Lessons Learned: J. Lopez

June 15, 2020

This month, The Forestry Source features J. Lopez, a newly minted retiree from the County of Los Angeles Fire Department Forestry Division, where he worked for 33 years as a forester. A member of the California SAF chapter, he joined SAF in 1989 and has served in a variety of leadership roles, including the former chair of Southern California SAF (NorCal and SoCal merged in 2019) and an SAF Board of Directors member representing District 3. Lopez was named an SAF Fellow in 2002 and in 2011 received the SAF Presidential Field Forester Award in 2001. In addition, Lopez serves on the California Fire Safe Council board of directors and the California Fire Science Consortium advisory board, and is a mentor for the California Conservation Corps.

In his own words, Lopez shares how engaging with other organizations spreads the value of forestry, and the value of pairing science with empathy.

Engagement, Connections, and Forestry
By J. Lopez 

My family expected me to become a doctor, since I had three family members in the medical field and the school was near my family’s home. And for a moment, I considered going to medical school. When I enrolled in the Autonomous University of Chihuahua in Mexico, I intended to study agriculture, but by chance, I walked by one of the auditoriums with a poster with the letters SAF on it. I went in and was fascinated by the talk on forestry. I may not remember all the exact details of the event, but I do remember the US forester mentioning the importance of professional organizations, such as SAF. Later on, I was invited on a forestry field trip, even though I hadn’t declared my major yet. From then on, I decided to study forestry.

Here, J. Lopez is participating in an interview with KTLA,
a local television station. Photograph courtesy of J. Lopez.

I graduated with a degree in forestry and came across an ad for a Canadian company wanting a forester who could travel across the US, Canada, and Mexico. They needed someone who could speak English quite well, which is something I couldn’t do. I told my parents, “I’m going to travel to the United States and immerse myself for three years and then come back and start my career.” I went to Texas and then to California, and that is a far as I made it. I took a job with the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner and worked there for about 10 months. I received my accreditation through the University of California System and learned of a forestry position within the LA County Fire Department. I applied, and 10 months later, they called me. I took the job in September 1987 and stayed there for 33 years as a field forester and, later, as assistant chief. I didn’t practice traditional forestry, but I applied forestry concepts in projects that included the invasive species detection program, forest nursery operations, and reforestation to the implementation of the forest and chaparral best management practices in accordance to the national, state, and county strategic fire plans.

Practicing forestry in LA County

Doing forestry in a major metropolitan area is quite different than doing it where forestry is a common practice. Unfortunately, there is a big disconnect between understanding what forestry is and the benefits of forestry. While my job was being a forester, I also spent a fair amount of my time educating the public on what forestry is and the benefits of science-based resource management. Even a project as simple as vegetation management to reduce fire hazards for a community is a two-year process, so meetings to inform the residents are a must.

Why pair science with empathy

You can’t walk into a room for a public presentation on a vegetation management project and say, “I’m a forester, and I have a four-year degree. My friend is a biologist, and she has a PhD in ecology.” It doesn’t connect well with the public. We have to make an effort to understand their emotional attachment to the natural resources they value. Usually, an explanation of the nitty-gritty details of the project are not as important as the description of the comprehensive process of how the project’s goals can be accomplished. Science provides the way to explain that the decision underlying the project is not a passive decision. At the same time, we empathize with their attachment to their landscape or the wildland as they know it. One of the big misconceptions we have of forests across the United States is that we pretend to know what the forests are supposed to look like, since that’s what we’ve seen and known in our lifetime. If we listen and say, “Yes, I hear you and let’s talk about it,” and be willing to step back a few steps, that’s where we all can gain a better understanding of the current understanding and emotional connections and begin to move forward.

Build the message from the ground up

I’m a board member for the California Fire Safe Council, because I truly believe in the importance of grassroots efforts of the local fire-safe councils, Firewise, and community organizations. These citizens do the work; they get their neighbors and stakeholders engaged to achieve various goals and improve their overall safety. They live in the community, understand the local issues and dynamics, and deal with the benefits and consequences of any project. The development of these groups that are willing to do learn, share, and act is a great result of applying science-based knowledge from forestry and social sciences.

People tend to move in and out of neighborhoods, but with fire-safe councils, you have a structure and a group of people who understand and embrace their natural environment. They are part of the project’s planning, development and implementation. During this process, a better understanding of natural resources, ecosystem dynamics, and ecologically sound management is developed. At the final walkthrough after a project, the neighborhood is satisfied with the result. Yet the residents take it to the next level when they invite their friends and family over and say, “This is what we did.” With the fire-safe councils, it goes from “I’m with the government, and here’s what we’re going to do,” to “Let’s work together on this.” Residents know they have ownership; they are now part of the solution, and that brings community pride.

Rethinking how forestry relates to people’s lives

I was invited to a gardeners’ conference, where the attendees compost and work on beautifying their gardens to attract birds and wildlife. A lot of attendees stated, ‘Why is this guy going to talk to us about forestry and fire?’ There were about 400 people in the room, and the talk was well accepted because we were able to understand the common ground, even though they had limited understanding of vegetation management as a wildland-fire prevention and propagation measure and the effects of gardening in fire behavior. Gardening is fantastic, by the way—there is nothing better than going to your garden and just submersing yourself with your plants and checking out of the world for a little while. But some people live in what we call fire hazardous zones, and their gardening has a lot to do with the fire hazard propagation throughout their property. It was a great success stepping outside of the comfort of the forestry world and making those connections with avid gardeners.

I had the great opportunity to work with one of the local air quality districts and a local farm bureau on a project with farmers on how to properly obtain a permit and burn their crop residues and annual weeds. Multiple simultaneous burns degrade the air quality and affect residential areas. The program was developed and successfully implemented for English- and Spanish-speaking farmers. It was a great experience working with a diverse group of people with diverse backgrounds; you have better chances of success because you consider points that you wouldn’t if you’re talking to people with the same background.

When giving career advice, embrace the confusion

A psychologist friend of mine invited me to speak to a class of minority students about what I did as a forester and how I got into the profession. The kids were high-schoolers. Many would likely not go to college because they would have to work to support their families. The intent of the talk was to incentivize college attendance. I’m a white Latino, so I’m split between these two worlds.

There were other speakers before me. One was a physician who said that he knew from the age of two that he wanted to be a doctor. The other speaker was a policeman who kiddingly said that he knew when he was six months old that he wanted to be policeman.

I stated that when I was in high school, I had no idea where I was going to go to college. And they had puzzled expressions when I said, “If you are confused, you’re in your first or second year of high school, and it’s okay. Not to lose sight of going to college is the goal. The college experience will not only be the best experience of your life, but college will form you even more than you believe is going to happen. And the close friendships that you’ll get out of it are incredible.” When they asked about how I became a forester, I said that it’s not only about studying forestry; it’s also about making college education a standard. It shouldn’t be a question of if you’re going to have the opportunity to go to college.

I also shared that even when I went to college, my career choice was unclear. Actually, I applied to various schools. I did a semester in animal husbandry, because I thought that I wanted to be a veterinarian, but after a semester, I changed my mind. I knew I wanted something in the biological world, but it was not clear what that would be at that time.

Then I said to the kids that if you want to be a forester, here’s what forestry does for you. And they were pleasantly surprised with how my career panned out. I had the opportunity to work in the biggest local fire department in the world: The department has helicopters, bulldozers, nearly two hundred fire stations, and 5,000 personnel, and we do forestry! If you had told me while I was a college student that I was going to spend one summer flying close to 200 hours conducting remote-sensing operations from a helicopter while responding to wildfires, I would never have dreamed of that.

Adapting messaging while in lockdown

Even though we all are being asked to stay in our homes, you cannot be passive. We must continue with outreach. The board members of the California Fire Safe Council discussed how to maintain the connection with the public and developed a few strategic points. First of all, sorry we’re going through this. It is definitely a difficult situation. Second of all, be safe and listen closely the professionals’ instructions. Meanwhile, here are some recommendations on how continue wildfire prevention in a safe manner. The potential for wildfires is going to return this summer regardless of covid being present or not.

A similar opportunity came up with a group called TreePeople, a very active nonprofit organization with thousands of volunteers who plant trees all over the Los Angeles area and throughout the state. Its staff organized a conference call, and they asked, ‘What can we do while this is happening?’ We discussed that our residents are a captive audience, literally, and are looking for something to do. They are looking for sound information. This is an opportunity; you’re not only sending out your message, but you’re staying on the message. The way we do business is going to change. How can we do business better, knowing that change is eminent? Even though we are asked to stay home, as professional group or agency, we cannot just sit down and wait to plan the future.

The reward of SAF membership

What SAF has brought to my life has been nothing but satisfying. SAF helped my professional development as a forester, provided not only large networks, but also credibility, knowledge, and a wide-ranging toolbox. That’s what’s beautiful about SAF conventions—you can challenge and greatly expand your knowledge by attending a technical session and then going to a philosophy and history session. One of my greatest honors was speaking during the 2006 National Convention at Lunch with the Leaders. The speakers were Mary J. Coulombe, chief of natural resources for the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, DC; SAF Council Representative Monte Simpson, a government affairs manager for Weyerhaeuser; and me. Where in the world could I have met these accomplished individuals? And how lucky can I be to share the podium with them? That’s what SAF brings to you: opportunities, knowledge, and growth. SAF has greatly contributed to my career development and enriched my life experience. I’m extremely thankful, and that’s why I felt the urge to serve on the SAF Board of Directors and give back, but I’m not done. I owe a lot to SAF.

J. Lopez can be reached at jlopeztri@mac.com.

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

SAF members can read the full July 2020 edition of The Forestry Source here.