University Series Issue #8

An Overview: Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation


Forests and forestry are critical elements of the Commonwealth of Virginia landscape, with forests comprising over 60% of the land base and the forest industry representing the state’s third largest industry. Hardwood types predominate forest areas overall, though loblolly pine contains the highest volume and holds the highest commercial value. Forest land ownership is overwhelmingly private, with as many as 60% being family and individual owners, and a primary threat to Virginia forests is land conversion, often to solar facilities of late. Two schools in Virginia provide Society of American Foresters (SAF) -accredited forestry degree programs, with Virginia Tech offering an accredited Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, and Mountain Gateway Community College offering an accredited Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in Forest Management Technology.

The state’s first forestry course was taught at what was then called the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (commonly VPI) in 1902, only five years following the passage of the U.S. Organic Act of 1897 which authorized management of the newly-established forest reserves that would become the National Forest system, three years before the formal establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service (F.S.) in 1905, and 12 years before formation of the Virginia Forest Service (now Virginia Department of Forestry) in 1914. With initially slow momentum, the first professor of forestry was hired in 1925, an extension forester, and a degree in forestry was first offered in 1938, a B.S. in Conservation and Forestry. At that time, courses in forestry and wildlife were taught in the Department of Biology. The Department of Forestry and Wildlife was established within the College of Agriculture in 1959, and the class of 1960 consisted of six graduates. The undergraduate forestry curriculum was accredited by the Society of American Foresters in 1965. The program grew quickly through the 1970s and 1980s, becoming a part of the School of Forestry and Wildlife in 1976. The school achieved college status in 1993 as the College of Forestry and Wildlife Resources. In 2008, the Department of Forestry was renamed as the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation (FREC) to recognize the broad scope of majors, research, and outreach activities. It now resides in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

NOVEC Power Plant

Today the department has approximately 330 undergraduate students enrolled in one or more of our five majors: Environmental Conservation and Society, Environmental Data Science, Environmental Resource Management, Forestry, and Water: Resources, Policy, and Management (separate B.S. degree). Throughout all of our changes, we have sought to maintain a strong commitment to our original core field of forestry. Forestry has continued to be one of our top one or two enrollment majors through the years. These graduates have been sought-after for industry and agency positions and as graduate students across North America as we have remained committed to a grounding in forests and forestry practice. Certainly, we have had to make changes to keep up with university and student requirements, but we have maintained our forestry program, providing a hands-on, field-oriented curriculum that builds analytic skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving while also promoting the development of soft skills we know employers value in these times. One of our biggest challenges and changes came several years ago when we had to reconsider the viability of our longstanding spring camp program based at Holliday Lake 4H Center as credit hour restrictions and enrollment pressures were bearing down. However, even in that situation, as we moved the base of our field experience to Blacksburg, the faculty insisted on retaining and even surpassing the number of field hours that spring camp entailed through an innovative field experience course and by extending field labs in courses such as silviculture. We in FREC also sought and gained Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) status for forestry degrees through the Department of Homeland Security, which we believe is crucial for keeping forestry education attractive to the best and brightest students into the future. Our efforts will benefit forestry programs and the forestry profession across the nation. 

For graduate programs, we offer a Master’s of Forestry, a Master’s of Science, and a Ph.D. Our graduate degrees are offered on-site in Blacksburg only, and our students are in high demand for industry, agency, and university positions. Recently, our graduate student population has hovered around 50 students, split pretty evenly between master’s and Ph.D. students, with the majority funded from sponsored research funds. Our most prominent sponsors include the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, the USDA Forest Service, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Virginia Department of Forestry, and the National Park Service. We also have strong support through industry cooperatives, including the Forest Productivity Cooperative and the Forest Modeling Research Cooperative.

Our award-winning extension/outreach programs include forest landowner education, logger safety and sustainable harvesting, geospatial and remote sensing education, master naturalist training, forest farming/agroforestry, and urban forestry. Populations are reached across the state in rural, suburban, and urban areas, and our extension faculty are leaders in regional, national, and international extension networks. Forest and natural resource extension professionals are located across the state, and we have an active research and extension/outreach center in the Piedmont physiographic region.

Our FREC faculty comprises 31 teaching and research faculty members, three additional extension faculty members, and nine current research faculty members. Faculty expertise includes agroforestry/forest farming, climate and forest carbon, ecosystem science and modeling, forest biology/ecology, forest biometrics, forest economics and policy, forest genetics/genomics, forest health, forest operations and business, hydrology and water resources, human dimensions, natural resources recreation, silviculture and forest management, soils, wildland fire, and urban/community forestry. Looking to the future, we recognize that hiring the right people to keep the program vibrant is critical for a viable program. So many genuinely renowned faculty members have been a part of the program over the years, those who have been dedicated to a culture of excellence in teaching, to a culture of collaboration, and to promoting the study of forests and associated environmental resources, such as soils, water, and watersheds. We continue to insist on this dedication for our new hires today. However, maintaining our legacy in forestry will require us to continue to value our role in the forestry education arena and to continue a deliberate, concerted effort to retain the necessary capacity to provide a top educational program in the field. We are excited to be able to bring in a forest pathology faculty member this fall, an area that is new for us, and a forest operations faculty member in early 2024 as a part of retaining and building on our capacity. 

FREC is in a strong position to build on our forestry legacy and continue the process of creating a community that develops and passes on the science and practice of our interdisciplinary field, where we are committed to serving our students, our partners, our Commonwealth, and all those who rely on these forests and forest resources in some way.


Jay Sullivan |Professor and Department Head |Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation | College of Natural Resources and Environment |Virginia Tech

Scott Barrett | Associate Professor |Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation | College of Natural Resources and Environment |Virginia Tech

Reviewed by Jay Jenkins | FRA Appalachian Region Consultant | [email protected]

Further Reading
FRA’s University Series
Issue.7- The University of Kentucky: Department of Forestry and Natural Resources
Issue. 6- The University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources
Issue. 5- The Division of Forestry & Natural Resources at West Virginia University
Issue. 4- The School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine
Issue. 3- Department of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences | College of Natural Resources | University of Idaho
Issue. 2- University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UW-Stevens Point) Forestry Program
Issue. 1- The College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment at Auburn University