Lessons Learned: Joseph Bachman

August 12, 2020

This month, The Forestry Source features Joseph Bachman, the executive-in-residence in Natural Resource Finance at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He joined SAF in 1995 and is currently active in the Triangle Chapter of the North Carolina Division of the Appalachian SAF. The first in a series of articles, Bachman shares how the skills he gained as a field forester served him as a forest investor and why it’s important to have an understanding of economics and business.

Investing in Oneself and in Forestry
By Joseph Bachman 

Having been in forestry for over 25 years now, I can say that I have chosen many of the right forks in the proverbial trail. Students often ask how I found my way into the woods—a reasonable question that brings up myriad reflections. My experience in natural resources has taught me that our career paths are not as fully trodden as others, such as law, medicine, or engineering. Choices are neither easy nor always apparent and associated decisions are often uncomfortable. Motivation, energy, and interest are key. Values and the desire to have positive ethical influence are critical. Combining these interests and intentions, and making some key decisions, laid the pathway for a career that has had positive effect on my local environment and communities in several places around the world. 

Growing up outside, along with hunting and fishing, served as a natural entree to forestry. These activities spoke deeply to me and helped form my values. Early outdoor experiences in my home state of Wisconsin, with its historical conservation ethic developed by the likes of Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson, and others, inspired and formed a sense of place. Connection to my surroundings, care for them, and requisite skills developed in forest marsh and stream all enhanced my relationship to resources I would later manage. My career evolved from there.

“There’s the law of the school and the law of the farm.” Tom Hartranft, the Regional General Manager in the Western Carolina Region of Champion International Corporation, where I later worked, shared this wisdom with me and my cohort of entry level foresters. He conveyed his belief that a skilled organization benefits significantly from a healthy balance between formal education and practical experience. These words proved true for me, going back to my undergraduate years at Dartmouth College. My studies in biology, including tropical and aquatic ecology, were enhanced by broader exposure to social science and the humanities, including classical studies. When people ask what the best part of my forestry education was, I tell them it was my liberal arts background. The strength of the liberal arts education is that it requires students read widely and consider a variety of viewpoints. Diverse studies not only in science, but also literature, history, and social science provide a methodical route to developing a greater world view. The approach is broadening and teaches critical thinking. It has tremendous potential to enhance the integration of perspective in a multi-disciplinary field such as forestry. Personally, it has lent not only the curiosity but also the confidence to challenge assumptions, and to speak up when new and better options surface or an overlooked view needs consideration.

After graduating in 1991, I held several different jobs. Working on a fishing boat in Alaska effectively scratched the itch for working in fisheries. Associated time spent in Seattle, as grunge music blossomed, lent perspective on the change happening in the forest and surrounding communities, as concern for old growth forests disrupted current practice. Subsequent work for an agricultural trucking venture in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) provided firsthand exposure to tropical deforestation. Daily at sunrise I observed Congolese women, baby in one arm, holding a basket of agricultural implements balanced on her head with the other, walking the four-hour trek to the receding forest to tend their gardens, returning at dusk with the day’s produce. I realized that, although I helped run a small sawmill, the minor scale of logging was not the driver of deforestation, but rather it was people’s need to feed themselves. 

The cadence of tropical life catalyzed the realization that the drivers of forest sustainability were complex and that a career in meeting forest management challenges could both take me to interesting places and influence important societal outcomes. These diverse experiences shaped early career decisions. Importantly, the early 1990s were a time of heightened environmental awareness of issues including tropical deforestation and resource conflicts related to the Endangered Species Act, both of which attracted unprecedented mainstream attention. It captured mine and drove the realization that direct involvement in activities and decisions could create a more sustainable world: not simply activism, but rather problem solving, which was much more constructive and rewarding. 

Forestry provided meaningful and diverse opportunities to get “hands-on” and address the problems of the day, more so than academic pursuits of biology or ecology I had thus far contemplated. This early commitment to management provided more immediate opportunities to influence positive environmental outcomes in complex situations both at home and around the world. It also helped shape my intentional choices to broaden and bolster diverse professional skills. “Management” became a personal mission in changing the conversation about forestry from being commonly viewed as a destructive, extractive endeavor, in favor of one reflecting its farsighted roots in broad sustainable resource stewardship.

Investigating additional education in applied ecology, and environmental management, helped clarify my appreciation that, forestry—in its very essence—is applied ecology. The inherent practicality of this belief held tremendous personal appeal and led to my enrollment in Duke’s master of forestry degree program. Duke’s emphasis on leveraging a background in botany or ecology and imparting management skills was an essential asset of the program, as was its ability to deliver an accredited degree in less than two years. Furthermore, a broad approach seemed compatible with a liberal arts sensibility.

A western field trip between the first and second year explored broad state, federal, and industry resource issues in the American West and proved a milestone. We visited Potlatch Corporation in Idaho, where, after a day reviewing stands with one of their foresters, I realized that “Wow, this job has true impact.” I could see myself in it. Industrial forestry became the focus, and upon graduation, I was hired by Champion International as the company sought skills to implement programs to meet the new Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) standards. This was the proverbial “farm.” At Champion for about six years I learned the ropes from true woods-wise forest professionals who intimately understood the ecology of the local forests and the commercial nuances of forest business. I also later managed the company’s third-party SFI verification initiative, the first of its kind. I attribute many of my more successful forest, business, and investment decisions to perspectives earned in those precious early years.

Those years at Champion also taught the imperatives of working in a commercial business. A year in a forest technology company run by external consultants taught me to trust my instincts, to question underlying business assumptions as well as the value of specific knowledge: The view that intimate understanding of a profession or practice will, over time, develop into sought-after expertise. It also became apparent that some more formal business training could help convey this knowhow more effectively in competitive business situations. While working in the woods, courses taken at night in accounting, economics, and finance had satisfied a need to develop the language of business which until that point had been foreign to me.
The dot-com recession proved to be a wonderful opportunity to invest in my formal education once again by pursuing an MBA. This was not a natural decision for me, as I had never been the kid who was going to go to business school, being more comfortable in my natural environment. Yet my time at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth was key. A more focused course of study than my liberal arts degree, it formalized and cemented lessons experienced as an entry-level forester working in a large integrated company and augmented those with formal lessons in finance, strategy, and operational analysis. I interned with TrusJoist, a Weyerhaeuser company, gaining wood-products knowledge that expanded my expertise and understanding of the breadth of the forest-products value chain.

Upon graduation in 2003, with specific knowledge and experience, coupled with an understanding a business credential proved in demand. I joined the timber-investment group of a global bank and parlayed the sum of skill and experience accumulated thus far throughout the ensuing decade and a half. I entered as an analyst, later becoming a fund manager and led that global team, and ultimately assuming the role of global head of asset management of the successor partnership created through a management buyout. I managed tremendous amounts of investment capital and in turn forest projects on five continents. Living overseas in Australasia and traveling continuously, working with local management teams, developed in me a comparative understanding of forests and management practices worldwide. Forestry, an essentially local, site-specific endeavor, indeed proved to be the vehicle for me that was global in both reach and impact.

Since 2018, I created the curriculum and taught in the emergent Natural Resource Finance Initiative at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Colleagues have long told me that I take a personal, teaching approach in my professional roles, so it’s been a natural, but still challenging, transition. Forest management education needs to combine both “school” and “farm” and as a practitioner. Career, from the Latin carrus, meaning chariot, has carried me far in terms of life experience to where I am now. 

In the forthcoming installments I will seek to relate observations and lessons on investments in global forest value chains, as well as the educational challenges for the rising generation of forest professionals.

Joseph Bachman can be reached at joe.bachman@duke.edu.

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 August 2020 edition of The Forestry Source here.