Q & A with Neil Ward

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1. What did you most enjoy about your work with APA and FRA over the years?

    I came to APA in 1982, essentially as an outsider. Members’ willingness to take me from the ground up, to explain what they were doing and why—to welcome me into their worlds and to reward my interest with their confidence—remained the basis to why I came to spend my career with this organization and with the people in the wood supply sector.

2. What would you consider your biggest accomplishment or biggest contribution?

    The useful answer would probably be my work in producing and furthering the development and style of the publications that served and branded us through all those years—the newsletter, the technical publications, and the political advocacy materials.

    But the answer I would rather give would be my role in organizing and staffing the overseas forestry tours FRA sponsored during the early years of the 2000s. Putting those together—there were five in all—toward the goal of building FRA’s technology transfer and global benchmarking capacities was very stressful for me, but the tours drew on my core abilities, talents, and personal insights the way nothing else during my employment did. The essentially common culture that foresters and loggers in Brazil, Finland, and Alabama share, in spite of different operating conditions and regulatory structures, astonished me and revealed something of a universal forestry and logging ethic.

    For various reasons, we discontinued the tour program, although it was profitable, and those reasons were justifiable, as FRA’s emphasis shifted. But both the organization and my relationship to it were different afterwards from what they had been.
3. What did you find especially or most interesting about our industry and/or about our members?

    I am most impressed by members’ commitment to entrepreneurship and willingness to assume business risk—not recklessly but as a part of a well-considered process of building a livelihood, and in spite of an increasingly obstructive regulatory web. This observation played a large part in turning me from left-leaning to right-leaning in the course of my time with FRA.

4. What are the biggest changes in our industry you saw over your career?

    I needn’t mention “overregulation,” do I? Those who are bewildered at the outcome of last November’s election—and there are many who are—need look no further. But apart from that...

    It is certainly ironic that the huge improvement in logging efficiency we’ve seen since the early ‘80s has effectively created a manpower shortage. With the elimination of choker setters and landing workers, we have no entry-level positions anymore—every new hire must be a trained specialist. Establishing the training paradigms we need to address this gap remains a huge challenge, in spite of the repeated initiatives FRA and others have launched. I’m glad to see that public policy is beginning to acknowledge the problem, although we’ll also need to confront larger social forces discouraging land-based employment.

    Over the last 35 years, the Internet has redefined forestry as a career, not just in the sense of stretching the land-management dollar through GPS and similar innovations but by ending foresters’ isolation. Not only do foresters get out of the woods more than they used to, but even if they stay in the woods, they have networking opportunities and virtual interaction that they used to depend on APA/FRA to facilitate. FRA’s institutional challenge, at this point, is to build value on top of this new reality.

5. What would you advise someone entering FRA employment?

    Staff support is more about observing, listening, and asking questions than about providing answers. If you, as a staff member, think you have answers, offer them humbly—not just to be deferent but to leave yourself open to being corrected. Our membership is a huge knowledge base. Staff members need to find effective ways to consult it—to listen to it. As Ken Rolston—APA President in the ‘70s and ‘80s—used to say, “Staff-generated solutions are simple, obvious, and wrong.”

    Those long silences during committee meetings are important—don’t interrupt them!

6. Since you have great ability and credentials in editing and writing, what tips might you have for FRA members and others in areas where they need to improve in writing—grammar, spelling, writing style, etc?

    I have a great deal to say on this topic.

    Two specific tips are:

      • write in as few words as you can without sacrificing key details; and

      • write in the active voice, reconsidering and rewriting passive-voice sentences whenever they occur. That is, avoid “Mistakes were made.”

      Use “I made mistakes.” Being clear about the agent of any act provides clarity and establishes responsibility—a guideline for an executive, a transparent organization, and a writer.

    More generally: practice definitely makes a difference. In my own case, I believe that writing love letters in my 20s did much to build me as a writer: I had to consider the point of view of the reader, to pay attention to voice and tone, and to consider desired outcomes carefully. Reading and re-reading the work of writers you admire helps—Mark Twain, for instance, is a marvelous model.

    Finally, surprise draws attention and builds reader engagement—try an unusual word choice or unexpected metaphor.

7. What do you think you will most miss about working for FRA?

    The interaction with the members, of course, and the friendships—whether in collaborating on problem solving or just sharing the space. I intend to remain based in Washington, DC indefinitely, with frequent trips to Spain. Send me a note at [email protected] if you plan to come to town, and perhaps we can share a roast or a paella.