF 

I always volunteered for discrete tasks I felt comfortable doing, such as stuffing name badges for the annual meeting or making phone calls to find a speaker for our next chapter meeting. The other members encouraged me to chair the chapter, to which I’d say, “No, one of you guys should do it since you’re more qualified.” In response, they’d say, “You have got to learn somehow.” And that’s how I got into the leadership roles—the other more experienced SAF members encouraged me to take on more. 

It’s a lesson I’ve tried to apply myself. Now, every time I accept a leadership position, I make sure that I can get somebody else to volunteer to help me or take the role after me so that we’re helping pass along these experiences. I don’t like it when we recycle leadership at the local or state levels, because I think that’s a bad thing for the organization. It’s critically important, especially at the chapter levels, that we get new blood in leadership, because it enriches the experience and brings new ideas to the organization.

A benefit of learning leadership inside SAF is it’s a supportive place to make mistakes and receive gentle guidance. On the job, if you make a mistake, you can lose your job. It is important to have the freedom to fail.

Why choose forestry? 

I’ve been lucky, because I’ve worked all over the country: I’ve spent time in the redwoods, in Idaho, the Deep South, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. I’ve gotten to see all different kinds of ecosystems and management types—from Minnesota, where I saw tree thinning with bulldozers, to Alaska, where loggers live in floating camps. Because forestry is such a flexible disciple, I’ve also done a lot of conservation work. I’ve gotten in on the ground floor of emerging markets like ecosystem services and carbon credits. I’ve driven around with Alaska’s senator in my pickup truck, which was really cool. 

Even though it was a struggle for me to get into the industry, it’s been very diverse and rewarding. You get to do a little bit of everything, and I’ve really enjoyed it. 

Brian Kleinhenz can be reached at bkleinhenz@terraverdeinc.com

Do you have lessons learned that you would like to share with fellow SAF members in a future issue? Please email Andrea Watts, wattsa@safnet.org

SAF members can read the full May 2020 edition here.